Miami Bribery Probe Zeroes in on Aristide
The feds in Miami are focusing on Haiti’s ex-president for his alleged role in a money-laundering plot involving phone contracts.
Former Haiti President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is once again in the cross hairs of the U.S. government, this time for allegedly pocketing millions of dollars in bribes from Miami businesses that brokered long-distance phone deals with Haiti’s government-owned telecommunications company, according to court records and legal sources.
Aristide is not identified by name in a recent federal indictment charging four South Florida business people and two former Haitian government officials. But defense attorneys say “Official B” referenced in the corruption- and money-laundering indictment is indeed the ex-president.
According to the indictment, Official B and senior officials of Haiti Teleco, the telecommunications company owned by Haiti’s Central Bank, allegedly received payments totaling about $2.3 million from Miami businesses Cinergy Telecommunications and Uniplex Telecom Technologies. The businesses are accused of using “shell” companies to kick back the money to those officials.
Aristide’s lawyer, Ira Kurzban, declined to comment about the Justice Department’s investigation because the ex-president hasn’t been charged with any crime. But, Kurzban said: “I view this as part of the same smear campaign that the United States has orchestrated against Aristide since he was first elected in 1990.”
The indictment alleges that the bribes were passed to Aristide via “Company A,” a reference to Digitek, a suspected front owned by Aristide’s brother-in-law, Lesly Lavelanet. He could not be reached for comment at his Coral Springs home.
Since an earlier related indictment was returned by a federal grand jury in 2009, a dozen South Florida business people and Haitian officials have been charged in the high-profile case, alleging the payment of kickbacks in exchange for discounted long-distance phone rates. Profits from those lower rates were pocketed by the Haitian officials — not the government’s phone company. So far, seven of those defendants have been convicted of corruption or money laundering, including Patrick Joseph, who pleaded guilty in February to accepting bribes. Joseph is cooperating with Justice Department lawyers and is a crucial witness in the investigation of Aristide, according to sources familiar with the case.
Joseph, who served as Aristide’s director general of Haiti Teleco in March 2001 to June 2003, has told U.S. authorities that he shared some of those kickbacks with the former president, the sources said. Joseph’s father, Venel Joseph, appointed by Aristide, was the governor of the Bank of Haiti, the central bank, during that period and is referenced in the indictment as “Official A.’’
The Central Bank was used to distribute the kickbacks paid by the Miami businesses, the indictment says.
Patrick Joseph’s Miami attorneys, Guy Lewis and Richard Dansoh, declined to comment. Justice Department officials also would not comment.
At Joseph’s plea hearing last month, a prosecutor said “half” — or $1 million — of the alleged kickbacks were “intended” for “Official B, an official in the executive branch of the Haitian government.”
“In exchange for these bribes, Official B and Joseph provided Uniplex and Cinergy with various business advantages, including an exclusive agreement to market certain calling cards at a favorable rate,” Justice Department lawyer James Koukios said in court.
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