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FBI has new Miami squad to fight international corruption

FBI agents. (Melanie Rodgers Cox/US Air Force)

For many South Floridians, it’s no secret that the place they call home is a longtime haven for illicit drug money or cash stolen from foreign governments.

So it should come as no surprise that the FBI is now setting up an international corruption squad office in Miami.

The squad, scheduled to start its work this month, will be focusing on South America. Agents will be out to bust white-collar criminals who bribe foreign public officials and then launder the proceeds through the purchase of local real estate or fancy boats.

The squad, the fourth one to be established nationally, will be staffed by senior FBI agents, forensic accountants and prosecutors and investigators who are experienced chasing white-collar criminals and public corruption. The bureau currently operates squads in New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. Between 2016 and 2018, according to The Associated Press, prosecutors have won 34 convictions in cases brought by the international unit.

‘It’s about time’

There’s plenty of demand for a dedicated effort to investigate the region’s link to corruption in Latin America, say former U.S. attorneys for South Florida.

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“My first reaction is it’s about time,” said Marcos Jimenez, who served between 2002 and 2005. “The FBI should have done this years ago.”

“South Florida has been the corruption capital of Latin America that entire time, and they haven’t dedicated sufficient resources to it,” said Jimenez, a commercial litigator based in Coral Gables.

That was mainly because the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington diverted resources to counterterrorism work.

‘Follow the money’

A typical case pattern is for people who receive bribes to salt their money away in South Florida real estate.

Jimenez surmised that the government has received an uptick in leads from a reporting program operated by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network.

It requires title insurers to report the identities of people who buy residential real estate valued at $300,000 or more. South Florida is one of eight regions subjected to a geographic targeting order designed to flag money laundering through real-estate deals.

“It’s the same old rule that has never changed, which is follow the money,” Jimenez said.

Wifredo Ferrer, who was U.S. attorney between 2010 and 2017, said that increasingly, he has seen U.S. law enforcement partnering with counterparts in Brazil, Argentina, Peru and Mexico, nations that are all cracking down on corruption.

And then there is Venezuela, whose well-connected officials and businessmen have become rich as the socialist government of Nicolas Maduro has edged toward collapse.

American sanctions against corrupt Venezuelan officials have reportedly prompted the U.S. Treasury to freeze billions under the control of military officers and others with government ties, including $500 million in assets belonging to a former vice president, Tarak El Aissami.

“In Venezuela there is such a focus right now by the U.S. government in making sure they bring to justice those who have laundered money stolen from the country,” said Ferrer, who is executive partner of the Miami office of Holland & Knight.

Bringing indictments

South Florida’s federal courts have been the scene of indictments and guilty pleas involving defendants who handled illicit Venezuelan money, with the cases led by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations.

Last August, Matthias Krull, a German-born managing director of a Swiss bank in Panama, pleaded guilty in Miami to a single money laundering count and admitted laundering embezzled funds from PDVSA, the state oil company, for relatives of an unnamed Venezuelan government official.

And last November, Alejandro Andrade Cedeno, a former Venezuelan national treasurer residing in Wellington, was sentenced to 10 years for a money laundering conspiracy involving more than $1 billion in bribes, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in Miami.

Ferrer asserted that throughout much of the hemisphere, Latin Americans are weary of corruption and yearn for local authorities to curtail it.

“There is an increase in public outcries,” he said. “There have been marches in certain countries. Citizens don’t want to keep having to suffer the negative effects of corruption. There is a real will and desire in these countries to have this focus.”

A special investigative squad for Miami makes sense to private lawyers who help clients recover stolen or missing assets and advise them on compliance laws. South Florida, according to one, is not only a convenient place to hide money, it is a place to make arrangements to cut bribery deals in other countries.

“People just don’t call up and say, ‘Can I pay you a bribe?’” said Edward Davis, of Sequor Law in Miami. “There is a negotiation process. It’s common to have a place where they meet and talk things through. If you’re a European manufacturer trying to get a contract, the last thing you want to do is to be seen talking to an official in that country.”

The Miami squad will work with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida, and the Miami regional office of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the FBI said. Neither the FBI in Washington nor the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida responded to follow-up questions to the announcement.

The existing squads work in conjunction with the Department of Justice’s fraud and money laundering asset forfeiture sections, and report directly to the department in Washington.

“The squads routinely partner with foreign law enforcement and FBI legal attache offices … to combat international corruption matters,” the FBI said in a statement.

This story has been corrected to reflect that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, not the FBI, led the cases involving money laundering schemes related to Venezuela.

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© 2019 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.