The publisher of a leading newsletter on money laundering coordinated a team that obtained confidential government information to help a wealthy Venezuelan banker who has been described in U.S. State Department cables as a money launderer for drug cartels, according to congressional investigators and documents obtained by The Washington Post.
Charles Intriago, 57, a Miami lawyer and former federal prosecutor, launched the effort on behalf of banker Orlando Castro-Llanes, 73, who in 1997 was convicted of bank fraud in Manhattan. He was Intriago's sole legal client, and he bankrolled Intriago's newsletter, Money Laundering Alert, with $80,000 in 1989.
Intriago is the well-known host of a biennial national money-laundering conference that attracts authorities from the Justice Department, Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Customs Service and the FBI. Federal officials fly in at government expense and they buy Intriago's highly respected newsletter--$345 for 12 issues--to learn the latest on money laundering.
Intriago, who is also a Democratic National Committee trustee, relied on his government connections to help in a vast effort to purge law enforcement files of information linking Castro-Llanes to drug trafficking. Between 1991 and 1995, he hired a team of former federal officials and investigators who obtained the identities and personal data of confidential government informants, according to internal documents, prosecutors' records and interviews with former Intriago employees.
The Post obtained a copy of a chronology that Intriago kept detailing the team's efforts. Assistant Manhattan District Attorney John W. Moscow sent the chronology to federal prosecutors in 1996 saying it detailed "an apparent conspiracy to obstruct justice."
Now the House Government Reform Committee is preparing to issue a report that supports the contention of Manhattan prosecutors that Intriago misused his federal connections and violated privacy and campaign finance laws, according to a draft of the committee's report obtained by The Post.
The committee's investigation started with an allegation that Intriago coordinated $50,000 in illegal campaign contributions made by two of Castro-Llanes's relatives to the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign. The matter was referred to the Justice Department, but Manhattan prosecutors and the committee contend that Justice failed to act.
Intriago, who refused to testify before the committee during a public hearing in 1998, citing his Fifth Amendment rights, denied in an interview making illegal campaign contributions or committing any violations to get information for his client.
"I engaged in an effort to clear a well-financed, vile smear campaign against Orlando Castro-Llanes," Intriago, who was an aide to the late Rep. Dante B. Fascell (D-Fla.), told The Post. "We were aggressive, but we did everything by the book. I will go to my grave knowing Castro-Llanes is the victim of a smear campaign."
Castro-Llanes is currently under house arrest in Venezuela, facing bank-fraud charges. Richard Sharpstein, his Miami attorney, said the allegations against his client were "totally without merit."
Committee Chairman Dan Burton (R-Ind.) said he was "very troubled" by Justice's handling of the Intriago case because "Mr. Intriago illegally obtained confidential law enforcement information on behalf of a client suspected of laundering drug money."
Castro-Llanes, once one of the wealthiest men in Latin America, unsuccessfully attempted in 1990 to buy the prestigious Banco de Venezuela. The board of Banco de Venezuela paid Thor Halvorssen, Venezuela's controversial government drug czar, $1.2 million to investigate whether Castro-Llanes was using drug money.
Halvorssen concluded that Castro-Llanes was laundering drug money. Intriago counters that Halvorssen ran a "smear campaign" and fed lies to U.S. officials.
Castro-Llanes's troubles in the United States began in 1991, when a $1 million account controlled by a Castro-Llanes bank was frozen in a U.S. Customs Service money laundering investigation in New York.
To clear his name, Castro-Llanes turned to Intriago, who put together a team: a retired judge, a former federal prosecutor and a former senior CIA officer as well as former officials from the Customs Service, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the IRS, the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve. Intriago also contracted Philip Manuel Resource Group, a Washington-based investigative firm.
The team met with federal prosecutors in New York, who later unfroze the $1 million account. Philip Manuel and two others met with DEA Administrator Robert Bonner in Washington on Aug. 12, 1992, to "request cleansing of DEA files," the Intriago chronology states. "Bonner declines."
The team approached several different federal agencies and eventually obtained DEA intelligence on Castro-Llanes and the names of at least four confidential Customs informants against Castro-Llanes, according to committee documents and sources and former Intriago employees.
A report written by congressional investigators for the Burton committee and obtained by The Post alleges that Robert Van Etten, then the Customs Service's special agent in charge in Manhattan, "sent confidential U.S. Customs Service memorandums to Intriago on an informant" who was jailed in Venezuela.
In a telephone interview, Van Etten called allegation "absolutely untrue" and said, "I never did that."
Customs sources told The Post the sealed envelopes containing the informant names were removed from the Customs Service safe and opened without authorization. One of the informants was named in the Venezuelan press, prompting death threats. One lost his job. One was arrested and beaten in Caracas. And the last one died of natural causes.
The team obtained telephone records and credit histories on the informants, according to Manuel's internal documents. It also got the personal phone records of a customs agent and the credit card records of a U.S. official stationed in Caracas.
An internal memo that an investigator sent to Manuel details specific prices for pulling bank records, credit histories and telephone records. Such information is available only through a court-issued subpoena, which was never obtained.
Edward V. Hickey, Manuel's lawyer, said his client had followed "standard investigative procedure" to get the information. "That sort of information was available through the early 1990s through information brokers throughout the country," Hickey said.
Intriago said he did not know how or why the records were obtained but said he would not "even remotely acquiesce" to illegal acts or engage in any threats.
Intriago's team soon sprang a leak of its own.
Richard Lucas, a former IRS agent working for Manuel in Miami, audited one of Castro-Llanes's bank's New York accounts in October 1993 in an attempt to prove that it was clean. But Lucas concluded that most of the $4 billion passed through the account was "suspicious transactions and laundered money," according to a sworn affidavit Lucas gave committee investigators.
Lucas told Manuel, who told Intriago. Lucas and Manuel, in separate statements to the committee, said they asked Intriago to alert law enforcement. But Intriago did not. He told The Post he felt Lucas was "completely wrong," mistaking routine currency transactions for money laundering.
In December 1993, Lucas met with customs agents in New York. When Intriago found out, he fired Manuel, according to Lucas and Manuel.
Manuel would later state in an affidavit that Lucas, using the name "Bob Roberts," secretly sold internal documents on Castro-Llanes to Halvorssen for $35,000.
Lucas denies it. But Halvorssen acknowledged paying for the documents in late 1994 and passing the information to Robert Morganthau, Manhattan district attorney.
On April 3, 1996, Morganthau charged Castro-Llanes, his son and grandson with defrauding depositors in Venezuela and Puerto Rico of $55 million.
By then Castro-Llanes was living in Miami. His banks failed when Venezuela's banking system collapsed in 1994.
Castro-Llanes, his son and grandson were convicted in Manhattan in 1997. Castro-Llanes served 25 months in prison, then voluntarily returned to Venezuela, where he awaits trial on charges of bank fraud and embezzlement.
Morganthau's prosecutors came across a $50,000 campaign contribution to the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign from Castro-Llanes's grandson and another relative. Intriago had asked the relatives, who are U.S. citizens, to make the contributions and then Castro-Llanes reimbursed them, according to documents obtained by prosecutors. Castro-Llanes's grandson alleged that Intriago coordinated the scheme.
Intriago said the contributions were made voluntarily with no promise of reimbursement.
Intriago has been a Democratic National Committee trustee since 1992, personally giving $63,000 to the DNC from February 1992 to December 1993. In October 1993, Intriago arranged for Castro-Llanes to meet with President Clinton at the White House and have a picture taken with him.
A Justice Department spokesman said the department would not comment on why no action was taken on Morganthau's referral because of the House committee's ongoing investigation.
Meanwhile, Intriago's conferences continue to attract top names in law enforcement.
In April, the group of "federal faculty" listed for Intriago's conference at Miami's Fontainebleau Hilton included officials from the FBI, Justice, the Customs Service and the Office of the Comptroller of Currency.
"He runs a good conference," said Gerald McDowell, Justice's money-laundering chief. "All I can say is I like the guy."
Staff writer Charles R. Babcock and researcher Robert Thomason contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Orlando Castro-Llanes, left, was Charles Intriago's only client.