BULLETIN: Florida — Again: Multiagency Probe Leads To Federal Criminal Charges Against 9 People In Interconnected Ponzi And Fraud Schemes

BULLETIN: An investigation by the U.S. Secret Service, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the Miami Police Department has led to criminal charges against nine defendants in three Florida fraud schemes that allegedly were interconnected.

Seven of the defendants were indicted. Two others were charged via criminal information, and the investigation is ongoing. The probe demonstrates that, in an era of seemingly ceaseless white-collar crime, investigators are using leads uncovered in one case and following them to discover fraud schemes that perhaps would have gone undetected were it not for the discovery of an initial scheme.

Charged with conspiracy to commit bank fraud connected to a Ponzi scheme were Maria Baksh, 50, of Hollywood; Juan Cardenas, 48, of Miami; Gabriel Cifuentes, 63, of Hialeah; Maureen Cifuentes, 35; of Hialeah, Lucia Garcia, 58, of Pembroke Pines; Roberto Hernandez, 66, of Miami; Maribel Roman, 47, of Hialeah; Reinaldo Roman Jr., 39, of Hialeah; and Roberto Rodriguez, 43, of Miami.

The case is tied to the purported “jewelry” Ponzi scheme of Luis Felipe Perez, 38, of Fort Lauderdale. Lopez was charged both civilly (SEC) and criminally last year (Secret Service/ICE). He was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison after pleading guilty to securities fraud.

Investigators said he pocketed $6 million from his Ponzi scheme, which gathered $40 million. Investors were told they were financing his purported jewelry business and pawn shops in New York, authorities said.

Perez, investigators now say, recruited “many” of the new defendants and referred them to Berta Sanders, 61, of Miami Lakes. Sanders, a CPA, helped them secure $12 million in commercial lines of credit by preparing false tax returns and false income statements submitted to Wachovia Bank. Proceeds from the loans were diverted to the Perez Ponzi scheme.

“When Perez’s Ponzi scheme ultimately collapsed in May 2009, most of the fraudulent loans obtained from Wachovia defaulted,” prosecutors said, noting that the scheme cost Wachovia $10 million.

Sanders, who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bank fraud, is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 22 by U.S. District Judge Paul C. Huck.

Viewed as a whole, the case featured the Perez Ponzi scheme and a related bank-fraud scheme over which Sanders allegedly presided for a 10 percent cut of the bogus loans she engineered, prosecutors said.

It also featured a conspiracy by which other defendants fleeced the bank by allowing Sanders to prepare fraudulent documents so they could get the money to plow into the Ponzi scheme, prosecutors said.

The investigation was undertaken by elements of the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force.

While investors were imagining “guaranteed annual returns of 18 percent to 120 percent through monthly interest payments,” the SEC said last year, Perez spent $3.2 million of their money on a home, $1 million on jewelry for himself and his wife, $400,000 to lease luxury cars, $300,000 on clothing for his wife, $300,000 for travel by private jet and $100,000 on artwork.

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