For more than two years, managers of a small company that operated an exclusive lounge for airline passengers siphoned millions of dollars intended for Miami-Dade’s Aviation Department through “shadow” bank accounts, law enforcement leaders said Thursday.
Their suspected haul: likely well over $2.19 million.
That’s the amount Miami-Dade Aviation, Miami-Dade police and state attorney investigators were able to identify as missing over a two-year period from January 2012 through February 2014.
State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said the “thievery” likely was going on longer.
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“But we wanted to stop the bleeding now,” she said Thursday while announcing the arrest of three people.
Elena Iglesias, 45, an account manager and 20-year employee with International Airport Management Inc., was identified as the ringleader of a trio that included her husband, Lazaro Iglesias, 47, and her co-worker, Malena Rodriguez.
All three were charged with organized fraud, grand theft and two counts of money laundering. Their bonds were set at $1 million each, and before posting bond they must prove that the money they put up did not come from stolen airport revenue.
Since 1999, IAMI has contracted with Miami-Dade Aviation to operate Club America — an invitation-only waiting area at Miami International Airport that offers private work stations, Internet access, cable TV, showers and a complimentary full bar.
The arrest warrant claims that the Iglesias couple used the money to pay off a $546,008 American Express bill they ran up over two years.
Prosecutors say the money also was used for prepaid college accounts, and to pay off car loans and mortgages. Investigators identified $139,915 in a Bank of America account they said belongs to Rodriguez.
Fernandez Rundle said Elena Iglesias earned $52,000 a year as an account executive with IAMI and Rodriguez made $32,000. Airport officials said Lazaro Iglesias was an employee at the Miami airport until 1999, but were unable to determine exactly where he worked.
The trio remained in jail on Thursday and it was unknown whether they had retained attorneys. Miami-Dade County records show the Iglesias couple live in a two-story, six-bedroom, six-bathroom, 6,870-square-foot home in Southwest Miami-Dade. The property was recently assessed at $1.4 million. Calls to the home went directly to voice mail.
The way the scam worked, according to prosecutors, was relatively simple: Airlines supply privileged passengers with vouchers to use at Club America. Passengers then would turn in those vouchers at the club entrance to IAMI, which would bill the airlines.
The airlines paid with company checks made out to IAMI, which was supposed to deposit those checks directly into an account belonging to Miami-Dade Aviation. But investigators found that for at least the past two years, the three were depositing about 20 percent of the total revenues received from airlines into personal accounts.
The investigation also found that the allegedly stolen money came from 11 airline carriers, including $1.1 million from Swiss International Airlines, $347,000 from Taca International Airlines and $279,000 from Virgin Atlantic Airlines.
Miami-Dade Police Det. Richard Wilkinson said the alleged theft was discovered two years ago when, during a surprise audit of IAMI, investigators found vouchers used to bill the airlines totaling $49,000 on the office floor at the airport. That prompted a full-out audit that led to the arrests.
“That number wasn’t in the books,” Wilkinson said.
Miami-Dade Aviation said the lounge operator, owned by Ali Ghraouli, had about seven employees, and three of them were wait staff. IAMI’s contract earns Ghraouli about $200,000 a year, according to Miami-Dade Aviation.
Ghraouli couldn’t be reached Thursday.
IAMI operated two clubs at MIA. The operations of Club America on Concourse J was recently handed over to LAN Airlines. IAMI continues to operate Club America on Concourse F, the club in question.
Miami-Dade Aviation Director Emilio Gonzalez said he has had issues with IAMI’s month-to-month contract and has lobbied County Hall to change the terms or rebid the deal. He said that he has been rebuffed.
“These are egregious crimes,” he said.