Shadow banker scammed U.S. for mil­lions

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Money - By Jay Weaver The Mi­ami Her­ald

There are Brick­ell bankers. And there are shadow bankers.

Eve­lio Suarez, who op­er­ated a trio of check-cash­ing stores in Hialeah, def­i­nitely fits the lat­ter pro­file — but he’s no small-timer.

This week, Suarez, 53, pleaded guilty in Mi­ami fed­eral court to a mon­ey­laun­der­ing con­spir­acy while ad­mit­ting to cash­ing at least $100 mil­lion worth of fraud­u­lent checks in 2013-15 for crim­i­nals who ripped off Medi­care, the In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice and mort­gage banks.

But that might be a smaller fig­ure for the pur­poses of a plea deal. The FBI, in a crim­i­nal af­fi­davit filed with Suarez’s ar­rest in June, put his fraud­u­lent check-cash­ing ac­tiv­ity at nearly $500 mil­lion.

The fol­low­ing month, a fed­eral mag­is­trate judge or­dered that Suarez, a Cuban na­tional who came to South Florida in 1995 and has a pair of prior state and fed­eral con­vic­tions, be held without bond be­cause he was such a flight risk to Cuba and faced a po­ten­tially long prison sen­tence. Suarez’s money-laun­der­ing con­spir­acy con­vic­tion car­ries up to 20 years. His sen­tenc­ing is set for Dec. 20 be­fore U.S. Dis­trict Judge Robert Scola.

Suarez’s busi­ness model was to cash checks — many rang­ing from $150,000 to $400,000 — for scofflaws in the health care and con­struc­tion sec­tors of Mi­amiDade’s ro­bust black-mar­ket econ­omy, ac­cord­ing to prose­cu­tor Michael Berger.

They turned to Suarez as their money man be­cause they op­er­ated phar­ma­cies in other peo­ple’s names while falsely billing Medi­care, or they paid un­doc­u­mented con­struc­tion work­ers in cash to avoid pay­ing fed­eral taxes and work­ers’ com­pen­sa­tion in­sur­ance, Berger said. Oth­ers used stolen iden­ti­ties, So­cial Se­cu­rity num­bers, and dates of birth to file false tax-re­fund claims with the IRS, which is­sued checks up to $150,000.

Berger said Suarez paid peo­ple to pose as the own­ers of his three check-cash­ing stores — Min­i­mal­ist So­lu­tions, Don Koky En­ter­prises, and Doger Group — be­cause he had a crim­i­nal his­tory and could not put the busi­nesses in his name.

“He took these stores and put them on steroids,” Berger said in court.

Suarez’s cus­tomers, like him, had sketchy pasts so they paid tens of thou­sands of dol­lars to “ghosts” who al­lowed their names to be used as cover for the ac­tual busi­ness own­ers, Berger said. Af­ter play­ing their roles and get­ting paid, many would flee back to their na­tive Cuba, he said.

Suarez’s three check­cash­ing stores charged ex­or­bi­tant fees that ranged from 10 to 30 per­cent de­pend­ing on the type of il­licit ac­tiv­ity that “al­lowed the scam­mers to con­ceal their in­volve­ment in re­ceiv­ing the pro­ceeds of the fraud,” ac­cord­ing to the FBI af­fi­davit. Suarez learned the ropes of shadow bank­ing dur­ing the last decade’s real es­tate boom while work­ing for La Bamba, a chain of check-cash­ing stores that were once a spon­sor of the Mi­ami Heat.

But rather than quit the busi­ness af­ter his boss and other em­ploy­ees at La Bamba were sent to prison, Suarez launched his own chain in Hialeah cater­ing to peo­ple who couldn’t cash checks at con­ven­tional banks.

Suarez’s for­mer boss at La Bamba, Juan Rene Caro, was sen­tenced to 18 years in prison in 2009 for mas­ter­mind­ing what a judge de­scribed as a “shadow bank­ing in­dus­try” that caused “great harm” to Amer­i­can tax­pay­ers by help­ing lo­cal con­struc­tion com­pa­nies cash checks without dis­clos­ing their real iden­ti­ties. La Bamba’s scheme en­abled the com­pa­nies to evade pay­roll and cor­po­rate taxes.

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