Feds Shut Down Cuba Travel Scheme

Feb. 23--Two Florida men allegedly concocted a scheme to get around the restrictive Cuba travel ban by creating bogus churches and applying for licenses under the name of God that allowed thousands of travelers to visit the communist island nation.

The federal government wasn't fooled for long.

On Thursday, authorities filed a criminal complaint in Fort Lauderdale federal court against David Margolis, 75, of Fort Lauderdale, and Victor Vazquez, 42, of Winter Garden. The pair is accused of conspiracy to violate Cuba-related travel regulations. Vazquez is also alleged to have made false statements in applications for religious travel licenses to Cuba.

Fort Lauderdale attorney Richard Rosenbaum, who is representing Margolis, said his client has never been in trouble with the law and plans to "vigorously" defend himself against any charges against him.

Neither Vazquez nor his attorney returned calls for comment.

Under the 43-year-old Cuba trade embargo, U.S. citizens and residents are prohibited from traveling to Cuba. Among the exemptions: those traveling for religious purposes. To make the trip, they must obtain a religious license from the federal government and arrange plans with a travel agency.

Enforcement of the travel ban is not uncommon, but authorities have recently stepped up investigations of travel agencies.

The case against Margolis and Vazquez is the first criminal prosecution of Cuba travel violations since formation in October of a special team of federal and local law enforcement investigators to root out breaches of the embargo.

The Cuban Sanctions Enforcement Task Force was credited Thursday by senior federal law enforcement officials with piecing together the case against Margolis and Vazquez.

In an arrest affidavit, investigators said the two men obtained religious licenses from the federal government and supplied the licenses to several travel agencies, including one in Hialeah. Those agencies then charged travelers -- more than 4,500 in all -- a $250 fee to use the falsely-obtained license.

None of the travelers is likely to be prosecuted, federal officials said.

U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta said the special task force and the case itself underscores the U.S. government's commitment to tightly enforce the embargo. "Vigorous enforcement of economic sanctions against the Cuban regime is important to help hasten a transition to democracy on the island," he said.

Alicia Valle, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami, said Vazquez and Margolis had made initial appearances in Fort Lauderdale federal court.

CHURCHES DIDN'T EXIST

An affidavit in the case, submitted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agent Daniel Flores, said the feds first learned of the alleged fraud in January 2006.

According to Flores, the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, which administers the embargo, found that Vazquez and Margolis had obtained licenses "under false pretenses" for churches that did not exist -- stretching back to March 2004.

The agency, the affidavit said, received one of the first applications for a Cuban religious-travel license on March 25, 2004, from Vazquez on behalf of the First Church of Christ in Winter Garden, near Orlando. They got the license within a week.

At some point, the agency became suspicious and launched an investigation. When confronted, Vazquez claimed that all trips were proper.

He said he had organized 15 trips under the religious license, taking no more than five to 15 people per trip to Cuba. He also said he had traveled to Cuba about 15 times per year, according to Flores' affidavit.

NUMEROUS TRIPS

But in fact, it said, investigators later learned that Vazquez had traveled 45 different times over the two-year duration of the license, averaging two trips a month.

Investigators also found that more than 2,000 people had traveled to Cuba between March 2005 and April 2006 under the First Church of Christ license.

Delving deeper, investigators discovered the two men had applied for religious licenses through nonexistent churches in Alabama, Colorado and Oregon, setting up mailboxes to receive correspondence.

STOPPED AT AIRPORT

The alleged scheme finally came to an end on Dec. 13 when investigators separately questioned both men at Miami International Airport upon their return from Cuba.

Margolis readily admitted that the church to which the license was issued "did not actually exist.'

"You have me dead to rights," Flores quoted Margolis as saying in the affidavit. He added that he just wanted to have his own license for Cuba travel and that Vazquez had assisted in preparing the application.

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