Monday, December 12, 2005

Marc Harris, Offshore Boy Blunder


Marc M. Harris is serving 17 years at a federal medical center outside Fort Worth for tax fraud and money laundering in a scheme to bring in prohibited Freon into the United States. Aside from perhaps several dozen investors who wanted to avoid the U.S. tax laws and got burned in the process, The Marc Harris Organization isn´t quite known among too many international observers. However, this North Carolina native, now 40, was the catalyst of a diplomatic embroilment between the U.S. government and Panamanian authorities who were suspected of protecting him.

In June 2003, Harris was detained at an intersection in Managua, Nicaragua while he and his Panamanian-born wife were on their way to an immigration hearing. He moved to Nicaragua from Panama the year before reportedly after things got too hot for him both legally and politically. He was turned over to U.S. Marshals who were in the country waiting for him, shackled and placed on board a Homeland Security plane bound for Miami. Upon his arrival, the U.S. Attorney´s Office for the Southern District of Florida unsealed a 13-count indictment which charged Harris and co-conspirators Aurelio and Joseph Vigna with evading to pay $6.2 milllion in excise taxes between 1993-94 to import an ozone-depleting refrigerant chemical known by its Dupont name Freon.

Harris´ lawyers unsuccessfully argued that he was kidnapped in violation of international law without due process, much like how U.S. authorities honed into Honduras in 1988 and plucked drug kingpin Juan Ramón Matos Ballesteros from his home and brought him to Los Angeles to face murder and narcotics charges. Harris married a Panamanian but it isn´t clear whether he renounced his U.S. citizenship after fleeing Florida in 1989.

Just weeks before his detention and extradition, I made contact with Harris through a series of emails to his office in Nicaragua. I was investigating whether some high-level Puerto Rican government officials in the then-administration of Gov. Pedro Rosselló had sought his help to squander public money in offshore accounts. In the 1990s, Harris was a partner in the suspcious offshore financial advisory group Trust Services, Ltd. which held an office next to the Puerto Rican Trade Office on Balboa Avenue in downtown Panama City. Arturo Paz Guzmán, a public housing official under Gov. Rosselló, had been convicted for money laundering and served a 12-month sentence. According to federal prosecutors, he used Trust Services to launder public money. After faxing a picture of Paz Guzmán, who now lives in Miami, Harris said he remembered him as a regular client.

These former Rosselló administration officials were all well to do businessmen who were later convicted for or implicated in various corruption kickback-for-contracts and money laundering schemes (see Oct. 13 post). But what made the news story more sexy was that the head of the Puerto Rico Trade Office, Walter Laffitte, is the son of a federal judge for the district of Puerto Rico!

Harris told me that he never had personal dealings with Walter Laffitte but that his clients would visit the Trade delegation then pop over to the Trust Services offices. According to the IRS, Harris bilked dozens of clients of millions of dollars with his offshore investment promises.

When Harris was brought before a Miami federal judge to face indictment charges, federal prosecutors said that they had several open investigations into Harris´dealings, including how he allegedly helped Americans evade paying U.S. taxes and whether he reportedly lent Peru´s jailed spymaster Vladimir Montesinos a plane to escape capture. Harris was allegedly protected by the government of then-Panamanian President Ernesto Pérez Balladares, a former Notre Dame University roommate of Puerto Rico´s controversial Rosselló. Following his arrest, Puerto Rican investigators traveled to Managua to sift through Harris´ personal and financial records. Their findings were never publicly disclosed.

Harris, who is claiming pauper status, is appealing his 17 year prison sentence, including the imposition of a $20 million fine. If this once offshore financial guru, who graduated with honors from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, decides to cooperate with the U.S. government in exchange for a lighter sentence, he can probably offer gleeming if not embarassing information about some high-profile international personalities. But then again, it may not be in the best interest for the U.S. government to make hay of what Harris has to offer.

7 Comments:

At December 29, 2005 4:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Madrid Kid,
Just threw a link to you on RadioIntel.com. Would love to see you post your impressions of the Cope - Morales (Bolivia) bogus phone call. Keep up the great work and don't forget radio! - Ulis

 
At June 05, 2006 10:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why do you keep mentioning Walter Laffitte's name in the Mark Harris Saga! You know from your own knowledge that Walter had nothing to do with these events. The only answer to this defamation by inuendos is that you carry a political agenda. Articles written maliciously and in total regard for the truth are actionable.

It is so simple to be decent and fair.

 
At June 07, 2006 3:13 PM, Blogger Madridkid said...

Thanks for your post. As you may know the whole Walter Laffitte-Marc Harris connection was a valid point brought up in a series of past articles published not only in Puerto Rico but in Miami, Panama and Nicaragua. There were some things that Mr. Harris told me about Mr. Laffitte that I reserved from publishing because I didn't think they were relevant to the story. Mr. Harris, from what I was told recently, is completing a book in prison about his experiences, which I believe will irk some. When people don't like what a reporter writes, they immediately conclude that a journalist has a political agenda. Sorry to tell you that you that have none. In my 20 years as a journalist, I have always stuck to the truth -- write what I know, what I have investigated and what I have observed. Obviously, I take you are familiar with my writings elsewhere. So, despite your misgivings about me connecting Marc Harris and Walter Laffitte, you also know that I have a solid reputation as a journalist, and a pretty damn good one, if I may add. Cheers,

Madridkid

 
At June 09, 2006 11:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Madrid Kid, from the photo on the Mark Harris’ article, I can tell you are Martin Delfin, former San Juan Star journalist. You acknowledged that “Harris told he never had personal dealings with Walter Laffitte”. It follows then that trying to unfairly associate Walter Laffitte with Mark Harris makes no sense, other than an attempt to smear Walter Laffitte’s fine reputation. The mere coincidence that Harris’ offices was in the same building occupied by PR Trade Office means nothing. Why do you insist to spill-over Harris illegal acts on Walter? Would a person’s illegal conduct have to visited upon his neighbor? Obviously not. Your articles caters to the witchhunt carried out by the former Calderon’s administration which in its seal of investigating corruption smeared many innocent citizens and honest government officials. Those who engaged in acts of corruption during the Rossello’s administration are serving their respective sentences. If you are a good journalist, as you depict yourself, and I may tend to agree, then you should stop connecting Mark Harris with Walter Laffitte. Do not jeopardize your self-proclaimed solid reputation by causing unnecessary aggravations to honest individuals like Walter Laffitte. Would you like to be publicly connected to convicted felon Mark Harris simply because you have interacted with him on more than one occasion. Journalists should be fair at all times. I trust that you continue honoring your profession.

 
At June 10, 2006 7:15 PM, Blogger Madridkid said...

Thanks for your post. I accept your comments as fair criticism.

 
At September 21, 2012 3:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

didn't marc harris already have a cuban-american wife in miami, with 3 kids? also, why has he been jailed in a medical facility that provides mental health assistance to WOMEN????

 
At October 16, 2013 10:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fci-ft worth is no longer a medical facility and it hasn't had women there since the 1980's, the reason i know is cause i was an inmate there and a friend of Marc's

 

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