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A $2.7 million mystery: was Alex Saab paying lawyers to approach US government?

It's not known who were the last recipients of the millions of dollars that money laundering suspect Alex Saab sent to the United States before being indicted. Sources told Univision Investiga that the money was used to pay for lawyers who were helping Saab secretly make approaches to the US government.
24 Jun 2020 – 07:30 PM EDT
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It took seven months for the United States government to get former University of Miami professor Bruce Bagley to plead guilty to charges of money laundering from a corruption scheme in Venezuela.

On June 1st Bagley admitted in federal court in New York that he had received commissions for laundering $3 million from Alex Saab, a Colombian businessman arrested in Cape Verde more than a week ago accused of an international corruption scheme in a Miami court.

However, the New York case left a question hanging over the fate of the bulk of the money sent by Saab from overseas accounts between 2017 and 2019.

The government confiscated a total of $300,000 allegedly taken by the professor as commissions for facilitating the laundering in Miami of multiple transfers from Saab. But there is no document that reflects what happened to the remaining $2.7 million.

The sum doesn’t appear to have been seized by the federal government even though it came from the same source: Saab accounts in the United Arab Emirates and Switzerland.

Two people familiar with Professor Bagley's case, and who asked not to be identified, hinted the purpose of the funds: fees paid to lawyers who promised Saab to approach the United States government on his behalf before he was indicted. Saab asked Bagley to help him discreetly process the payments to prevent the Venezuelan regime of Nicolás Maduro from finding out, the sources added.

If that was the case, the tactic didn’t work. Saab was accused in July 2019 of money laundering from alleged corrupt operations in Venezuela. In a memorandum from the Treasury Department, the businessman was described as an international operator for the Maduro government. Saab is awaiting a U.S. extradition request to Cape Verde where he was arrested on June 12.

'Boliche'

All that emerges from court documents regarding the funds sent by Saab to Florida is that they were transferred to a co-conspirator, also identified by the prosecution as "Individual 1".

Bagley identified "Individual 1" as Jorge Luis Hernández, aka 'Boliche' during the plea hearing. Hernández is an informant for U.S. counter narcotics agencies, according to Univision sources. The prosecution did not explain what happened to the money after the informant received it.

James Margolin, a spokesman for the New York Southern District attorney's office, where Bagley pleaded guilty, told Univision that prosecutors do not comment about cases.

Last February, Hernández received a call from Univisión. After the journalist identified himself, he hung up. Two weeks ago, Univision sent him a questionnaire asking about the destination of the money, but did not respond.

Neither did Maria Domínguez, Saab's lawyer in the United States. Bagley's lawyers did not answer questions sent by email.

Colombian lawyer Abelardo de la Espriella, who has represented Saab, said he does not know about the case. "I’m completely unaware of the details of Professor Bagley's case," he wrote in an email.

De la Espriella acknowledged that he received fees from Saab and his partner Álvaro Pulido which were duly reported to the authorities. "This is how I always proceed ... I have not committed crimes," he added.

But De la Espriella did not explain what kind of contracts he signed with Saab and Pulido.

De la Espriella said that he met Jorge Luis Hernández, the informant of the operation, "in the presence of two agents from a federal agency," in Miami. "I have no business with Mr. Hernández," he said.

He also explained that he met Bagley at the university.


Who is Hernández?

Jorge Luis Hernández is a former Colombian paramilitary who has been a U.S. government informant for the past decade, according to Univision sources. "Along the way, he developed a reputation for delivering results, but also aggressive behavior towards friends and enemies alike," sources told the AP.

Hernández is the manager and founder of Hernández Deluque Brothers LLC a Florida corporation formed by him and his wife in 2016. A website promotes the company as a legal consulting firm for "a changing world." The firm's offices are located in Weston, Florida, and part of its email address is Boli. 6332. 'Boli' is an abbreviation of Hernández's nickname, 'Boliche'.

Two lawyers who are experts in money laundering cases told Univision that it is common for some undercover operations to inject federal money into bank transfers and cash deliveries to simulate illegal activities. In those cases, they added, there is no confiscation at the end of the operation. In the case against Bagley, the entire funds were supposed to have been seized, the experts added, because they were the product of corrupt transactions, according to the accusation .

Bagley confessed that he knew of the illegal origin of the funds at the time that he helped Saab in the laundering scheme. Bagley testified at the hearing that one person (Hernández) told him that "they represented the product of international bribes and embezzlement [of money] stolen from the Venezuelan people."

During the video conference hearing, one of the prosecutors in the case acknowledged that Hernandez was receiving instructions from a "law enforcement officer" when he explained to Bagley the origin of the money.

The 10% commissions Bagley received came from the same money sent by Saab.

Prosecutors in the Bagley case noted in the indictment that the money Saab sent to the United States between November 2017 and April 2019 was entirely the product of corruption, but never explained why it was not seized.

The hired professor

Sources familiar with the process explained to Univision that Bagley, 74, met Saab through Hernandez at the office of an immigration attorney. The immigration lawyer had processed a special residence permit for Hernández, under a law that protects people who are at high risk of death when they return to their countries, after being processed in the United States.

Saab hired the professor as a consultant for investments in Latin America and to help one of the businessman's sons resolve his immigration status, the sources said.

In November 2017, Saab made its first money transfers to Bagley from an account in the United Arab Emirates on behalf of a food company not identified in the indictment. Those funds and three other wire transfers were deposited into an account Bagley had opened the previous year in Weston under the name of his company Bagley Consultants.

According to the indictment, Bagley showed up at the bank with Hernandez and obtained cashier's checks worth 90% of the transfers from the food company's account. From there he passed them on to a company identified only by the prosecutor as "Company 1". In this first stage, which ran from November 2017 to February 2018, Bagley transferred $720,000 to "Company 1" and collected commissions of $80,000.

From another account, this time at a Swiss bank, Bagley made eight transfers totaling $1.7 million. The transfers were made between March and August 2018.

The account in which Bagley received the transferred was closed in October 2018 for "suspicious activities," according to the criminal complaint, but the professor opened another in Florida where $230,000 was deposited. That amount was transferred to "Company 1" after deducting a commission of $26,000.

The path money took from that point is a mystery.

Bagley was arrested in November 2019. He was released on bail and awaits a sentencing hearing in October.

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