A second Washington firm that offers savings accounts to Spanish-speaking depositors and does not have a bank charter or federal deposit insurance told its customers yesterday that they do not have access to their cash.
Casa Latinoamericano de Inversiones (Latin American House of Investments) opened its doors at 1520 U St. NW early yesterday to a crowd of about 30 customers who said they came to withdraw their cash from the firm because of financial problems that arose last week with another, unrelated firm called Latin Investment Corp.
Casa shut down after a few hours Friday because it could not meet the demands of dozens of depositors seeking to close their accounts, said Elsie Hernandez, who works as a teller and bookkeeper at Casa. The firm did not reopen on Saturday, as scheduled.
Yesterday, Casa employees blamed Riggs National Bank for its cash problems, saying its account at Riggs had been frozen. A Riggs spokesman said the bank had "inadvertently" blocked access to Casa's funds, but corrected the mistake. It could not be determined whether the account was sufficient to meet Casa customers' demands.
"There is great concern within the District government that there is an underground economy out there that is only just coming to our attention," said Joseph Lopes, deputy general counsel of the D.C. Office of Banking and Financial Institutions.
"We are doing everything we can to fill the gaps in our enforcement to ensure that this economy does not unravel," he said.
Hernandez and several customers said Casa offered savings accounts, check cashing, wire transfers and loans to its customers, most of whom are Central American immigrants who are unfamiliar with the U.S. banking system.
But both Hernandez and Teofilo Ayala, who is listed as secretary of the company in city records, said Casa has no permits other than a certificate of incorporation and a certificate of occupancy. The firm was incorporated in 1986, and city records show its business only as "check cashing."
Businesses that offer check-cashing services must have a permit issued by the D.C. Office of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, Lopes said. Any business that makes loans and accepts deposits must have a bank charter.
Lopes said he has no information about Casa or its services and has received no complaints regarding its operation.
Hernandez said Casa has about 500 customers, with total deposits of $500,000. She said Casa has outstanding loans amounting to about $300,000 and investments in U.S. Treasury bills and certificates of deposit.
Yesterday, workers standing behind a three-inch-thick plexiglass window told the concerned customers that Casa has their money in an account at Riggs National Bank, but it could not be withdrawn because Riggs has frozen Casa's assets, pending an investigation into Casa's activities by Riggs officials.
"We were told this morning that they are investigating to see if we have any connection with Latin Investment," Hernandez said.
Latin Investment also had several accounts at Riggs. A source said the Latin Investment accounts have "next to nothing in them."
A spokesman with Riggs said yesterday evening that Casa's account had "inadvertently" been frozen and that the funds were made available about 4 p.m.
A business associate, who asked not to be identified, said the president of Casa, Jose E. Polio, once worked for Latin Investment, but opened his own competing firm when he saw how lucrative the business was.
Latin Investment closed Nov. 29. Its 2,000 known depositors have presented records showing they had deposited $13 million with the firm.
But in an interview with The Washington Post yesterday, Fernando Leonzo, the firm's president, said, "That figure is wrong, completely wrong." He did not answer other questions.
Latin Investment has been under investigation by federal and local authorities for more than two years, but has never been prohibited from doing business.
Lopes said District agencies will hold meetings throughout the week to determine how to address the crisis with Latin Investment.
Brian Leitch, a lawyer who has volunteered to represent Latin Investment customers, said he is holding meetings and trying to reach Leonzo to negotiate.
In a scene that was repeated a week earlier in front of Latin Investment, several of Casa's customers expressed fear and dismay over the fate of their money.
Paulina Perez, who works as a maid in the District, was planning to return to Guatemala in January, taking with her the $12,000 she has saved since she came to this country three years ago.
"I don't know what I'm going to do," she said shortly before breaking down in tears in the midst of the crowd.