WITH CRIMINAL INTENT: From Wall Street to Castro’s Cuba – The Rise, Fall, and Exile of the King of White Collar Crime, Robert Vesco (Archive)

Source  – sfgate.com

From Wall Street to Castro’s Cuba: The Rise, Fall, and Exile of the King of White Collar Crime, Robert Vesco

Convicted cocaine trafficker Carlos Lehder testified yesterday that Robert Vesco, the fugitive financier accused of looting millions from a Swiss-based mutual fund, helped him ply the drug trade in Cuba and the Bahamas.

“Robert Vesco was one of my partners in the Bahamas,” Lehder said during his final turn on the witness stand in Gen. Manuel A. Noriega’s drug trial.

Mr. Vesco fled the United States in 1972 to avoid prosecution on charges that he swindled Investors Overseas Services Ltd. out of $224 million. He was also accused of secretly donating $200,000 to Richard M. Nixon’s presidential campaign as part of a scheme to deflect a probe by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Since the mid-1980s he has lived in Cuba.

Lehder, once a high-ranking insider in the Medellin cartel, testified last week that he received authorization to use Cuba as a drug way-station from Defense Minister Raul Castro, brother of President Fidel Castro. During five days of testimony, he has described how the cartel funneled cocaine through various Central American and Caribbean nations, bribing officials such as General Noriega to protect drug shipments.

Yesterday, he testified that he first visited Cuba in 1981 to meet with Mr. Vesco and Raul Castro.

“Did you go to Cuba to visit your friend Robert Vesco?” asked Frank Rubino, the lead defense attorney.

“That was one of the reasons, sir, yes,” the witness replied. “We discussed money laundering and discussed the use of the island as atransshipment point.”

During the visit, Lehder said, he donated a plane to Raul Castro as part of a deal to allow the cartel to ship drugs through Cuba. One year later, Lehder said he became the cartel’s “connection” for shipping drugs through Cuba.

“If necessary I could use Cuban territory to funnel cocaine to the United States, as well as overfly Cuban airspace to the Bahamas,” he said.

In 1984, Lehder testified, he again saw Mr. Vesco in Nicaragua with Manuel “Redbeard” Pineiro, the head of Cuba’s intelligence service. Last week, Lehder testified that the Cubans directed cocaine traffic through the Central American nation with the complicity of the Sandinista government.

Lehder’s testimony contradicted a 1990 prison interview he gave to Playboy magazine. At the time, he said he knew nothing about drugs passing through Cuba.

But now, Lehder says he knows a lot and is helping federal investigators explore alleged drug dealings by high-ranking Cuban authorities.



Did fugitive Robert Vesco escape forever?

Robert Vesco, the fugitive financier who spent most of his life eluding American justice, may even have managed to die on the sly.

Vesco, who was sentenced to a long prison term in Cuba in 1996 and was wanted in the United States for crimes ranging from securities fraud and drug trafficking to political bribery, died more than five months ago, on Nov. 23, from lung cancer, say people close to him. If so, it was never reported publicly by Cuban authorities, who said Friday that they considered him a “nonissue.”

U.S. officials said Friday they knew nothing about it.

“We don’t know that it occurred,” a U.S. official said

If Vesco in fact eluded U.S. authorities until his final day, it was the fitting end to his nearly four decades on the run. He was wanted, among other things, for bilking about $200 million from credulous investors in the 1970s, making an illegal contribution to Richard Nixon‘s 1972 presidential campaign and trying to induce the Carter administration to let Libya buy American planes in exchange for bribes to U.S. officials.Vesco last made the news a decade ago when he was sentenced to prison in Cuba, where he had taken sanctuary, for a financial scam. He emerged in recent years and lived a quiet life in Havana until he contracted lung cancer. After about a week in a hospital, friends say, he died and is buried in an unmarked grave.

Given the controversial nature of the man, none of his friends dared be identified for fear of running afoul of Cuban authorities. While word of Vesco’s death could be the final ruse of a 72-year-old, modern-day buccaneer who had every reason to drop off the radar, it would have to be an elaborate one.

Records at Colon Cemetery in Havana indicate that a Robert Vesco was buried there on Nov. 24, and photographs and videos viewed by the New York Times show a man resembling him in a casket with his longtime Cuban companion looking over him.

Other photos show him coughing and clearly in pain in a hospital bed on what a friend said was the day before he died.

His last days, a friend said, were in marked contrast to his ebullient pre-prison phase, when he partied lavishly, chain-smoked and talked big.

Some of those who knew Vesco said it would not surprise them if Vesco had orchestrated a fake death, to slip away one more time.

“He could have died,” said Arthur Herzog, an author who interviewed Vesco in Cuba for a biography. “But Bob has used disguises in the past.”

On top of that, Herzog said, an intermediary who lives on the island had left the impression that he was in contact with Vesco in Cuba within the last month.

After a criminal odyssey that began on Wall Street, Vesco fled the United States in 1971, along the way repeatedly demonstrating the power of money to overcome any ideology.

His associates and protectors included democratically elected presidents in Costa Rica, the left-wing Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the cocaine barons of Colombia, the terrorism-tainted government in Libya, and finally, the Communist government of Fidel Castro.

A high school dropout from Detroit, Vesco lied about his age to get a job on an automobile assembly line. At 21, he moved to New Jersey to work for a struggling manufacturer of machine tools.

He took over the company when it went bankrupt, rebuilt it and renamed it International Controls Corp. By the age of 30, Vesco was a millionaire.

He later turned his sights on a Switzerland-based mutual fund company, Investment Overseas Services (IOS). When that, too, ran into trouble, Vesco offered to rescue the company and was embraced as a white knight by investors terrified of losing their savings.

He bought IOS in 1970 for less than $5 million, gaining control of an estimated $400 million in funds. The accounting at the company had been so chaotic that Vesco, by adding a few subterfuges of his own, was able to plunder its holdings at will.

After numerous complaints, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission investigated. In 1972, the commission charged Vesco and others in a civil lawsuit with stealing more than $224 million.

But Vesco had already fled, first to the Bahamas and then to Costa Rica. There, he established a close friendship with President Jose Figueres, plowing about $11 million into his adopted country.

“I wish more Vescos would come to Costa Rica – we need them,” said Figueres on television in response to criticism that he was harboring a criminal.

Vesco also befriended Donald Nixon Jr., a nephew of President Richard Nixon, and gave $200,000 to the Nixon campaign, apparently hoping the president would help quash the investigation against him.

It was to no avail. But to the frustration of the FBI, Vesco remained tantalizingly out of reach in Costa Rica.

By 1978, Vesco was forced to leave for the Bahamas, the beginning of years of hopscotching that included stops in Antigua and Nicaragua, before Cuba finally accepted him for “humanitarian” reasons.

“We don’t care what he did in the United States,” Fidel Castro said. “We’re not interested in the money he has.”

Vesco eventually ran afoul of the Castro government with a scheme to produce a wonder drug that supposedly cured cancer, AIDS, arthritis, and even the common cold. He was accused of defrauding a state-run biotechnology laboratory and sentenced to 13 year


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