South Florida

Cuban at center of massive Medicare-related money-laundering case arrested in Spain

Cuban businessmen Jorge Emilio Perez de Morales was arrested in Spain on Friday on a U.S. warrant charging him in one of the nation’s biggest Medicare-related money-laundering cases.
Cuban businessmen Jorge Emilio Perez de Morales was arrested in Spain on Friday on a U.S. warrant charging him in one of the nation’s biggest Medicare-related money-laundering cases. FBI Handout

A Cuban businessman wanted in Miami for the past five years in one of the nation’s biggest Medicare-related money-laundering cases was arrested in Spain on Friday, authorities said.

Jorge Emilio Perez de Morales, who was indicted in 2012 on a conspiracy charge of laundering $238 million in illicit Medicare payments through South Florida, is expected to seek a bond in Spain and challenge his extradition to the United States.

“I was surprised that he was arrested, because [the federal prosecutor] had said that Spanish authorities were not looking for him,” attorney Stephen Golembe told the Miami Herald. “I haven’t spoken to him, but I expect he will seek a bond and will fight his extradition.”

The Justice Department and U.S. attorney’s office in Miami, which had issued an international arrest warrant for Perez, are expected to oppose a bond in Spain and request his extradition to the United States. Spanish national police made Perez’s arrest in Madrid.

Perez, who had owned a remittance company in Cuba, lost his effort to dismiss the money-laundering indictment against him in June. It was a highly unusual bid because the 52-year-old is considered a fugitive after fleeing to Spain.

Through his Miami defense attorney, the absent Perez asked a magistrate judge in Fort Lauderdale to throw out the case, claiming he was running a legitimate remittance company outside the United States so he couldn’t have committed a crime. But Magistrate Judge Patrick Hunt denied his motion, saying the U.S. money-laundering conspiracy charge extends beyond the boundaries of this country because the alleged offense happened here.

“If he wishes to contest the charges in this case, [Perez] will have to first submit to the court’s jurisdiction,” Hunt wrote in a nine-page ruling. “If he would like to go to trial, the door to the federal court, as always, remains open.”

His ruling came in response to an unusual hearing in March, when 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.

The judge’s decision was ultimately not affected by that issue — a perennial problem in South Florida. But Hunt concluded that the “moniker fugitive, while perhaps an awkward fit for [Perez], is not an altogether inappropriate one” because he is “clearly aware” of the charge against him in Miami.

The court hearing in March filled in some details about the elusive defendant: Since he was indicted in 2012, Perez has been living in Spain with his wife and children. But Spanish authorities seemed unwilling to arrest and extradite Perez — who once owned a seaside home in Havana — despite requests by U.S. authorities.

Davidson, assisted by two Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents in the case, argued that Perez is a “fugitive” who knows he’s wanted in Miami.

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. The operators could not go to banks and collect their Medicare payments, mainly because their illicit healthcare businesses were usually set up in the names of newly arrived Cuban immigrants.

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.

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.