Yugoslav Consul General Indicted in Money Laundering
PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ The arrest of Yugoslavia’s consul general in Chicago and four others on money laundering charges shows the Eastern Bloc’s ″desperate″ need for U.S. technology and currency, America’s top customs official said.
The 17-month sting operation culminated Thursday with the announcement of a 21-count indictment naming the five men and LBS Bank of New York Inc., the U.S. branch of a Yugoslavian bank.
U.S. Customs Commissioner William von Raab said Bahrudin Bijedic, the Yugoslavian consul general in Chicago, may have been acting under the instructions of superiors, but said authorities had no evidence to that effect.
Undercover agents gave nearly $1.5 million in cash to the men to be laundered in eight alleged transactions, officials said. The men, who believed the money came from organized crime and was to pay for exporting restricted high technology and military equipment, helped conceal its origin by depositing the cash abroad, then wiring it electronically back to U.S. bank accounts, officials said.
″I hope that this investigation will serve as a notice to other government agencies that the East Bloc is still desperate to get its hands not only on our high technology, but our hard currency,″ von Raab said.
In at least one transaction, Bijedic provided the men with diplomatic stickers that forbade U.S. officials from opening suitcases containing $500,000 in small bills, according to the Customs Service.
″The use of diplomatic or consular pouches is a serious problem with respect to high-tech diversions and obviously, here now, it’s been seen to be a possible money-laundering device,″ von Raab said.
The Yugoslav Embassy in Washington said today that its officials are ″deeply shocked by the arrest of the Yugoslav consul general in Chicago Mr. Bahrudin Bijedic. We are distressed that something like that could happen to a diplomatic officer and that any diplomat might provide grounds for such allegations.″
The embassy emphasized its desire for good relations with the United States and said: ″The Department of State made clear that the action was directed solely at the individuals named in the indictment and not against the Yugoslav diplomatic and consular missions in the United States and the Yugoslav government.
″The embassy strongly rejects the insinuations on the part of the media (against) the good name of the Yugoslav diplomats in this country and against the Yugoslav government,″ it said.
Indicted were Bijedic, 52; Vjekoslov Spanjol, 31, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Texas; Vinko Mir, 54, chairman of LBS Bank; Hubert Francis Cole, 44, of Carrollton, Texas; and Larry Card, 50, of Chattanooga, Tenn.
The indictment also named LBS Bank, which had assets of nearly $10 billion at the end of last year, customs officials said.
All five men were charged with violating currency reporting laws, the arms export and control act, and conspiracy, customs officials said.
Officials chose Philadelphia as a meeting site for many of the contacts during the sting because they felt it was less conspicuous than other cities.
Cole and Spanjol were arrested around 12:30 p.m. Thursday at the Philadelphia International Airport as they allegedly tried to ship $2 million in money from the undercover agents to Chicago, where Bijedic planned to move the money to Yugoslavia under the protection of a diplomatic seal, customs officials said.
Bijedic was arrested at a small airport in Wheeling, Ill., north of Chicago, Thursday afternoon as he waited for the private plane to arrive from Philadelphia with the cash, said Michael Sheehan, Customs spokesman in Philadelphia.
Mir was arrested Thursday afternoon in New York, about the same time agents arrested Card in Chattanooga, officials said.
Bijedic is not protected by diplomatic immunity for an indictment this serious, said Michael M. Baylson, U.S. Attorney in Philadelphia.
If convicted, Cole faces up to 230 years in jail and a $10.6 million fine, officials said. Spanjol faces up to 100 years in jail and a $5.1 million fine if convicted, and Bijedic, Card and Mir face up to five years in jail and a $250,000 fine. LBS Bank could be fined up to $500,000.