Democratic Congressman Presses Obama on Cuban Crime Rings

Friday, May 22, 2015
From The Sun-Sentinel:

Congressman seeks answers on Cuban crime rings

Cuban criminals are exploiting America's generosity and must be brought to justice, a South Florida congressman told the new U.S. attorney general.

In a letter to Loretta Lynch, U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch said a U.S. law meant to help Cubans fleeing communism is instead being used by crooks "to evade arrest, avoid prosecution and deliver money stolen from American businesses and taxpayers back to Cuba."

He cited a January Sun Sentinel investigation that found criminals taking advantage of the Cuban Adjustment Act to come to the U.S. and steal more than $2 billion over two decades.

A year-long Sun Sentinel investigation found money stolen in the United States streaming back to Cuba, and a revolving door that allows thieves to come here, make a quick buck and return.

The 1966 act gives Cubans extraordinary benefits unavailable to other immigrant groups: even Cubans arriving without permission can stay and become legal residents in just a year.

That makes it easier for the organized rings to rob Medicare, cheat credit card companies, and rip off auto insurers in schemes that can yield large sums with little risk of significant jail time, the newspaper found. Thieves and illicit money flow between Florida and its communist neighbor, aided by a law enacted as a gesture of good will a half century ago.

The law was adopted to help Cubans escape the Castro government, not "create a pipeline for sophisticated financial fraud," Deutch wrote. "Yet crime rings in South Florida are using our humanitarian policy to successfully send cash and criminals back to the island without fear that the Cuban regime will extradite these fugitives."

He urged the Justice Department to consider the issue in its negotiations with Cuba on reestablishing diplomatic relations. "Given the extent of the criminal activity described by the Sun Sentinel, I hope you agree that the issue of fugitives must be addressed during talks underway between the United States and Cuba."

Deutch asked Lynch to update him "on this critical issue." She took office in April, replacing Eric Holder, who resigned.

Diplomats from the U.S. and Cuba are scheduled to meet Thursday in Washington to continue discussions on establishing formal embassies in the two countries and creating greater avenues for cooperation. This historic move to restore diplomatic relations was announced by President Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro five months ago.

The State Department has said it will meet with Cuban officials on law enforcement matters such as the return of fugitives to the U.S., but no date has been set for those discussions.

U.S. authorities, including many members of Congress, have been eager to recover several high-profile American citizens who fled to Cuba decades ago after hijacking planes or committing murder, such as New Jersey cop killer Joanne Chesimard.

Dozens of Cuban citizens have also returned to their homeland to escape U.S. justice for financial or other crimes.

The FBI estimates that up to 50 health care fraud fugitives fled to Cuba in the past decade. The Sun Sentinel, through court documents and interviews, determined that at least 50 more fled to the island, escaping other fraud or marijuana cultivation charges.

As part of its year-long investigation, the Sun Sentinel traveled to the island and found two fugitives living openly: one wanted in a $1 million Texas credit card fraud case and another sought in the cargo heist of $180,000 in nickels from the U.S. Federal Reserve.

Florida's Marco Rubio and two other U.S. senators asked Holder in January for the names of all fugitives thought to be in Cuba and copies of their indictments. There's been no reply.

A Justice Department spokesman said Wednesday that the department is working on a response to the senators' inquiry, which asked for information dating back years.

The Sun Sentinel reported in February that the United States has no way of tracking all fugitives in Cuba, and most prosecutors don't bother to seek extradition because the chances of success are so low. Cuba has returned to the U.S. only four fugitives – all non-Cubans -- since 2011.

Other members of Congress have been pressing the Obama Administration about Cuban crime rings operating in the United States.

In March, leaders of a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee wrote to National Security Advisor Susan Rice, asking, among other questions, whether the Castro government played a role in plundering U.S. government programs and businesses.

"Is there any evidence that the Cuban Government is directly sponsoring, facilitating, enabling, supporting or training Cuban criminals to engage in crimes, such as Medicare fraud, insurance fraud, credit card fraud, and narcotics trafficking against the U.S.," wrote subcommittee Chairman Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, a Republican, and New Jersey's Albio Sires, the ranking Democrat.

A State Department official replied but did not directly address the question. The renewal of diplomatic relations and the re-opening of an embassy will enable the U.S. to "more effectively press the Cuban government on law enforcement issues," including fugitives, responded Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs Julia Frifield.

Rep. Duncan held a hearing in February on the national security implications of the plan to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba, noting his concerns over the "criminal pipeline from Cuba to Florida."