Originally created 02/25/02

Where cash launderers can meet their hunters



MIAMI BEACH, Fla. - A walk through the cavernous banquet room at the Fontainebleau Hotel offers a clear indication that this is not your typical South Florida convention.

For starters, not everyone wears a name tag. And among the convention materials is the slogan "You can't play the game if you don't know the rules."

The game is money laundering. And, this week, the Fontainebleau became a headquarters of sorts for those who do it and those who want to catch those who do it.

Turning ill-gotten gains into legitimate cash is as old as money itself, but the attacks of Sept. 11 and the legislation that followed have changed the landscape for everyone from bankers to travel agents.

So more than 800 people have come here, to a town that became synonymous with money laundering in the cocaine-cartel-fueled 1980s, for the Seventh Annual International Money Laundering Conference.

They are gathered in a hotel trapped in time somewhere between Jackie Gleason and Meyer Lansky. A place where every U.S. president since Dwight Eisenhower has stayed, but also where mobsters mingled with strippers in the infamous "Boom Boom Room" of the 1970s.

The conference guest list includes investigators from as close as Miami and as far away as Scotland Yard. There are bankers from Macedonia and money exchangers from Haiti. And, according to conference host Charles Intriago, there are undoubtedly a few among those who paid $1,500 in tuition who would rather not flaunt their identities.

"What? You get a crowd of (hundreds) here, they're not all going to be Mother Teresa," said Intriago, a Ecuador-born Miami lawyer who founded a newsletter on money-laundering issues in 1989 and has watched it grow beyond his imagination.

He explained that his conference serves a legitimate purpose: educating banks, police and the public on the latest in money-laundering techniques and laws. Anything he and his panels of government and retired government experts teach has already been exploited by the bad guys, Intriago said.

"Ivan Boesky read the Wall Street Journal, didn't he?" Intriago asked, referring to the notorious inside trader of the 1980s. "All we do is provide information, just like the Wall Street Journal. Only with a much smaller circulation."

Back in 1989, when Intriago first put out his Money Laundering Alert newsletter, his friends thought he was crazy.

"It's a fad, they said," Intriago recalled. "This will all pass and you're going to lose your shirt."

But the art of money laundering, and a desire to track those who try to hide the proceeds of crime, flourished. After revelations that the Sept. 11 hijackers had easily moved money into and out of U.S. banks, including Florida's SunTrust, Congress and several states passed laws that force broad new responsibilities on banks and, for the first time, securities dealers.

In his resort-casual shirt and hoop earrings, Ronald Roberts stands out among the blue suits and wing tips at Seminar 3: "Money Laundering in the Securities Industry."

But Roberts, compliance officer for Chase Bank in the U.S. Virgin Islands, is all business.

"I had to come to keep up with the developments since Sept. 11," Roberts said. "We really have to be on the lookout more than ever now."

As a result of the USA Patriot Act, enacted and signed in October, banks, stockbrokers and even jewelry stores and boat dealers will be required to take a more active role in recognizing and reporting large cash transactions and suspicious patterns.

Those changes are still being drafted at agencies like the Department of the Treasury, the Internal Revenue Service and the National Association of Securities Dealers, but retired IRS agent Michael McDonald nicely summed up the new responsibilities for a crowd of 600 at his seminar, "Basic Training on Money Laundering":

"If you think that transaction stinks, it stinks."