Articles Posted in Federal Crimes

With less than a week to go, many are looking forward to opening of the 2015 baseball season. And only ten days after that event begins the deadline for filing your tax return reaches its deadline. Spring always brings about the beginning of one and cutoff date of the other season.

And just as the first pitch is being thrown in all major baseball stadiums across the country, cases of tax fraud and identity theft will be highlighted in the headlines.

Many of us use tax preparers to fill out and submit our returns with a belief that these professionals are doing so to our benefit, more qualified to take the information we give them and bring us back the highest monetary return or lowest tax liability possible.

In Broward County, Julio Lugo was the proprietor of multiple agencies of this type, including #1 Tax Specialist LLC, the Number One Tax Specialist LLC, and Number Two Tax Specialist Inc., all based in Miramar. He also had control over Light House Refund of Miami from which he obtained an EFIN (Electronic Filing Identification Number) from the Internal Revenue Service which allowed him to electronically file customer’s income tax returns, supposedly on their behalf.

Lugo and his associate Jamar James who registered Light House Refund both faced charges relating to improperly filing returns on their customer’s behalf for their own personal gain. Lugo was also listed as the registrant of Facerick Entertainment LLC, Chairman/CEO of Top Line Music Group, LLC and the Managing Member of Auto by Vision, LLC.

But for all his business interests, Lugo was apprehended by federal law enforcement for a scheme that found that he was using the EFIN acquired by Light House Refund to file close to fifty false tax returns using stolen identities. According to the Indictment he was paid several hundreds of thousands of dollars for the fraudulent tax refunds provided by the IRS during the timeframe of Oct. 2010 through Sept. 2012.

In a deal with the government, Lugo pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to defraud in relation to aggravated identity theft. He accepted a sentence of close to six years in a federal prison and more than a quarter million dollars in restitution. Upon his release, Lugo will complete his sentence with three years of probation.

His codefendant Jamar James received a sentence of two years of probation for his role in the scheme. His probationary sentence was for accepting a guilty plea for one count of making a false statement to a federal agency.

The press release for the case was announced by Wifredo A. Ferrer, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, along with Kelly R. Jackson, the Special Agent in Charge for IRS Criminal Investigations (IRS-CI).
George L. Piro, Special Agent in Charge for the FBI’s Miami Field Office was also named in the press release.

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After an investigation that went on for over half a year, eight South Florida men were taken into custody as the result of a sting that covered territory along the East Coast in an offshore online sports gambling ring that was operated out of the suspect’s homes as well as local businesses. The online bookmaking ring took bets on professional and college sports including football, baseball, and basketball.

Related suspects were also arrested in New York City, Upstate New York’s Rockland County as well as Bergen County, New Jersey, with a grand total of over $4 million seized by federal agents between all locations. More than sixty search warrants were executed by multi-state agencies made up of the Organized crime unit in Florida as well as the FBI’s criminal division in the New York Metropolitan area and the Rockland County District Attorney’s Organized Crime Unit with assistance from the New York State Police Special Investigative Unit, Queens District Attorney’s Organized Crime Division, the NYPD Asset Forfeiture Unit, the Clarkstown and Ramapo police, the Bergen County, New Jersey Prosecutor’s Office, and the Department of Homeland Security.

In New York, the biggest catch found in the net was Daniel Pagano, now 61, the son of former Genovese crime family boss Joseph Luco Pagano. The younger Pagano is alleged to be a Captain in the continuing criminal enterprise.

Also picked up in the operation and accused of being linked to the infamous crime family was Pasquale Capolongo who was taken into custody in West Palm Beach, Florida. Capolongo had moved from White Plains, NY to West Palm Beach. He has a history of convictions for illegal gambling charges during the time he lived in Rockland County which has apparently followed him to South Florida.

The South Florida portion of the booty amounted to over $1.2 million and was snatched from the suspect’s homes, safety deposit boxes and personal bank accounts. According to papers released by the Broward County Sheriff’s Office, in this new age of digital crime; in addition to conducting their illicit business from their homes it is also alleged that they worked out of local casinos and a dog track, an Italian market in Coral Springs, a scrap metal business in Pompano, and even a Whole Foods market and CVS Pharmacy.

Arrests were initiated last year in Rockland County in early December with the conclusion of their own separate investigation which separately went on for over a year. At the time, District Attorney Thomas Zugibe said that they were “taking in millions of dollars a month” and continued by saying that “the investigation uncovered evidence that the enterprise had links to organized crime.”

In the South Florida connection all the men are charged with racketeering, conspiracy to commit racketeering, money laundering, conspiracy to commit money laundering, varying counts of bookmaking, conspiracy to commit bookmaking, and the unlawful use of two-way communication devices to facilitate a felony. All have been saddled with bond in excess of one hundred thousand dollars with Capolongo’s topping off at $1 million. Coming in second in the high-bond lottery was Michael Dangelo of Pompano Beach who had additional charges of drug trafficking and possession of cocaine and oxycodone which raised the amount of his bond to $777,000.

The Broward Sherriff’s Office said that the operation was foiled by texts and phone wiretaps, surveillance, along with cooperating witnesses and defendants as well as videotaped recordings of live transactions, and the hard work of their undercover deputies.

Sheriff’s spokesperson Gina Carter mentioned that “this is an ongoing investigation and we anticipate several more key players will be arrested in coming weeks.”

Four of the men who were arrested in Palm Beach County including Capolongo had hearings before a Broward Circuit Court Judge to account for the sources of their bond funds which must have been obtained from legitimate sources. The other three men were Devon Alexander Shalmi, 30, Joseph Petrolino, 47, and Thomas Cuce, 32. But for now the four remain in custody. All the men arrested live in the immediate neighborhoods of West Palm Beach, Boca Raton, Parkland, Margate and Coral Springs in Broward and Palm Beach Counties. The others arrested were Allan Klein, and his son Darren, Michael Dangelo, and Erik Bishop.

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel commented on the workings of the criminal enterprise by saying “Criminal networks like these may not seem dangerous to the public… but it is activity such as this that leads to violence and fuels organized crime throughout the country.”

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Michael Paul Watkins of Inverness had successfully escaped from custody previously on two separate occasions after being convicted for the crime of fondling and handling a minor under the age of sixteen years in Florida State Court. He was arrested in October 2011 on a charge of domestic battery. Details of that arrest record are exempt from public information as per Florida statute.

Late last year, the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office received information from local Wal-Mart employees that an individual who was later identified as an employee of Cool Aid Heating and Air Conditioning was purchasing a questionably large amount of firearms from the outlet during the course of a short period of time. The air conditioning company was one of two businesses owned by Watkins. The purchases included various types of guns including AR-15 rifles. The law enforcement agency also received an anonymous tip that Watkins was obtaining and stockpiling firearms, grenades (explosive devices), and ammunition from a third party. As a convicted felon, Watkins is prohibited from manufacturing, possessing, or purchasing any type of weapons under the National Firearms Act.

The Sheriff’s Office contacted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), a federal law enforcement agency and together they executed three warrants based on probable cause, searching Watkins home and the two businesses he owned.

Through their search efforts at Watkins home, close to 150 firearms as well as 17 explosive devices were uncovered. The investigators’ assigned to the search the premises commented that Watkins house was “built like a bunker”. There was a concrete gated wall surrounding the home entrance as well as rolling steel shutters guarding the front door and all windows.

In addition to the air conditioning and heating company, Watkins is also the owner of Ridin’ Dirty Motor Sports, a retailer of ATV’s, go carts and motorcycles. He was arrested at that location and charged with illegal possession of a firearm by a convicted felon as well as illegal possession of a destructive device. If convicted, each of the crimes carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in a federal prison.

When Watkins’ employee was questioned by federal investigators he told them that the acquisition of the firearms began in September 2013 in gun shops where they were legally sold, including Wal-Mart stores in Inverness, Inglis, and Ocala, Florida. The money was provided by his employer and on some occasions he waited in the store’s parking lot for the transaction to be completed. He also bought conversion kits for Watson by way of the Internet, using a pre-paid card provided by his boss. These supplies are specifically used in the conversion of semi-automatic weapons into automatic firearms.

He also admitted to investigators that he assisted his boss construct and set off pipe bombs which were made from PVC pipes that contained explosive substances on a vacant lot which Watkins owned in Dunnellon, FL. The Citrus County Property Appraiser confirmed that the property was owned by Watkins’s company (Watkins Inc.).

In further response to investigator’s questions regarding why his employer had accumulated the equivalence of a small armory, he told them that Watkins feared the foreseeable collapse of the United States economy and planned to eventually become a supplier for the firearms industry. Telephone records and text messages corresponding to the purchase dates between Watkins and his worker were also accumulated by investigating agents.

Although Watkins was convicted of his prior crimes in the state criminal justice system, these new charges will be tried in federal court. The employee continues to work and cooperate with federal authorities.

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Former Corrections Officer Jerry St. Fleur, 26, was sentenced to over four years in a federal prison after agreeing to a plea deal for charges of identity theft and wire fraud. Over sixty thousand dollars that was proceeds from his scheme will also be forfeited. He faced up to twenty years in federal prison before submitting to the guilty plea.

But in 2014, St. Fleur was not alone when it came to officers from Florida’s Department of Corrections being arrested, accepting guilty pleas and being sentenced for their crimes.

St. Fleur was the third employee of Florida Correctional Institutions to be sent to federal prison for their transgressions. Just one month earlier, former juvenile probation officer Corey A. Coley was sentenced to more than seven years for identity theft and filing false tax returns and just two months prior to that resolution, former federal corrections Officer Michael J. Garland was sentenced to two years after he pleaded guilty for charges of bribery and smuggling contraband into a federal prison.

In this latest case St. Fleur’s guilty plea was established based on charges that he stole the identities of existing and former inmates who either served or were serving time at the Zephyrhills Correctional Facility. He used the data to file more than one hundred eighty bogus tax returns requesting refunds in an amount that exceeded one half million dollars

St. Fleur was arrested this past May on five separate counts of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft by using his authority to acquire birth dates and Social Security numbers that he matched up to the names of inmates currently serving their sentences at the facility. He was also charged with using the FDOC database to acquire the same information for inmates who previously were incarcerated there. He would use the former and present inmate’s personal identifying information (PII) to file the phony returns

After filing the fraudulent tax returns he directed payment to be deposited to debit cards that was held by accomplices who took part in his scheme.

The charges against St. Fleur of identity theft and wire fraud are both federal crimes which were investigated by the FBI and IRS. Locally, the investigation was assisted by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office leading to St. Fleur’s arrest and subsequent guilty plea and sentence. It was prosecuted by Matthew Jackson, Assistant United States Attorney for the Middle District of Florida.

The Coley case resulted with him receiving a sentence of more than seven years in federal prison for wire fraud and aggravated identity theft, as well as conspiracy. He was also ordered to return $671,023. That amount was the minimum monetary quantity calculated to be what he and his three accomplices obtained through the scheme. His co-conspirators also received significant punishments.

Albert E. Moore, Jr. was sentenced to more than six years, Tigi Moore received a four year sentence and Mattie Philon received the shortest sentence of two years in federal prison.

The case against Garland concluded with a two year prison sentence and the forfeiture of $4,200 which was the amount traced as being the financial proceeds of his crimes.

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A five year investigation bore fruit when former police lieutenant David Benjamin and former Detective Jeff Poole of the Broward County Sheriff’s Department surrendered at the Fort Lauderdale federal courthouse. Both detectives faced criminal conspiracy charges for abuse of power in their capacity as representatives of law enforcement. Both defendants were previously released on $250,000 bond.

The investigation tied the two deputies with a close affiliation with convicted Ponzi swindler Scott Rothstein. The allegations indicated that both of the men accepted cash payments and merchandise for help given to Rothstein before his massive Ponzi scheme was uncovered and ultimately collapsed. Rothstein has been serving a fifty year prison sentence after surrendering to federal authorities for his crimes and conviction of five federal offenses in January, 2010.

According to prosecutors, Benjamin received close to $200,000 in cash payments as well as assorted gifts and other benefits including sporting event tickets, free meals, and assorted jewelry in exchange for aiding and protecting the convicted felon by use of his authority in law enforcement. He is further accused of sending Poole, his “then” friend, subordinate and apparent lackey to fulfill the requests that Rothstein asked of him, according to court documentation.

Benjamin was the senior supervisor at the Broward County Sheriff’s Office, as well as being the head of Internal Affairs investigations and one of former Sheriff Al Lamberti’s top aides at the time the activities allegedly took place. Poole worked in the strategic investigations division as a detective. Benjamin, 48, lives in Boca Raton, and Poole, 47, is a resident of Weston.

The two detectives worked with each other in law enforcement since the late 1980’s, beginning their careers at the Pompano Beach police department under the command of Lamberti. They moved onto the Broward Sheriff’s Office when it was integrated into that division. Directly after prosecutors filed charges, Broward Sheriff Scott Israel fired the two within hours of the announcement. Israel replaced Lamberti after defeating the incumbent Sheriff in the previous year’s November election.

After letting the two deputies go, Israel was quoted as saying “The allegations as you know were very serious; the implications were grave… I could not allow these deputies to continue serving, interacting with Broward Sheriff’s deputies and the citizenry, until this case came to fruition.”

Some of the allegations laid out in the Information and other court documents are as follows:

Chiefly, Benjamin is accused of helping Rothstein when the scammer originally faced prosecution when his illegal activities were coming under intense scrutiny. He assisted him by providing protection when Rothstein grew apprehensive of airport security, according to IRS and FBI agents. Departing from Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, Benjamin went as far as to personally assist Rothstein in filling a private jet with a half million dollars in cash as well as millions of dollars’ worth of valuables when Rothstein fled to Morocco, a country with no extradition treaty with the U.S.

Benjamin also allegedly organized “force and threats of force” subsequent to his law enforcement authority to be delivered against an individual identified as the boyfriend of an escort who allegedly had a sexual relationship with Stuart Rosenfeldt, one of the law partners of Rothstein’s law firm; Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler, when he threatened to expose his girlfriend’s relationship with Rosenfeldt. According to court records, Benjamin purportedly ordered Poole, and two other unidentified officers to unlawfully use intimidation and force to enter the escort’s dwelling.

According to prosecutors, the three officers searched the house, took the woman’s cell phone and removed any evidence associated to Rosenfeldt after handcuffing her boyfriend. The woman was allegedly also told to “leave Florida or she would be arrested,” by one of the officers. The following day, two police officers arrived at her home and drove her to the airport telling her to return to Pennsylvania, according to court documents.

Based on testimony by investigators Benjamin again used Detective Poole to place Marcy Romeo, the ex-wife of Douglas Bates under arrest on a bogus prescription drug charge. Bates, was an attorney who had previously confessed to helping Rothstein perpetrate the immense $1.4 billion investment fraud. According to Ms. Romeo, the false arrest was illustrated to assist Bates in a child custody fight.

In 2009, Romero filed a federal law suit against her ex-husband and Benjamin, in what she labeled her wrongful arrest after a traffic stop initiated by Poole. Both Benjamin and Poole are accused of abusing their law enforcement influence and authority although Poole’s lawyer said that his client received no monetary compensation for the traffic stop and believed he had legal validation to arrest the woman and was only following orders from his superior officer.

When Poole’s lawyer was asked if he thought his client was betrayed, he responded by saying, “I think he was… He didn’t know what he was getting into or the extent of it.” The attorney also said that his client now regrets his actions and believes that Benjamin will most likely face a longer sentence in federal prison than his client when judgment for their respective actions are considered by use of the sentencing guidelines. “He gets what essentially is a command from his superior officer and he follows it… It’s unfortunate that a distinguished law enforcement career is going to end because of one aberrant incident like this,” said the attorney.

Additionally, Bates is now cooperating with the government and is slated to be sentenced in the near future for his role in the Ponzi scheme.

Despite Poole’s attorney’s comments, Benjamin’s charges of conspiring to commit extortion and violate civil rights has him facing a maximum sentence of five years in federal prison. If convicted, Poole faces up to ten years of incarceration for conspiring to violate civil rights.

To read a previous blog post regarding others implicated and convicted in the Scott Rothstein Ponzi Scheme case click here.
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The International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), sanctioned in October 1977, is a United States federal law empowering the regulation of commerce after a National emergency is declared in reaction to any uncommon and/or extraordinary threat to the Nation which originates from a non-American (foreign) source.

Subsequent to the terrorist attacks which included the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., President George W. Bush enacted an Executive Order under the IEEPA to block assets of any persons or organizations deemed to have terrorist ties. He delegated blocking powers led by the U.S. Treasury to various federal agencies.

Additionally, in 2006, the United Nations Security Council passed a Resolution to impose sanctions on Iran after the government refused to suspend its uranium enrichment program.

On October 3, 2012, Seyed Ghorashi Sarvestani, an Iranian National, was arrested under the IEEPA. He pled guilty for conspiring to export merchandise from the U.S. to Iran on May 8 of this year and was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison this week in front of U.S. District Judge Paul G. Gardephe who also accepted his guilty plea. Among the items that were transported abroad over the past 7 years was sensitive satellite-related equipment that Sarvestani had been exporting through his companies. In addition to the two and one half year period of incarceration Sarvestani was also fined $100,000 and commanded to forfeit $54,000. He was also ordered to pay a $100 special assessment by Judge Gardephe.

According to a press release published by the Department of Justice, the Complaint, specifies, that the Information to which Sarvestani pled guilty and the testimony delivered during the action against him is as follows.

“Sarvestani, an Iranian national, was an owner of, and served as a managing director and director of, two related companies based in the United Arab Emirates. In that capacity, he worked with others to export electronic equipment used for satellite communications and data transfer, as well as other goods, from the United States to Iran, without the requisite approval from the U.S. Department of Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control.

Sarvestani and others conspired to acquire satellite technology and hardware from a supplier based in the United States, for shipment to Iran. To conceal the true destination of the goods from the U.S. supplier, Sarvestani and his co-conspirators arranged for the items to be shipped first to the United Arab Emirates and subsequently shipped to Iran.”

Sarvestani’s actions are a clear violation of the Iran Trade Embargo. Similar cases prosecuted this year involving the transport and the exporting of American manufactured industrial products to Iran include an indictment by a federal grand jury of Ali Saboonchi, 32, a United States citizen from Parkville, Maryland, who was partnering with Arash Rashti Mohammad, 31, an Iranian resident.

Saboonchi, through his companies shipped merchandise to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) which was then relayed to Iran. Selected items that were shipped are described as cyclone separators which are used in the refining process of oil. They also exported thermocouples which are used to measure the temperatures of gas and oil products. Mohammad was stationed in the United Arab Emirates. He and Saboonchi conspired to create Saboonchi’s company, Ace Electric, for the purpose of selling the prohibited goods using the UAE as a transit point before they continued on to buyers in Iran.

The International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) was raised in other cases dealing with foreign governments over the past two decades including the countries listed below:
Myanmar, since 1997 for its repression of democratic opposition, the Sudan, since 1997 for human rights violations and sponsoring terrorism, Russia, which was initiated in 2000 to prevent export of weapons-grade uranium, Zimbabwe, since 2003 for the destabilization of democratic institutions, Syria, since 2004 for funding and support of terrorism and later for abuses of human rights, Belarus, since 2006 for undermining democratic organizations and North Korea, since 2008 for displaying the risk of the proliferation of weapon-usable fissile material

In the Sarvestani case, Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York praised the investigative work of the New York Offices of the FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security Investigations, the Defense Criminal Investigative Service of the Department of Defense, and the Office of Export Enforcement. He also expressed thanks to U.S. Customs and Border Protection for their help with the investigation.

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Most of us that remember the Black Panther Party generally associate the name of the organization with violence. But when it was originally fashioned in Oakland, California in 1965 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, its major function was to spotlight alleged police brutality that was said to be widespread in black neighborhoods. When the group was founded, only sixteen of Oakland’s six-hundred, sixty-one police officers were of Afro-American descent. The group promoted Marxist and socialist principles, but its early nationalistic reputation appealed to a diverse participation of mostly blacks, but some non-blacks as well. By 1968 the group’s policies grew across the United States with headquarters in most major cities. They created a ten-point program professing “Land, Bread, Housing, Education, Clothing, Justice and Peace” among other ideas. The group introduced an assortment of social programs designed within black communities in attempts to alleviate poverty, improve health among those who lived in inner city neighborhoods, and moderating the overall public image of the Party.

However, as the group evolved, its reputation for violence became more noticeable. A California law afforded The Panthers the right to carry a loaded shotgun or rifle, providing it was displayed publicly, and not aimed at any individual. This practice of openly carrying weapons and publicly making statements that were threatening in nature such as “The Revolution has come; it’s time to pick up the gun” and “Off the pigs (police)!” assisted creating the Panthers’ status as a violent group.

In the mid-1980s, for all intents and purposes, the Panthers disbanded. But before their demise, William Potts, a/k/a William Freeman, now 56, was a member in good standing.

In 1984, Potts hijacked a Miami bound flight that left Newark, New Jersey, rerouting the aircraft to Cuba. Earlier this month, federal agents returned Potts to U.S. soil where he verbally admitted that what he did was “an act of terrorism”. He admitted in writing, to the action being an act of air piracy as well, after his formal arrest by FBI agents at Miami International Airport, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Maria Medetis.

Medetis’s words were issued during Potts’ bond hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Jonathan Goodman when she requested that Potts be held pending trial due to the supposition that he’s a flight risk as well as a danger to the community. She alluded to the legal “presumption” of detention for the type of offense he allegedly committed as well as the possibility of a long prison sentence. She also mentioned that if Potts was released he would most likely be arrested by New Jersey State authorities for the robbery of a gas station that took place in that state the day before he hijacked the jet.

Summarizing the hijacking, and current air-piracy charge against him, U.S. Attorney Medetis quoted details that were found in an FBI affidavit. According to the document, On March 27, 1984 Potts declared he planted explosives aboard the New York-to-Miami bound flight. He demanded the aircraft be diverted to Havana, Cuba. The affidavit further went on to show that he then handed the flight crew of the Piedmont Airlines jet a note, describing himself as a black militant. He threatened to blow up the plane if it attempted to land in Miami. He also demanded $5 million in cash.

The day before the hijacking, Potts, held-up a gas station in Bergen County, New Jersey brandishing a knife, according to the attendant who was threatened by him. A warrant for his arrest for that case is still outstanding.

According to a CNN interview with him, Potts, who had two daughters with a Cuban wife, refused previous offers by the Cuban regime to send him back to U.S. But now, he is apparently desperate to be reunited with his two daughters. He previously sent them to the US and told CNN that as he “watched their plane take off… he was filled with regret for having hijacked a plane,” when he was a young man.

He went on to tell the network that he had not been able to reach a plea agreement with US authorities but hoped that any jail time he would be facing now, would be reduced by the time he had already served in the Cuban prison.

His attorney argued that Potts should be granted a low personal surety bond before his trial began, noting that the two girls are now living with his mother in Atlanta, Georgia. The above-mentioned children were born to him and a Cuban wife that he previously lived with on the Island Nation. “He wants to be in the United States,” his lawyer said… “He has arrived at the place where he wants to be.”

But after all considerations were pondered by Judge Goodman he told Potts “The facts are the facts,” when Potts protested the accounts during his court appearance before him. Shortly thereafter he denied him bond partially due to the New Jersey case.

Potts said he originally thought he’d be welcomed as a revolutionary when he arrived at the communist-controlled country in the early eighties. He also believed he’d be given guerrilla training. But the government of Cuba, at the time led by Fidel Castro, detained him and after trial sent him to prison for the hijacking charge. He spent 13 years in a Cuban jail for the offense.

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According to the Department of Justice, Florida led the nation with a staggering 781 convictions of public officials between the years 2000 and 2010. In the second decade of this century, the trend continues. A current example shows that between September and October of this year, three more local politicians were added to the list of those willing to let down their constituents by breaking the law.

In late August, the mayor of Homestead was arrested and accused of using his elected office to secure a secret consulting job as well as accepting a bribe from Community Health Care of South Florida Inc. The health care company was looking to build a clinic in the area according to the state attorney’s office for Miami-Dade. On Nov 1, further charges were filed against him when he was charged with seven election law violations. Former Mayor Steven Bateman, 58, was accused of misusing campaign funds according to state attorney spokesperson Terry Chavez. He pleaded not guilty to the charges and was released without bond.

Earlier that month, two other mayors of South Florida cities were charged by the government in ongoing corruption investigations. Florida Governor Rick Scott suspended all three of the mayors pending outcome of their criminal cases.

Michael A. Pizzi, 51, the mayor of Miami Lakes, and Manuel L. Maroño, 41, the mayor of Sweetwater and current president of the Florida League of Cities, were charged in two unrelated complaints concerning public corruption allegations along with two lobbyists of which one was connected to both of the mayors. The United States attorney’s office has accused them of involvement in bribery and kickback schemes relating to federal grants. The two lobbyists, Jorge L. Forte, 41, and Richard F. Candia, 49 both of Miami were named in the Maroño case and Candia was also named as part of the complaint involving Pizzi.

Ironically, the Florida League of Cities displays a June 8, 2012 article on their website that leads to a story about a newly formed advocacy group called Integrity Florida; “a nonprofit, nonpartisan group” that released a report showing that Florida led the nation in federal public corruption convictions through the years referenced above.

Carla Miller, an ethics officer and a former federal prosecutor stated “We bought the trifecta… It’s bad when three mayors get led out in handcuffs. What’s left of the public trust gets ground into little pieces.”

On November 13, former mayor Maroño and lobbyist Jorge L. Forte both pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud for their involvement in a plan to individually benefit through the use of the station of the mayor of Sweetwater which was held by Maroño. They were originally charged by way of Information with one count of conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud on October 17.
Forte and Maroño both face a maximum statutory sentence of 5-years of incarceration under the terms of the agreement. Sentencing is scheduled for January 23, 2014 and will be imposed by US District Judge William J. Zloch.

The guilty pleas were announced in a press release by Wifredo A. Ferrer, US Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, and Michael B. Steinbach, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Miami Field Office Investigations.

In what may be the most interesting of the three cases, Michael Pizzi, the suspended Miami Lakes Mayor pleaded not guilty in late-October to the indictment that charged him with pursuing kickbacks that prosecutors’ state was intended to enrich him in exchange for backing federal grant applications in the latest allegations against him.

South Miami-Dade lobbyist Michael Kesti first approached the FBI in 2011 informing them of his suspicions that Candia was in league with corrupt politicians in South Florida.

Before this latest indictment was filed, an undercover investigation was instituted by detectives of the Miami-Dade Police, established on purported threats that Pizzi expressed to a confidential informant working for that police agency.

In a conversation covertly recorded, Pizzi clearly stated that he wanted to “take out” a Miami Lakes town councilman who was apparently a rival, by the method of either rigging the brakes of his vehicle or planting cocaine in his car. The probe was dropped by police after a substantial amount of time had passed and no action was taken that supported the statements. The “then” mayor called his remarks in the recording as no more than “silly, ridiculous drinking talk.”

The current indictment, filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jared Dwyer, depicts Pizzi as a politician who had knowledge that the purported federal grant scheme was a “money grab.”

In the latest criminal complaint, Pizzi was accused of an extortion plot along with lobbyist Richard Candia who was accused of the same offense, as mentioned above with Manny Maroño and lobbyist Jorge Forte.

They were accused of participating in what has been termed a “bogus” grant scheme planned to net the participants thousands of dollars, whereas their cities would receive nothing. Posing as businessmen from Chicago, an FBI anti-corruption team coordinated the sting. The agents stated that they would obtain the grant money with the intention of performing an economic development study. The proceeds would then be split between the four of them.

The indictment charges that Pizzi collected $6,000 in total cash, received in three payments. He also is alleged to have received an additional $750 paid by checks for his 2012 reelection campaign. These payments were allegedly in return for advocating resolutions that simplified the establishment for grant applications in Medley and Miami Lakes.

Pizzi has unequivocally denied accepting any cash as charged. Subsequent to his arrest, he said that he “accepted no money inappropriately or illegally from anyone, ever.” in a prepared statement.

To read the complete press release charging Maroño and Pizzi and the two lobbyists on the FBI Website, click here. The press release regarding Maroño’s guilty plea can be read in full by clicking here.

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A Parkland Florida resident pleaded guilty to Conspiracy to Launder Money after admitting to her part in an expansive $8 million illegal gambling setup that used phony corporations, offshore accounts and operated using the Internet and direct telephone call contact.

Michele Lasso-Barraza, 30, a Panamanian national, delivered her plea from Florida via a video feed which was filed in U.S. District Court in Albany, New York. The prosecution alleged that she laundered the proceeds gained from gambling websites that was made available to her; allowing gamblers to place wagers via the Internet. She then transferred the ill-gotten gains, using bogus entities which she created, into bank accounts that were located offshore.

Lasso-Barraza’s role in the case is connected to Philip Gurian, another Florida man who was purportedly linked to the Mafia and was an important operative in the gambling entity which offered online and by phone sports betting from Costa Rica and Panama to its player base which was predominantly made up of residents of the United States. Gurian, 52, of Boca Raton, and Lasso-Barraza were among over thirty persons that were charged last April for their connection to the Panama-based Corporation known as Legends a/k/a Legendz Sports.

The indictment against a total of 23 companies and 34 individuals accused Legendz of offering betting options by credit, as well as maintained accounts known as “post-ups.” Both types of betting methods combined, netted the company profits of over two-billion dollars over the past ten years.

Those named in the indictment face charges of operating an illegal gambling business, racketeering, conspiring to commit money laundering and money laundering. Penalties for these crimes can range from five to twenty years.

The Department of Justice is also pursuing the forfeiture of a minimum of one-billion dollars of tangible assets of the firm which include balances in bank accounts, real estate, vehicles, as well as other monetary holdings of value.

Gurian had previously waived the grand jury indictment and accepted a guilty plea for the charge of conspiracy in association to the role he played in the international sports betting operation.

A charge and conviction for his type of allegation can yield a prison term of up to twenty years behind bars. However under the plea agreement negotiated between Gurian’s attorneys and the government, combined with sentencing guideline calculations that are utilized in federal cases, it is expected that he will be sentenced to two years in prison at a maximum. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Feb. 6, 2014
As part of her acceptance of the guilty plea, Lasso-Barraza admitted her participation in the illegal gambling business which was directed by Gurian as well as other individuals that permitted bettors to wager thousands of bets originating from Florida, California, Texas, Indiana Nevada and the District of Columbia. She also confessed to participating in at least $8 million of the laundering of money which was fashioned from the unlawful gaming enterprise that she was a part of on Gurian’s behalf. She then had the currency transported to offshore accounts that were deceptively created and set up by her with locations in Panama, Andorra, and the Cayman Islands.

Lasso-Barraza faces a fine of a half a million USD and up to twenty years in prison for her role in her illicit activities. She is scheduled to be sentenced on Feb. 28, 2014.

These proceedings are being prosecuted by AUSA Robert A. Sharpe. All charges were the product of a combined investigation introduced by the Albany County Sheriff’s Office and further assisted by the Albany County District Attorney’s Office, as well as the Saratoga District Attorney’s Office in New York. In Florida, the Broward County Money Laundering Task Force is credited with the role they played. Federal law enforcement agencies recognized for their assistance in the case are the FBI and the IRS-Criminal Investigation Division.

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A resident of Brooklyn, New York who was at one time listed on the FBI’s 10 most wanted fugitive list was arrested in April in association with another bank robbery. He had just completed a 25-year sentence in Federal prison roughly two weeks prior to this occurrence for his conviction in a rash of more than two dozen bank robberies in the late 1980’s. His primary court appearance in this new case will be on May 15.

John Edward Stevens, 62, of Brooklyn, New York was arrested on April 16, after he entered a TD Bank located on Ramapo Valley Road in Bergen County, Oakland, New Jersey. He was waving a handgun and allowed all the customers to leave the bank, before removing cash from the tellers’ area from multiple cash drawers. Before going for the money, he first displayed a black handgun to one of the bank managers that was sitting at his desk at the time. After gathering up the loot he left on foot and was spotted by police about 20 minutes later in neighboring Waldwick just after 10:30 a.m. Employees of the bank affirmed that the man matching his description captured by the police was indeed the perpetrator. The Oakland Police Department received the 9-1-1 call at 10:03 a.m.

In a search of his “stolen” car, police found a bag displaying the TD bank’s logo filled with approximately $4,000 in cash. They also found a black handgun that was identified by some of the employees as a match for the weapon he was brandishing in the bank, minutes prior to his apprehension.

The arrest was credited to members of both the Waldwick and Ho-Ho-Kus Police at approximately 10:40 a.m.

He is now charged with one count of bank robbery, which if convicted can produce a new sentence of up to 20 more years behind bars.

Stevens was first arrested for bank robbery charges on November 30, 1988 in Ohio. Cincinnati Police found him in a motel along with his girlfriend. He has previously been featured on the hit TV show America’s Most Wanted and is suspected in excess of 25 more bank robberies spanning at least eight states

It seems he was a tad more effective during his prior robberies, which earned him quite a reputation with federal authorities.

According to media reports, during his previous spree, he was acknowledged for mocking police, often boasting that “he is smarter than anyone in law enforcement.” Before his arrest in 1988, Stevens would actually call up police offices and claim that he would never be caught. He was positioned on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list in that same year and was arrested in Cincinnati around six months after that notorious assignment.

The FBI also has charges pending against him for various offenses, including previous bank robberies. There are also additional charges imminent from several other jurisdictions which include the 10th precinct in Manhattan. In that particular case, Stevens is wanted for a recent carjacking that occurred on April 14, 2013. It is alleged that the car stolen in the New York City carjacking is the same vehicle that Stevens used, and was caught with in this latest robbery.

He is now scheduled to make his first appearance in U.S. District Court at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, in Newark, Jersey.

The press release on this posting can be read in full on the FBI’s Website by clicking here.

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