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Taint What You Think

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."

The U.S. Customs investigation, he asserted further, "was not halted, but rather, continued to its conclusion, which properly exonerated Banco Progreso."

Intriago confirms that he hired Kaplan on behalf of the bank but says he "played zero role" in persuading the government to release the Banco Progreso accounts. "If you read the article, it kills me by association," he protests.

In his article, Truell reported that although an investigator hired by Intriago in the early Nineties had uncovered evidence "strongly suggesting large-scale money laundering at Mr. Castro's Banco Progreso," Intriago chose not to disclose the findings to U.S. authorities. The report, says Intriago, was "fundamentally flawed" and failed to take into account the frantic state of the Venezuelan economy at the time. "It appeared [the investigator] was on a mission to draft the report in a certain way," Intriago says.

Newsletter subscribers, including bankers and federal agents who handle financial crime investigations, say the recent revelations do not diminish their high regard for Intriago and Money Laundering Alert. "My sole concern is the content of the publication, which I've always found to be excellent," says a federal agent who supervises investigations related to drug trafficking.

"It's a first-rate publication and [Intriago] provides a first-rate service to the community," seconds Peter McWilliam, former president of the Florida International Banking Operations Association. "That's as far as it goes as far as we're concerned. I don't think what's coming out now is particularly relevant."

Regardless of the charges pending against Castro and his family, Intriago stresses that his relationship with the financier was conducted at a professional distance. "I was his lawyer," Intriago declares. "I have absolutely nothing to hide whatsoever. I've never been involved in the business operations of his companies.


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