A Cuban businessman charged with laundering $238 million in ill-gotten Medicare payments asked a federal judge Wednesday to throw out the indictment against him, claiming he was running a legitimate remittance company outside the United States so he couldn’t have committed a crime.
But there was a slight problem.
When Jorge Emilio Perez de Morales asked the judge — through his defense attorney — to dismiss the massive money-laundering case, the 52-year-old defendant was in Spain, not in the courtroom.
“He’s not present,” Fort Lauderdale Magistrate Judge Patrick Hunt told Perez’s defense attorney, Stephen Golembe. “I can’t help but notice.”
Wednesday’s nearly two-hour hearing seemed almost surreal as the judge, Golembe and federal prosecutor Ron Davidson debated whether Perez is a fugitive — a thorny legal issue arising from the fact that he has yet to be arrested on the money-laundering conspiracy charge. His lawyer said he isn’t; the prosecutor said he is.
Meanwhile, the judge said he’ll make up his mind shortly about the defendant’s status and his dismissal motion — in the first-known federal case of a money-laundering racket fueled by Medicare fraud between the United States and Cuba. Perez’s half-brother, who lived in Miami, already pleaded guilty.
Based on the court hearing, this much is now known about the elusive defendant: Since he was indicted five years ago, Perez has been living in Spain with his wife and children. Spanish authorities haven’t extradited Perez — who once owned a seaside home in Havana — despite requests by U.S. authorities.
“He’s not hiding; he’s never been hiding,” Golembe said, noting that Perez applied for residency in Spain several times, but his requests were denied. The attorney also pointed out that, through a Skype connection, his client spoke with the prosecutor about the indictment in 2014 but nothing came of their discussion. “He’s not a fugitive by any stretch of the imagination.”
“My client was not in the United States when the crime was committed,” Golembe said. “My client was not in the United States when he was indicted [in 2012]. My client has not been in the United States since.”
But later in the hearing, the attorney blurted out: “Jorge Perez doesn’t want to be arrested.”
Davidson, assisted by two Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents in the case, took that comment to mean that Perez is a fugitive.
The prosecutor said U.S. authorities have tried to have Perez arrested in Spain, but their requests have been apparently ignored. “What we seem to be learning is that the Spanish authorities don’t want to arrest him,” said Davidson, who pointed out that the U.S. government has an extradition agreement with Spain.
“It doesn’t make him a fugitive,” the judge said. “But it may disqualify him from seeking jurisdiction in the United States to file a motion to dismiss” the single money-laundering conspiracy charge against him.
The indictment accuses Perez of using his Cuba-licensed remittance company, Caribbean Transfers, to supply vast amounts of cash to Medicare fraud offenders in the United States in exchange for transferring their tainted Medicare proceeds through his shell companies in Canada via Trinidad to Cuba.
Caribbean Transfers provided clean cash — amassed from Cuban exiles sending money to relatives on the island — to corrupt healthcare operators in Florida, Michigan, Tennessee and New York, according to the indictment. Perez’s role was uncovered after a convicted Naples check-cashing store owner, Oscar L. Sanchez, fingered him as the man who bankrolled his Florida business and other remittance agencies.
The complex money-laundering operation, lasting from 2005 to 2011, was unprecedented because it marked the first U.S. case connecting South Florida's Medicare rackets to Cuba's national bank. The transferred funds supposedly ended up in the hands of Cuban families on the island, but that is unclear from court records.
Perez's half-brother, Eduardo Perez de Morales, 29, a U.S. citizen who lived in Miami, pleaded guilty to conspiring with the older sibling and was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison in 2015. He admitted that his brother recruited him into the alleged international money-laundering scheme early on and that he collaborated with him as a “bag man” by delivering money to Medicare fraudsters — even after recognizing their partnership was illegal.
After his arrest, Perez was forced to cancel his big wedding plans. He and his fiancée had already spent a small fortune for the sumptuous nuptials scheduled at the iconic Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables.
If his older brother is ever brought to justice in South Florida, the younger sibling may have to testify against him as part of his plea deal.
His older brother’s elusiveness is not unusual among Medicare fraud offenders. The FBI's field office in Miami estimates there are about 160 defendants on the lam from active Medicare fraud cases in South Florida. Together, the fugitives are accused of stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from the taxpayer-funded Medicare program for seniors and disabled by submitting false claims for a variety of bogus services, including medical supplies, physical therapy and prescription drugs.
Almost all of the fugitives are Cuban-born immigrants who fled to Cuba, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and other Spanish-speaking countries to evade federal trials.