The Miami Herald

Medicare fraud’s men in Havana

If the feds’ case sticks, Oscar L. Sanchez will be convicted as a cash-for-Cuba financier of fraudsters, “a capitalist for Cuban banks,” as prosecutors wrote in a court motion, accusing the 46-year-old South Florida man of conspiracy to commit money laundering for a group that funneled $63 million of stolen Medicare payments to Havana banks. You think the Cuban government was in on it?

For the skeptics, I have two words: Robert Vesco.

The fugitive American financier was accused of securities fraud in the 1970s and after trying to buy his own island from the country of Antigua, popped up in Havana in 1982, protected by the communist regime from extradition to the United States. Alas, the commie honeymoon didn’t last once Vesco’s millions seemed to run out. Cuba arrested him in 1996 for “fraud and illicit economic activity . . . acts prejudicial to the economic plans and contracts of the state.” He didn’t last long in prison, dying of lung cancer a few months later.

Sanchez’s acts, federal prosecutors say, have been prejudicial to U.S. taxpayers, by about $31 million, which is the amount the federal government says it tracked from 2005 to 2009 through a complicated web of foreign shell companies Sanchez created using his check-cashing business to funnel the Medicare payments from the United States to Canada, Trinidad and eventually Cuba. The money in at least two accounts deposited in the Trinidad bank in Havana came with instructions to be wired into the Cuban banking system.

Still, prosecutors say there’s no direct evidence linking the Cuban regime and the Castro brothers to the plot.

Well, no kidding. After 53 years of elaborate schemes, murder and mayhem from Angola to Venezuela, Fidel and Raúl have gotten pretty good at it. But the bottom line really isn’t that complicated if the doubters care to seek the truth. Nothing happens in Cuba without the consent of the Castros. Certainly nothing having to do with money, and certainly not millions of dollars in deposits in Cuban government-controlled banks. Was the Cuban government taking a cut?

You betcha. And that’s no conspiracy theory. It’s simple mathematics -- and history.

More than one high-level defector has testified before Congress and gone on Spanish-language TV over the years to detail fraud schemes and spying operations, all in an effort to keep the revolution going, with American money, no less.

Just last week, as the Cuban government was reported by The Associated Press to “bristle” at any hint that it would be involved in a Medicare fraud scheme, Cuba’s Foreign Ministry had another “bristling” episode -- this time bristling against the Dutch. ING Bank NV announced earlier this month that it would pay $619 million to end a case against it involving billions of dollars secretly moved through American banks on behalf of “Cuban and Iranian concerns in violation of U.S. sanctions.”

In 2004 a Swiss bank got slapped with a $100 million fine for buying and selling more U.S. dollars from Cuba than the regime could have earned from its sputtering economic affairs.

Sanchez’s is the first case that makes a direct link between Medicare fraud and Cuba benefiting from it. But the benefits have always been apparent.

In 2008, The Miami Herald’s “Medicare Racket” investigation by reporter Jay Weaver found that at least half of South Florida’s Medicare fugitives were believed to be back in Cuba, sipping mojitos. About 60 Cuban scammers, many of them arriving in Miami in the 1990s, collectively billed more than a billion dollars from taxpayers through medical storefronts with phantom patients. As federal investigators started to get close to the action, about two dozen of those scammers took off to Cuba.

Does anyone believe that the regime had no clue these millionaires had moved back or that the government isn’t getting its share? Does anyone wonder how many of these guys work for Cuba’s state security?

While Sanchez was a target of this latest ongoing investigation, prosecutors say dozens of crooked Medicare providers — who offered HIV and medical equipment services — were in on the laundering scheme. “The defendants’ money laundering operation was faster, more efficient, and financially benefitted everyone involved, including [Sanchez], who charged a fee for his services,” prosecutors wrote.

Sanchez pleaded not guilty on Friday. U.S. Magistrate Jonathan Goodman was wise to deny bail to such a flight risk. Fool us once, shame on you. Fool us 61 times, and counting, shame on us.




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