Federal investigators have seized more than $22 million in deposit accounts at Florida's BankAtlantic Bancorp as part of an investigation of a major international money-laundering scheme involving two former bank officials.
"Every time we open a door there is another door," said Pamela Brown, special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration's Miami office. "This is a large investigation with large dollars involved, and we'll see what it will lead us to."
The seizure of funds occurred earlier this month after the 1,100 accounts, acquired in a merger 18 months ago, were frozen for about 10 days to allow law enforcement officials to investigate them. About one-third, or 348 of them, were found to contain laundered money, DEA officials alleged.
The investigation, conducted by both the U.S. Customs Service and the DEA, was made public in early June, when the vice president of the bank's international division and her assistant were arrested and charged with bank and wire fraud.
DEA officials allege that the two, Piedad Ortiz and Lucia Ramirez, were involved in the scheme for between four and seven years. Investigators believe they are linked with the laundering of drug proceeds from cocaine cartels based in Bogota, Colombia.
During nearly all of the period in question, the two defendants were employed by Megabank, a Miami institution BankAtlantic acquired in February 1995. Shortly after buying the bank, BankAtlantic officials detected suspicious activity - namely the transfer of large sums of undocumented money - and contacted the Customs Service.
The investigation could head in several different directions now. For example, a Customs Service official alleged that former Megabank chairman Chuck Cantor was instrumental in having BankAtlantic contract Sergocor, a Bogota courier service which - unbeknownst to BankAtlantic officials - operated almost like a branch of the thrift.
"Right now there is no information that directly leads to him, but we are certainly looking at anyone that Ortiz worked for or closely with," said Ms. Brown.
What's more, Sergocor, believed to be the Bogota link in the laundering scheme, "handles courier pouches for other American financial institutions," according to an affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Miami, implying that other American institutions may be involved, either knowingly or unknowingly.