Times Staff WriterTampa Bay Times
A Tampa used car dealer received more than $3 million from Hezbollah-related organizations as part of a large money-laundering scheme designed to funnel cash to the terrorist group, the U.S. government claims.
Mansour Brothers Auto Trading Inc., which specializes in exporting vehicles, is one of 30 used car dealers that were wired at least $329 million over a four-year period, according to the complaint.
The case, filed late last week by the U.S. Attorney's office for the Southern District of New York, is seeking the seizure of those proceeds — including the $3 million sent to Mansour Brothers, located on Kennedy Boulevard. It follows an investigation led by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
Mansour Brothers received 40 wire transfers totalling about $3.25 million between 2007 and 2011, according to the complaint. It does not allege that any of the used car dealerships, including Mansour Brothers, knew about the money laundering, and they are not being charged criminally.
Tim Shusta, a Tampa attorney who represents Sammy Mansour of Mansour Bros., said Saturday that his client had no knowledge of the scheme.
He also said the money was wired to buy cars and ship them to Africa. They didn't make a profit of $3 million from the transactions.
"It's not clear to me that they have the right to recover the $3 million," Shusta said.
Federal authorities described the operation this way: Lebanese financial institutions, including a bank and two exchange houses linked to Hezbollah, wired funds to the United States, where the money was used to buy cars. The cars were then shipped to West Africa and sold for cash.
The cash from those car sales was then taken, along with money from drug trafficking and other crimes, to Lebanon. Hezbollah members and supporters were involved at various points, including financing and facilitating the purchase of some of the used cars.
"The intricate scheme laid out in (the) complaint reveals the deviously creative ways that terrorist organizations are funding themselves and moving their money," said Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
Hezbollah is a radical Islamic group that aims to create an Iranian-style Islamic republic in Lebanon. It is strongly anti-Israel and has been linked to bombings at a U.S. embassy and Marine barracks in the 1980s. Hezbollah, which holds about 10 percent of the seats in the Lebanese Parliament, receives weapons, money and organizational support from Iran, according to the U.S. Department of State.
Shusta said his client had no way of knowing that money was being passed to him by anyone who had anything to do with terrorism.
"They are an innocent party in the whole thing," Shusta said. "There are no allegations that allege that our client did anything wrong."
Shusta said Mansour Bros. is a very small company that's been open since 2005.
His client has been living in Tampa for about 30 years, he said.
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