Sir Allen Stanford, the billionaire at the centre of one of the world's largest fraud investigations, repeatedly used the British royal family to convince investors that he was a bona fide businessman with impeccable credentials.
Stanford Financial Group (SFG) used at least four royals in its glossy publicity brochures, magazines and websites to emphasise the tycoon's respectability - at a time when difficult questions were being asked about how his operations made money.
Through his sponsorship of prestigious polo tournaments in London and the US, Stanford, who is also suspected of having links with a Mexican drug cartel, rubbed shoulders with Britain's aristocracy, laying on lavish hospitality that garnered him much favourable PR.
SFG's website boasts of its sponsorship of the Stanford charity polo day, hosted by Prince Charles, which raises money for the British Forces Foundation. An article in Stanford Financial's magazine, Eagle, displays a photograph of Prince Harry, who played in another Stanford-sponsored polo event. In addition, Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, has distributed the prizes at Stanford's tournaments and has been pictured with some of his executives.
Eagle magazine also carries news and pictures of Stanford's knighthood in 2006, in his adopted home of Antigua, at a ceremony attended by Prince Edward. Stanford was forced to alter his website after complaints that it suggested the Earl of Wessex had personally knighted Stanford rather than its governor general, Sir James Carlisle.
Stanford's attempts to secure respectability appear to be a leitmotif in his life. Documents filed by his lawyers in a legal dispute last year over a disputed domain name refer to their client as a "world-renowned former cricketer". There is no evidence the Texan, whose Stanford Superstars cricket team pocketed $20m of his money after beating England in a controversial match last year, has played the game at any significant level.
The billionaire, 58, has also erroneously claimed to be related to the founder of Stanford university, to which he has donated some $2.5m.
Yesterday it emerged that the helicopter emblazoned with his name and crest in which he touched down at Lord's last year - in order to announce his deal with the England and Wales Cricket Board - was hired and the logos stuck on just for the day.
Last night further links between Stanford and the UK were emerging. The Observer has established that discussions were held last week between the City of London police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Securities and Exchange Commission following last Tuesday's decision to charge Stanford in connection with an alleged $8bn investment fraud.
The disclosure is the first indication the US investigation could spread to Britain, where Stanford has property and business interests.
A senior source said the informal talks centred on help the British could give in tracing Stanford's assets. "The FBI and SEC now know City of London officers are interested in the case and can help," a source said. "Its implications in Britain are huge because of the sheer size of the alleged fraud. This is an investigation that will spread across many continents and will have implications for many British investors."
There is increasing speculation a number of blue-blooded British investors have ploughed millions into Stanford's financial empire. Company documents show that in 2007 Stanford hired two well-connected London-based advisers to target high-net-worth individuals in Europe. Barbara Hauser, described by the company as an internationally recognised expert on private wealth, and James Thompson, formerly head of marketing at Rothschild, were employed to tap wealthy clients for cash.
They reported to Felicity Keller, a UK barrister with more than 20 years' experience in private banking, according to her biography. There is no suggestion the three have engaged in wrongdoing.
Yesterday attention turned to why alarm bells did not ring sooner within the Stanford empire. The Observer has been told nosy employees who asked questions lost their jobs, while the culture was "bizarre" bordering on the cultish, according to some. Staff were given gold lapel pins in the shape of an eagle, the Stanford symbol, and ordered to wear it to work every day.
A lucrative and controversial bonus scheme for signing up investors was used to motivate staff while sales teams were trained to deflect awkward questions. They were ordered to say Stanford International Bank was "strongly capitalised" with Stanford's own money and its assets were monitored by an elite team of analysts.
Clients were told their money went into fixed-income bonds, hedge funds, stocks and precious metals. Only Stanford and a handful of lieutenants knew much of it was ploughed into dubious investments such as a golf bag manufacturer, a restaurant, luxury resorts and at least one film - The Ultimate Gift - which bombed at the box office. Stanford also donated almost $1m in contributions to US politicians, including George W Bush and several others who helped scupper the introduction of tough new legislation against money laundering proposed by the Clinton government.
Investors were reassured that Stanford International Bank boasted a British QC as its secretary and treasurer. "Kenneth Allen is a graduate of the University of London, a barrister-at-law and a member of the Society of the Middle Temple," the bank's website states.
Stanford Financial also claimed its investments were insured with Lloyd's of London - leading to investors inferring their money was safe. However, a Lloyd's spokesman said: "Although we are aware Stanford International Bank has insurance arrangements with the Lloyd's market, any coverage is unlikely to extend to investment loss."
According to a lawsuit filed by angry investors, senior management within the Stanford empire knew its advertised returns "were misleading and inflated". The lawsuit alleges managers became so concerned they hired an outside "performance expert" who confirmed the claims were inflated, but Stanford's myriad companies continued to make stellar claims for their performance.
Randy Shain, vice-president of First Advantage Investigative Services in the US, said one of his clients had decided not to invest in Stanford's empire after he found allegations of money laundering dating back to a 1996 lawsuit, settled out of court.
Since then several lawsuits have been filed against the company alleging fraudulent behaviour. One, filed in 2006 by a former employee, explicitly alleged the company was operating a Ponzi scheme - in which fresh investors' funds were continually sought to deliver impressive returns to existing clients.
There were other warning signs. In 1998 the US revenue service pursued Stanford for more than $400,000 in unpaid taxes. In 2003 Stanford felt compelled to speak out after Baldwin Spencer, then opposition leader in Antigua, accused the billionaire of bribing two government ministers. Four years later Spencer, by then prime minister, accused Stanford of having dreams of "owning all of Antigua and Barbuda... just like slavery days".
"If people had done even an effective news search they would not be in the position they are in now," Shain said. "A lot of them are going to lose their money."
But instead many were seduced by Stanford's sales pitch. His clever use of celebrities, royals and sports stars - Newcastle United's Michael Owen and golfer Vijay Singh became global ambassadors for his empire - helped bolster his profile and reassure investors. His extensive philanthropic ventures in Antigua and the US saw him win the respect of many, while his sponsorship of the Freedom Awards in the US made him politically powerful. One award recipient was the lead singer of U2, Bono, who also features in Stanford's publicity material.
Ultimately clients were reassured by the Stanford Financial Group's provenance. "From modest beginnings seven and a half decades ago in a small Texas town in the middle of the Great Depression, the Stanford Financial Group of companies has continued to grow and prosper," they were told.
But, like much of Stanford's claims, it was untrue. Stanford Financial started life in 1987 as the Guardian International Bank in the British territory of Montserrat. Back then it had just $16m in funds, mainly put up by Stanford and his father, James. In 1991, after the Montserrat authorities revoked his banking licence (another warning sign missed), the bank relocated to Antigua, where it rebranded itself and, until last week, was reputedly sitting on some $8bn worth of assets.
Now investors who fear their money has disappeared into a black hole may rue not heeding the advice Stanford gave to clients in one of his many newsletters. "There has never been, and there will never be, an easy way to make money," Stanford intoned. "It requires discipline, knowledge, experience, hard work and plain common sense."