Saturday, October 13, 2007

Florida Travel Trial: Phony Religious Licenses

Two to be sentenced for Cuba travel ban violation



Posing as men of the cloth, businessman Victor Vazquez and his wealthy friend David Margolis flew back and forth to Cuba by cleverly exploiting a religious loophole in the long-standing travel ban to the communist island nation.

But on the afternoon of Dec. 13, 2006, a team of U.S. Treasury and Customs agents finally caught up with them upon their return to Miami International Airport.

When asked about the Fort Lauderdale waterfront home that he used as a ''church'' to obtain his religious license, Margolis admitted, ``You have me dead to rights.''

Vazquez, at first defensive, admitted he assisted Margolis in preparing his application and that ''he knew the church did not exist,'' agents said.

Vazquez, 40, of Delray Beach, and Margolis, 76, of Fort Lauderdale, would soon become the nation's first defendants to be charged with illegally obtaining religious travel licenses to get around the 44-year-old travel ban to Cuba.

Vazquez, who had obtained five such licenses illegally, profited by selling his permits to thousands of Cuban Americans seeking to dodge restrictions that became even tighter under the Bush administration.

Last month, a court presentencing report said Vazquez sold the use of his licenses to 6,500 travelers -- estimating the government's ''loss'' and his ''gain'' at $975,000. His attorney, Celeste Higgins, called it a ''reckless estimate.'' She said the government suffered no loss and Vazquez pocketed between $120,000 and $400,000, citing his plea deal.

Vazquez and Margolis, who recently pleaded guilty, will be sentenced Friday and Monday, respectively, in Miami federal court. Vazquez could face up to three years in prison for conspiring to defraud the U.S. government. Margolis, convicted of a lesser charge of filing a false government application, faces up to six months but could get probation.

The year-long investigation -- which also led to the conviction of Vazquez's ex-wife and a Hialeah travel agent -- revealed a profitable scheme that allowed thousands of Cuban Americans to shuttle to and from the island. It has spawned other investigations by a U.S. attorney's task force targeting violators of the trade embargo against Cuba.

In the case of Vazquez and Margolis, it was all done in the name of God -- at least on paper.


The case against Vazquez began in January 2006 when investigators with the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control found an extraordinary number of people had traveled on his permits -- and many of them didn't live anywhere near his licensed ``churches.''

Such licenses represent one of the few exemptions that allow travel to Cuba under the U.S. trade embargo. They gained greater value in 2004 after President Bush imposed new rules allowing only one trip to Cuba every three years to visit an immediate family member.

Federal agents discovered that Vazquez obtained religious travel licenses from the Treasury agency ''under false pretenses,'' according to a criminal complaint filed in February by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Agents learned that Vazquez, who was living with his ex-wife Kekalani Vazquez in Winter Garden in Central Florida, had first applied for a religious license in March 2004. The application sought the license under The First Church of Christ, using the Vazquez's residence as its address.

The religious information was false.

Treasury officials estimated that more than 2,000 people traveled to Cuba on Vazquez's religious license through April 2006, when it expired. Vazquez took 45 trips to the island himself, the ICE complaint says.

That's when Margolis entered the picture.

On March 17, 2006, Vazquez turned to his friend to apply for a religious license for travel to Cuba on behalf of Assumption Church of Christ. Margolis signed the application, listed his $1.7 million waterfront home on Middle River Drive as the church's address and noted that it ''has 2,954 members and four directors,'' according to the complaint.

His lawyer, Richard Rosenbaum, said his client made five trips to Cuba with the license, but didn't do any religious work.

''They weren't going over there to research churches,'' Rosenbaum said.

Vazquez fabricated four other phony ministries with bogus addresses in Florida and elsewhere to apply for religious licenses for travel to Cuba. He also enlisted his ex-wife in the scheme. Kekalani Vazquez recently pleaded guilty and faces up to six months in prison.

More than 4,500 people paid up to $200 to travel on three of Vazquez's religious licenses between April 2006 and January 2007, the ICE complaint said.

Among the local travel agencies that handled the arrangements was Super Cuba Travel of Hialeah. One of its sales people, Yury Rodriquez, pleaded guilty this summer.

His attorney, Hugo Rodriguez, no relation, said 1,010 people used Super Cuba to travel under Vazquez's religious license. Vazquez charged between $120 and $200 for the use of his permit. All that money went to him, the lawyer said.

''There was no loss to any victim or the government,'' Rodriguez said, estimating that his client made $20,200 in fees for booking the Cuba flights with a carrier. He faces up to six months' imprisonment.

During their illegal trips, Vazquez and Margolis seemed more interested in romance than religion.

Vazquez, who is living under house arrest with his mother in Delray Beach, got married last year to a young Cuban woman who is trying to come to the United States, court records show.

''He became an additional member of our family. To such an extent that on the day he proposed marriage, neither I or my family hesitated in accepting,'' his bride, Dayana Betancourt Mojena, 21, wrote in a letter to the federal judge presiding over the case.

Margolis, a Fort Lauderdale real estate mogul with serious heart problems, made arrangements for his Cuban girlfriend to come to South Florida in September.

''He became enamored with a 27-year-old woman in Cuba,'' said Margolis' lawyer, Rosenbaum. ``She's living with him now.''

Rosenbaum said both men, who had met years ago when Vazquez was a tenant in one of Margolis' South Florida shopping centers, did humanitarian work while they were in Cuba.

Vazquez also looked for business opportunities in a post-Castro Cuba.


From my letter to the author:

The article did not mention a question that was raised in the early coverage of their arrest: what is being done about or to the people who consciously and dishonestly used this illegal route to Cuba.

Related to that is the question of whether the red line that was crossed by the defendants was profit making exploitation.

There is at least a suspicion that lots of other religious trips that are organized for Cuban Americans are a thinly veiled cover for family travel. So far OFAC and the US attorney seem to turn a blind eye. This stands in marked contrast to the denial of licenses to well established religious groups that overtly or implicitly criticize the archaic travel restrictions.

There is a rumor in Washington that the Bush Administration recently debated whether to tighten restrictions by enforcing them against the less than religious travelers, or to loosen them to allow more frequent family travel. A possible motive is the potential cost Miami Cuban American Republican hard liners and their party are paying in voter support.

My own interest is that at a time when Cuba is obviously going through a leadership change and serious nationwide discussion of economic policy, it is not only vindictive but stupid to maintain any travel restrictions, but most obviously those imposed by OFAC for partisan political reasons on family and purposeful (non-tourist) travel in 2003-2004.

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