Mexican businessman, others face U.S. charges in $100 million laundering scheme

Tuesday, November 01, 2016 12:52 p.m. CDT

By Nate Raymond

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Mexico-based businessman has been arrested in the United States on charges that he and five others engaged in a scheme to fraudulently obtain tax refunds from the Mexican government and launder over $100 million.

Carlos Djemal, who according to court papers acquired Mexican-based InvestaBank SA in 2014, was arrested in Chicago and charged in a criminal complaint filed in Manhattan federal court that was made public on Monday.

InvestaBank was established in 2014 from the acquisition of Royal Bank of Scotland's operations in Mexico. InvestaBank last week said it had agreed to buy two Mexican units of Deutsche Bank.

Three other men - Max Fraenkel, Daniel Blitzer and Robert Moreno - were also arrested, according to the office of Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. Two other men were also charged including Isidoro Haiat, who court documents said acquired InvestaBank with Djemal.

InvestaBank Chief Executive Officer Enrique Vilatela in an interview called Djemal's arrest a "surprise," adding that he was one of 38 partners in the bank. Haiat, he said, died a year ago from an illness.

Lawyers for the defendants could not be immediately identified.

InvestaBank said in a statement it was confident Djemal could prove his innocence, and that the investigation would neither affect operations nor its purchase of the Deutsche Bank units.

"In this regard, both Deutsche Bank and investors interested in participating in the capital increase of InvestaBank have stated that the commitments assumed remain in place," it said.

Prosecutors said from 2011 to 2016, the defendants engaged in a scheme to defraud the Mexican government of tax revenue relating to its value-added tax (VAT) and then launder the scheme's proceeds throughout the United States and Mexico.

Prosecutors said the defendants created dozens of front companies that claimed to be doing business as cellular phone importers and exporters in order to fraudulently obtain VAT refunds from the Mexican government.

As part of the scheme, Djemal and Haiat had the front companies buy outdated cellular phones which were then exported to U.S.-based firms operated by others involved in the scheme.

While exporting the phones, Djemal and Haiat obtained fraudulent invoices and created other documents to fraudulently boost the phones' value, enabling them to seek inflated VAT refunds, prosecutors said.

During the scheme, Djemal and Haiat owned a Mexican company that handled administrative details of the conspiracy, the complaint said.

They also owned a currency exchange, Casa de Cambio Tiber, S.A., de C.V., which was used together with InvestaBank to transfer funds to the front companies, the complaint said.

In total, more than $100 million was moved through dozens of accounts maintained by front companies, prosecutors said. Five of the front companies received about $21 million in VAT refunds, the complaint said.

The case is U.S. v. Djemal, et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 16-mj-6976.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York, additional reporting by Noe Torres and Natalie Schachar in Mexico City; Editing by Tom Brown and Grant McCool)