There are Brickell bankers. And there are shadow bankers.
Evelio Suarez, who operated a trio of check-cashing stores in Hialeah, definitely fits the latter profile — but he’s no small-timer.
This week, Suarez, 53, pleaded guilty in Miami federal court to a money-laundering conspiracy while admitting to cashing at least $100 million worth of fraudulent checks in 2013-15 for criminals who ripped off Medicare, the Internal Revenue Service and mortgage banks.
But that might be a smaller figure for the purposes of a plea deal. The FBI, in a criminal affidavit filed with Suarez’s arrest in June, put his fraudulent check-cashing activity at nearly $500 million.
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The following month, a federal magistrate judge ordered that Suarez, a Cuban national who came to South Florida in 1995 and has a pair of prior state and federal convictions, be held without bond because he was such a flight risk to Cuba and faced a potentially long prison sentence. Suarez’s money-laundering conspiracy conviction carries up to 20 years. His sentencing is set for Dec. 20 before U.S. District Judge Robert Scola.
Suarez’s business model was to cash checks — many ranging from $150,000 to $400,000 — for scofflaws in the healthcare and construction sectors of Miami-Dade’s robust black-market economy, according to prosecutor Michael Berger.
They turned to Suarez as their money man because they operated pharmacies in other people’s names while falsely billing Medicare, or they paid undocumented construction workers in cash to avoid paying federal taxes and workers’ compensation insurance, Berger said. Others used stolen identities, Social Security numbers, and dates of birth to file false tax-refund claims with the IRS, which issued checks up to $150,000.
Berger said Suarez paid people to pose as the owners of his three check-cashing stores — Minimalist Solutions, Don Koky Enterprises, and Doger Group — because he had a criminal history and could not put the businesses in his name.
“He took these stores and put them on steroids,” Berger said in court.
Suarez’s customers, like him, had sketchy pasts so they paid tens of thousands of dollars to “ghosts” who allowed their names to be used as cover for the actual business owners, Berger said. After playing their roles and getting paid, many would flee back to their native Cuba, he said.
Suarez’s three check-cashing stores charged exorbitant fees that ranged from 10 to 30 percent depending on the type of illicit activity that “allowed the scammers to conceal their involvement in receiving the proceeds of the fraud,” according to the FBI affidavit.
Suarez learned the ropes of shadow banking during the last decade’s real estate boom while working for La Bamba, a chain of check-cashing stores that were once a sponsor of the Miami Heat.
But rather than quit the business after his boss and other employees at La Bamba were sent to prison, Suarez launched his own chain in Hialeah catering to people who couldn’t cash checks at conventional banks.
Suarez’s former boss at La Bamba, Juan Rene Caro, was sentenced to 18 years in prison in 2009 for masterminding what a judge described as a “shadow banking industry” that caused “great harm” to American taxpayers by helping local construction companies cash checks without disclosing their real identities. La Bamba’s scheme enabled the companies to evade payroll and corporate taxes.