Taint What You Think

A local authority on money laundering is linked to a banker accused of fraud

Charles Intriago has cultivated his reputation as a crime fighter. Early in his career, as special counsel to then-Florida governor Reubin Askew, the attorney wrote a law that facilitated statewide inquiries into political corruption and organized crime. Later, as a federal prosecutor in Miami, he was responsible for the indictment of former Florida insurance commissioner Tom O'Malley, the only cabinet officer in the state's history to have been imprisoned for corruption.

During the past six years, the 54-year-old Intriago has published a monthly newsletter, Money Laundering Alert, which is primarily devoted to explaining changes in money-laundering regulations and to tracking enforcement actions. Federal agencies, including the IRS and FBI field officers, are the principal subscribers to the newsletter, which has a circulation of about 1400 and costs $345 per year.

Money Laundering Alert has helped bolster Intriago's stature as one of the nation's leading experts on money laundering, and he is frequently sought out by the media. But now one of Intriago's primary legal clients is being sought out less amicably about matters related to money laundering.

Orlando Castro Llanes, a 70-year-old banker, was arrested by Dade authorities April 4 at his Key Biscayne home on charges that he defrauded depositors at Banco Progreso Internacional, a Puerto Rican bank he controls. Also arrested were his son Orlando Castro Castro and grandson Jorge Castro Barredo. All three have been indicted by a New York grand jury on the felony charge of scheming to defraud. Castro and his grandson were also indicted for grand larceny in the first degree, for allegedly stealing millions of dollars from the bank.

At a press conference announcing the arrests, Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau said his office would be looking into the Castros' financial transactions for evidence of money laundering as well.

Intriago has been linked to the Castro family since 1980, when he started doing legal work for the family patriarch, a Cuban exile who fled to Venezuela in the Sixties and established a vast financial empire of banks, insurance companies, and radio stations. Intriago says his work for Castro was corporate in nature, that he handled real estate purchases, tax-related matters, and legal tasks associated with Castro's Miami-based insurance company, American Property and Casualty. (Florida regulators took control of the company in July 1993, after it collapsed in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew.)

In 1989, when Intriago got the idea for launching Money Laundering Alert, Castro's son agreed to invest $80,000 in return for a fifteen percent interest in the venture. After three years, Intriago bought back the share. He says neither Castro nor his son was ever involved in the editorial decisions or day-to-day operations of the newsletter.

Intriago attributes the charges against Castro to a smear campaign that began in Venezuela in 1990 after the banker launched a hostile takeover bid for control of Banco de Venezuela, one of the country's oldest and most conservative banks. According to Intriago, Thor Halvorssen, the alleged architect of the smear, has close ties to the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, which obtained the recent indictment. (In a lawsuit pending in Dade courts, Castro accuses the Venezuelan Halvorssen of disseminating to the press and various governmental agencies allegations against him that involved money laundering and links to drug traffickers. In a separate, unsuccessful lawsuit, Halvorssen charged that Castro arranged to have him imprisoned in Venezuela for more than two months on trumped-up charges that he had orchestrated a series of bombings in Caracas.)

"Mr. Castro has been accused of the most vile things they can imagine, but they have yet to come up with a single charge that comes close to money laundering," Intriago says.

Castro left Venezuela in 1994 in the wake of the financial crisis triggered by the collapse of eighteen banks, four of which were controlled by Castro. In 1995 Venezuelan authorities charged him with bank fraud and conspiracy in Venezuela. Several hundred Venezuelan bankers have been indicted in connection with the banking crisis; more than 100 are thought to be living in South Florida.

Intriago's role as Castro's lawyer during a 1991 money-laundering investigation by U.S. Customs agents has also raised questions. In a prominently featured April 4 story in the New York Times business section, Peter Truell reported that Intriago had interceded on Castro's behalf after the agents froze several accounts held in a midtown Manhattan bank by one of Castro's Venezuelan banks, Banco Progreso.

"Mr. Intriago persuaded a Federal Court to halt the investigation and unfreeze the accounts," wrote Truell. "[The Manhattan District Attorney's Office] and Customs Service investigators are looking into the circumstances under which the investigation was stopped." (As a matter of policy, neither the Customs Service nor the District Attorney's Office would confirm whether such an inquiry is under way.)

Kenneth Kaplan, a lawyer who represented Banco Progreso in the matter, wrote an angry letter to the Times, complaining of Truell's "inaccurate description of the facts" and their implication of "some insidious relationship between Mr. Intriago and his clients." Kaplan asserted that Truell's characterization notwithstanding, it was he, not Intriago, who represented Banco Progreso. "As counsel, I presented all facts to the United States Attorney's Office leading to the stipulation of discontinuance," wrote Kaplan. "Mr. Intriago did not appear as counsel in this case, nor did he appear in any proceeding."

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