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u.s. business and money laundering by Oriana Zill and Lowell Bergman

 


Zill was a producer and Bergman was series reporter for FRONTLINE's "Drug Wars" series
The list of invitees read like the Fortune 500. Quietly, privately in June of 2000, an exclusive group of 20 people representing Hewlett Packard, Ford, Sony, General Motors, Whirlpool, General Electric and their trade associations gathered in Washington DC to meet with Attorney General Janet Reno and Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat. The press was neither invited nor notified.

The reason for the low profile meeting, and follow up sessions through the summer, was neither anti-trust policy nor some new tax proposal. Federal law enforcement was sharpening its focus on the flow of billions in narcotics money into legitimate commerce and trade. And for the first time, corporate America was worried about becoming targets in the thirty year "War on Drugs."

"The meeting was called to try and educate companies about how they are being victimized in the drug money laundering process and to enlist their help," says Allan Doody of US Customs, who is on the US government's Black Market Peso Exchange Working Group. "The government realizes it cannot arrest its way out of this problem." The companies were invited to the meeting at Main Justice based on a government analysis of what products show up in Colombia as part of the black market peso system.

Most of these companies know they're getting paid with money from the black market. In recent years, many large US businesses have been warned by US government officials to change the way they do business in Colombia and other Latin American and Caribbean nations because they had received "black peso" dollars, according to Customs and DEA officials.

The companies become involved when international money brokers, working in league with drug traffickers, sell cheap American dollars, proceeds of the drug trade, to Colombian importers of appliances, cigarettes, liquor and other products. They use those dollars to buy legitimate goods in the United States from top US companies and their distributors. The money brokers often pay for the goods in strange ways, like wire transfers from unrelated third parties, which should set off some kind of alarm among the legitimate companies, according to the US Department of Treasury.

The government has undertaken hundreds of civil actions to seize portions of bank accounts of US companies because money in those accounts was linked to the laundering of drug proceeds. In some instances the government has been successful in holding on to the money; in others, the companies have been able to get their money back after arguing in court that they couldn't have known about the source of the funds.

Some companies insist that they are helpless to stop the payments, which often come through a distributor. When the problem came to the attention of General Electric, however, it began actively negotiating with the government about ways to address the problem.

"Our concern about the Black Market Peso Exchange grew in the 1990's, specifically when a New York Times story in December of 1995, discussed new ways of money laundering that referred to GE refrigerators as one method," says Scott Gilbert, a lawyer for General Electric.

"GE is considered to be a good corporate citizen," says Allan J. Doody of US Customs. "They have gone out of their way to be a leader in this process."

Another company that has become tangled with the drug money issue is Phillip Morris. In 1995, in Federal District Court in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Phillip Morris's former distributors in northern South America were indicted for laundering $40 million in black market pesos. One of the defense lawyers said the defendants didn't know the money was drug profits. Phillip Morris severed its relationship with the defendants and stated it didn't know black market pesos were used to buy their products.

In 2000, Phillip Morris was sued by Colombian tax collectors accusing the company of being involved in cigarette smuggling and in the laundering of drug money. Phillip Morris has denied the allegations and stated it was unaware that its products were being used in money laundering. Later in 2000, without admitting wrongdoing, the company signed an agreement with Colombia, pledging to prevent its products from entering the black market or being used in money laundering.

When companies have money frozen, some do not contest it; some settle out of court and some choose to allow the government to keep at least part of the money that was traced to illegal activity. Others go to court and fight rather than negotiate.

In a recent US Customs case based out of Mobile, Alabama, the affidavit shows the freezing of $335,800 from a Bell Helicopter bank account at the Chase Manhattan Bank.

Bell Helicopter is currently fighting the seizure in court and has stated in court documents that they do not believe the money to be drug money and, if it is proven to be drug money, that they are unwitting victims in the the Black Market Peso Exchange (BMPE).

US Customs, DEA and other government officials say that they find it difficult to believe that some employees of these companies, especially those closest to the transactions, do not know that the money in their accounts was coming from the BMPE. In most of these cases, the illegal money was wired into the bank accounts by multiple third parties in small amounts, or the money was received through third party checks, neither of which are common business practices in the United States.

"Law enforcement and these companies are on a collision course right now because there's a legal principle called Willful Blindness, which means if you totally disregard all the facts and circumstances that would lead you to believe and know that this is illegal money, that's the same as knowing it's illegal money," says former IRS investigator Michael McDonald. "So what's the responsibility of these companies when they know they're getting paid with black market dollars? Most of these companies know that they're getting paid with money that comes from the black market. And the black market is fueled by the drug trade."

By all estimates the BMPE -- really a network of brokers with offices in Miami and New York and in South America -- has spurred US exports transforming the balance of payments between the US and Colombia to US advantage. Last year, the US enjoyed a $4 billion surplus in exports to the beleaguered nation.

"What are we going to do?" asks Greg Passic, a veteran DEA official who pioneered international money laundering investigations. "We've got the Fortune 500 involved in our drug money laundering process. In some ways we are getting some of our drug monies at least back into our economy. But that's a dilemma. Now what do we do?"

The US government last year began a campaign to educate US manufacturers and distributors that they risk forfeiture and possible indictment if they are caught knowingly participating in the black market money laundering schemes. The US government encouraged companies such as General Electric to adopt stricter controls over their distributors and "know your customer" policies similar to those now in place in the bank and insurance industries.

"For the past two years, US Customs and other agencies have worked diligently to educate the US manufacturing and export communities about this form of money laundering," says US Customs Service Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly. "To their credit, many major US companies have begun taking action to guard against the Black Market Peso Exchange."

But that action can have negative business consequences. General Electric says that their customers are their distributors. They told FRONTLINE that they imposed new policies with their distributors, including not allowing distributors to export out of the country. As a result, their sales to South Florida between 1995 and 1999 decreased by about 25 percent. "We have even had to terminate some of our distributors for not complying with the policy of not exporting from their area," says Scot Gilbert of GE.

Whirlpool at one point stopped exporting any appliances to Colombia because of the money laundering system. They now will sell only to their own licensed distributor in Colombia.

Many US companies balk at the government's efforts because they say they cannot control every distributor in America or prevent them from re-selling their products for export to South America.

But the government has put these companies on notice that, once educated, they cannot claim to not know about the BMPE and that the source of the funds was illegitimate. Some large companies have signed agreements stating that they are now aware of the BMPE and will institute preventive measures, according government sources. Once they have signed this document, they will not be able to claim innocence if their money is seized again.

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