Eduardo Perez de Morales, a 26-year-old Miami businessman, has big wedding plans for July. He and his fiancée have already spent a small fortune for the sumptuous nuptials scheduled at the iconic Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables.
But there's a slight snag: Perez was busted last week for being the alleged “bagman” in the first-known Medicare-fraud money laundering racket between the United States and Cuba.
Instead of helping pick out flowers for the wedding centerpieces, Perez is being held at the dreary Broward County jail in Fort Lauderdale. He has pleaded not guilty.
A U.S. citizen, Perez is accused of conspiring with his fugitive brother, who federal agents believe may be in Cuba, to launder $238 million in stolen Medicare funds through the brother’s defunct offshore remittance company, Caribbean Transfers — eight times more than was initially claimed in a 2012 indictment.
Caribbean Transfers is accused of supplying clean cash — amassed from Cuban exiles sending money to relatives on the island — to healthcare scammers in Florida, Michigan, Tennessee and New York. Prosecutors now believe the company’s network was much larger than when they filed the original indictment against the brother, Jorge Emilio Perez de Morales Sante.
Caribbean Transfers is suspected of bankrolling a Florida check-cashing company and other remittance agencies that prosecutors say cashed checks or wired money for Medicare fraud masterminds — then transferred their dirty dollars through Canada to Cuba.
This week, a federal magistrate judge in Fort Lauderdale ruled that Eduardo Perez was too much of a flight risk to let him out of jail for his big wedding day or any other reason before trial.
“In light of [his] access to hundreds of millions of dollars, his ties to Cuba and other countries, his brother's presumed location outside the United States, and the substantial sentence he faces, [he] must be deemed to be a flight risk,” Magistrate Judge Lurana Snow ruled.
The judge’s reference to Cuba is no small matter. Since Medicare fraud exploded in the Miami area over the past decade, dozens of defendants charged with swindling the taxpayer-funded Medicare program have fled to Cuba and other Latin American countries to avoid prosecution.
Now, Perez is asking the magistrate judge to reconsider. And if that fails, his defense lawyer plans to take his bid for pretrial freedom to a federal district court judge.
His defense attorney, Douglas Williams, blasted the prosecution’s “evidence” presented at Perez’s bond hearing Monday, calling it “part press release, part policy discourse.”
Williams, who said he could not comment Thursday because he was preparing for a major federal appellate case, wrote in court papers that Snow “discounted matters such as the defendant’s impending wedding … a truly meaningful community and family tie, in and of itself.”
At the bond hearing, Williams said his client and his fiancée, Amanda Alvarez, have invited 100 people to the Biltmore wedding, and that the bride-to-be’s mother, Maria Caridad Iglesias, “has already paid tens of thousands of dollars for everything,” including a wedding dress made in Europe.
In court papers, Williams also criticized Snow for “seemingly disregarding” his cross-examination of a federal agent, claiming he established no “meaningful” ties between his client and the brother or any “elements” of money laundering or healthcare fraud.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ron Davidson said Willliams’ argument that his client poses no flight risk because of an outlay of “massive amounts of wealth to pay for an expensive wedding at the Biltmore” rings hollow.
Davidson also scoffed at Williams’ argument that his client’s “collection of horses” in Miami would keep him from fleeing to Cuba.
“The defendant’s easy access [to] cash provides him with the means to flee the country to Cuba,” Davidson wrote in court papers, noting Perez has traveled to Cuba, Spain, Mexico and the Dominican Republic since 2010.
Davidson described Eduardo Perez as his brother Jorge’s “right-hand man,” who would supply cash to Caribbean Transfers’ customers in the United States, some of whom are now cooperating with federal authorities, according to court records.
The brother, who owns a seaside home in Havana, is wanted by the FBI. Jorge Perez was last reported to be living in Cuba. Charged in 2012, he also could be in the Dominican Republic, Mexico or Spain, authorities said.
Jorge Perez’s defense attorney, Stephen Golembe, declined to comment, saying he has not seen any of the prosecution’s evidence against his client because he is not in custody.
The revised indictment now charging his brother alleges that $238 million in stolen Medicare proceeds were laundered in the scheme — all of it into Cuba’s national bank. The money could have been disbursed as remittances to Cuban families or to others living on the island.
“The location of hundreds of millions of dollars is unknown, and a vast fortune is likely sitting in a Communist country,” Davidson wrote in court papers.
The prosecution’s initial criminal case, which made national headlines, alleged that $70 million in tainted Medicare profits were laundered by 70 healthcare operators through the Naples check-cashing business of Oscar L. Sanchez. He has pleaded guilty and is serving a 4 ½-year prison sentence.
Davidson, the prosecutor, alleged that about half of that amount was transferred through Canada into Cuba, and described Caribbean Transfers as a sort of offshore Western Union. The company, which closed its doors in 2012, said it specialized in remittances to Cuba, the Dominican Republic and other countries.
Though it is out of business, Caribbean Transfers has claimed on a still active website that it did nothing wrong. But it acknowledged that money from Medicare fraud had “contaminated” its legitimate remittances to Cuba.