Evelio 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.
Now, Suarez, 53, could be facing a long prison sentence himself.
Suarez ran a trio of stores that cashed at least $500 million in fraudulent checks in 2013-14, federal prosecutors say. Arrested in late June, he is fighting charges of conspiring to commit money laundering, bribing a bank employee, and tampering with a grand-jury witness.
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Suarez, whose arraignment is set for July 12, was swept up in a recent national take-down of 600 people who are suspected of healthcare fraud and other offenses. The arrests were led by the Justice Department and the U.S. attorney's office in Miami. Also among those charged: Enrique Iglesias, 44, of Homestead, who was charged with conspiring to commit money laundering by cashing $150 million in fraudulent checks for illegal businesses in Miami-Dade County.
But Iglesias' Miami storefront operation was dwarfed by Suarez's check-cashing enterprise in Hialeah, authorities said.
On Monday, 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 is a flight risk to Cuba and faces up to 30 years in prison. Suarez's defense attorney tried to counter that Suarez, after his 2012 conviction on worker-compensation fraud in Miami-Dade court, got a probationary sentence and had begun working as an informant for a state task force targeting illegal check-cashing.
The judge didn't buy it.
"It sounds to me like you were two-timing them," U.S. Magistrate Judge Chris McAliley told Suarez, who lives in Miramar. "You've been engaged in fraud at an extraordinary level."
She pointed out that while running his own check-cashing businesses, Suarez used some of the proceeds to buy $150,000 in luxury goods at Louis Vuitton, citing evidence from prosecutors. Suarez also bought three homes in Miramar.
Suarez's business model, like La Bamba's before him, 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.
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 during the last decade's real-estate boom. La Bamba's scheme enabled the companies to evade payroll and corporate taxes.
Similar scofflaws 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 worker-compensation insurance, Berger said. Others used stolen identities, Social Security numbers, and dates of birth to file fraudulent tax-refund claims with the Internal Revenue Service, 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 told the judge.
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 nominee 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 an FBI affidavit.
"The defendant brought all of the businesses to the stores because he had the connections in the community," Berger said on Monday, pointing out that he pocketed half of all the check-cashing fees even though his name was not on the corporate papers. "He brings in the volume, and they cut him in."
When Suarez's defense attorney, Gustavo Jesus Garcia-Montes, tried to suggest that his client was involved in the check-cashing stores as part of his undercover work for a state insurance fraud task force, Berger told the judge that the defendant "was not authorized" by anyone in law enforcement to commit "massive fraud" as he did.
Berger also said Suarez paid bribes to a bank teller who worked for the People's Credit Union in Pembroke Pines in exchange for "fronting" large amounts of cash to his chain of check-cashing stores. Suarez also gave the teller thousands of dollars to tip the other tellers in the credit union, Berger said.
Suarez, who was aware that he was under investigation by the FBI, told the tellers who worked at his check-cashing stores that "they could not testify that [he] ran the stores," according to the affidavit. A cooperating witness — one of nine mentioned in the FBI affidavit — said Suarez set up a meeting at a Miami restaurant in mid-2017 and told the tellers that "he would make all of it go away."
The cooperating witness, who had emigrated from Cuba, told investigators that she feared losing her job if she did not testify as Suarez requested, the affidavit said. The witness acknowledged that she "had not accurately described [Suarez's] involvement during her grand jury testimony."