Did Fla. bank go too far in laundering sting?


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The Sun Trust bank in Bal Harbour, Fla., is in the glare of a money-laundering spotlight, and so are law enforcement officials in Bal Harbour and in Glades County.

As we reported in this blog a few weeks ago, Miami Herald reporter Michael Sallah led a team of reporters that exposed a massive and questionable money-laundering sting operation by law enforcement there, and now Sallah and authorities have turned their focus to the role of Sun Trust Bank of Bal Harbour.

Sallah describes New York cash drops of hundreds of thousands in drug money given to the undercover Florida cops as part of their big-money sting operation—an operation that burned through the profits from the laundered cash but netted no arrests. The Sun Trust branch in Bal Harbour worked with city and county law enforcement to move the cash into the banking system. And Sun Trust also facilitated the movement of the laundered cash into offshore accounts in banks in Panama and elsewhere.

The Miami Herald report notes that while banks may be enlisted by law enforcement to assist in a money-laundering sting, U.S. policy prohibits cooperating banks from moving laundered sting money offshore. Ivan Morales, the branch manager of Sun Trust, allegedly helped local operatives launder over $70 million, about $10 million of which was moved by Sun Trust to banks in other countries through correspondent banks through 180 payment transactions.

Morales left Sun Trust last year as questions mounted about the nature of the sting operation and the lack of record-keeping and accounting details. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has been asked to investigate the branch bank and its relation to the task force. Of special interest is the whereabouts of hundreds of thousands of dollars from the laundering operation that were withdrawn by participants without appropriate record-keeping.

Sallah reports that the task force skimmed nearly $2.5 million in laundering commissions as part of their sting operations, and the rest of the $70 million was returned to the criminals conducting the illegal activities. Only minimal record-keeping exists for the spending of the $2.5 million, and much of that money is believed to have been spent by taskforce members on luxury travel, accommodations, expensive restaurants, and so on. The bank was also paid for its role, allowable by Florida law, in processing the cash and for allowing the authorities to set up accounts using false identities and shell companies.

Authorities unrelated to the sting operation are now investigating the behavior of the officers involved and are investigating the role of Morales and Sun Trust. According to this recent report, Morales has not yet made himself available to answer questions for authorities nor has Sun Trust yet cooperated in the investigatory proceedings or requests for information. Neither is implicated in any criminal concerns at present; rather, investigators are trying to piece together the scope and actions of the task force and to track the laundered money used to fund the operation.