By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Long ago Humberto Aguilar was a thief, a rich one with a Mercedes-Benz SL650 and a slew of designer Italian suits to show for it. He specialized in laundering millions of dollars pumped from the cocaine trade.
Now the plump 54-year-old with a baritone voice and a Tom Selleck mustache is a new man — crime-free, he says. He has even turned into something of a detective. He contends the executive director of a nonprofit where he has worked and volunteered for seven years has been improperly dipping into funds partly supplied by taxpayers. And the board of Suited for Success, which provides ex-convicts and the homeless with dapper duds for job interviews, has tried to keep it quiet.
"In a very strange and convoluted way, I'm a strait-laced guy," he says. "Right now I'm involved in this fight with all these people because I feel alive. I hate to see injustice."
Born in Cuba and educated at the University of Florida, Aguilar earned his law degree in 1978 and moved to Miami. Six years later he made the front page of the New York Times after defending Eduardo Arocena, leader of the anti-Castro terrorist group Omega 7, on a double-murder rap and bombings. Those were Miami's cocaine cowboy days, so drug dealers soon began asking for a little, um, help. "Clients would come to me and say, 'I've got a ton of money. Can you move it for me? And I'd say, 'Yeah, let's do it,'" he recalls. "Back then Miami was almost wide-open. You'd call a buddy and say, 'I need to meet some bankers and lawyers in Panama.' We all knew everybody. It was a network."
Aguilar would take short jaunts to South American countries, where he'd be met by suitcases stuffed with bills that had been smuggled in on sailboats. He'd give bankers $10,000 or $20,000 to deposit the money in Switzerland, Luxembourg, and other corners of Europe. The Miami lawyer would take a five to 10 percent cut, usually between $50,000 and $200,000.
His wife, Carmen, didn't ask how he earned the cash for the tony suits, the million-dollar home, and the fancy cars. And he didn't tell her. "One of the reasons I did it was because we were having so much fun," Aguilar says, "just playing the game."
Carmen gave birth to twins, George and Olivia, in 1987. Three years later Aguilar was popped for cheating the IRS out of $2.3 million and trying to import more than $26 million of cocaine into the country. After posting a more than $1-million bond and selling his Kendall home, he and the family decamped to Spain. Aguilar became David Omar Ocampo Andrade, traveling on documents crafted by a cousin in Honduras. He told the four-year-old twins to call him David outside their apartment — and explained he was researching a character for a book he was writing. "Why would anybody be a fugitive if you can't take your family with you?" Aguilar asks rhetorically.
Soon, though, the money dried up, and Carmen returned to Miami with the kids while Aguilar did odd maintenance jobs. Then in 1995 U.S. authorities traced calls from his wife to Madrid pay phones, and Spanish police picked him up. He spent two years in prison fighting extradition before pleading guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States and import cocaine.
Aguilar was locked away in a cell in Miami's Federal Correctional Institution, where his legal skills bought him protection and cigarettes. "I'm a lawyer. I'm a God in prison." Then Carmen filed for divorce, but they lied to the twins, saying papi had stayed in Europe. Aguilar would mail postcards to his European friends, who would forward them to his children.
"Maybe we were gullible as kids," says Olivia Aguilar, age 20, now a freshman at Miami Dade College. "He would send us postcards from different places, even Paris. I used to see these postcards and say, 'My dad's in Paris,' and I'd brag about it at school.... When you grow up with it, it's like anything else, like Santa Claus."
Shortly after Aguilar was released in 2000, he landed a job at a chain of Miami Beach hotels. He started as a nine-dollar-an-hour houseman and worked his way up to sales manager. Soon he met Charles Intriago, the man behind Money Laundering Alert, a well-regarded Miami newsletter that describes Aguilar's former crime. Intriago invited him to speak at a few conferences. "He does a good job," says Intriago. "He's legitimate because he was illegitimate."
Aguilar left the hotels in 2004 to work full-time for publicly funded local organization Suited for Success, which had helped him find decent clothes when he left prison. The group's executive director and cofounder, Sonia Jacobson, hired him to run job training for ex-convicts and the homeless in neighborhoods like Overtown and east Little Havana. He calls it the most rewarding job he ever had: "I brainwashed them into believing in themselves again."
The organization was relatively successful — last year it took in nearly $120,000 from state and federal sources. In the past 12 years, its Website says, it has helped more than 12,000 people gain jobs. Aguilar even recruited his daughter (with whom he reconnected after his release) to help with Suited for Success classes and dress the women. On the side, Aguilar also shared his story with bankers and law enforcers at financial crime conferences in London, Frankfurt, and Vienna.
By many accounts, he was good at his job with Suited for Success. Burney Burke, a job developer at the Homeless Assistance Center on North Miami Avenue, says Aguilar — who was paid $45,000 per year — helped clients score telemarketing gigs and jobs at Macy's and News Café. "The clients really enjoyed him," says Burke. "When he started coming over here, it was a big success and the service got to a lot more clients."
Jacobson gave him rave reviews too: "His performance in this position has been outstanding. He has inspired clients to make changes in their lives...," she said in a recent recommendation letter.
But Aguilar says he could no longer ignore what he considered questionable spending at Suited for Success. The problem, he says, was related to Jacobson, the $78,000-per-year executive director. He dug up a May 21 e-mail from Pamela Anselmo, a Fort Lauderdale attorney and board member, to Jacobson. It asked for repayment of $6,020.07 Jacobson owed the organization: "My hope had been for you to address this quickly and efficiently once it was pointed out to you so that we could keep this as low-profile as possible and we could simply announce only the corrective action ... rather than ruminating over the misappropriation of funds."
The "misappropriation," he soon learned, was documented on an April spreadsheet prepared by Jean Cole, the nonprofit's accountant. It indicated that Jacobson spent money on her own dental work and auto repairs, among other things. An e-mail from Cole also shows Aguilar owed the agency $490, which he says was a paycheck advance to cover medical bills.
In early July, Aguilar says, he confronted Jacobson. "I told her: 'I want to really change things around here.'... She was basically using the company as an ATM." After that meeting, she gave him a raise, to $50,000. Then, Aguilar contends, "Two days later she said, 'I'm going to have to let you go because you're trying to blackmail me.'" (On August 27 he received a letter from the state denying unemployment benefits because he was fired for "false representation of the employer" and "misconduct.")
Jacobson declined to comment. Cole, who has left Suited for Success, couldn't be reached. Anselmo, the group's former president, did not dispute the contents of the e-mail when it was read to her. She added, "everything's under control," and said she has faith in Jacobson and the program.
Aguilar, who lives in a $575 efficiency apartment, is fighting back. He has contacted Suited for Success board members, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Children's Trust, and the U.S. Attorney's Office to warn them of the alleged malfeasance. The Miami coordinator for the Knight Foundation, Lorenzo Lebrija, says his agency is looking into Aguilar's questions and performing a regularly scheduled audit. So far, Lebrija adds, Suited for Success has met its goals: "It's a really good program."
What exactly happened between Jacobson and Aguilar is unclear, but on August 15 the U.S. Attorney's Office sent Aguilar a letter saying the case had been referred to the FBI.
Aguilar understands that some people might see his involvement as simply the actions of a disgruntled former employee. Though the amount he accuses Jacobson of mishandling pales in comparison to the millions of dollars he laundered in the past, Aguilar calls himself a "born-again criminal" with a newfound low tolerance for misdeeds. "It's my fault I went to prison; it's nobody else's. But the system works. There is justice.... In life, nothing is ever given to you; you have to really fight for it.
"Either that," he says, stopping to laugh, "or I am insane."