X

Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
During the 1990s, Palm Beach County, Fla., immigration lawyer Frank Ricci was the attorney local reporters called for comment when immigration policy changed. Part of a prominent local family (his brother Ed practices law with Florida Rep. Lois Frankel, and his sister-in-law is Palm Beach Circuit Judge Mary Lupo), Ricci had 3,000 clients by last year and held seminars throughout the world for those seeking U.S. visas. He employed more than a dozen secretaries at his Palm Beach Gardens office. The office itself was impressive: Ricci loved to show visitors his original Civil War documents and framed signatures of Ben Franklin, Napoleon and John F. Kennedy. But these days, Ricci, 59, is bankrupt and keeping a very low profile, fearing that he may be the target of drug lords as he plays a central role in a massive investigation that involves money laundering and nearly $1 billion worth of illegal drugs. And some of the players are part of a scheme to peddle a secret dossier detailing the finances of the president of Brazil. Ricci’s involvement in the case has led to the indictment and arrest of six men charged with conspiring to launder drug money. And, according to one of the suspects indicted for money laundering, the international probe — labeled Operation Takeoff by the FBI — is only just beginning, its tentacles reaching to Virginia, where a federal grand jury is convening and delving deep into South America and Mexico, where the drugs were to originate. “When the shit hits the fan,” says one suspect in the case, “this will make ‘The French Connection’ look like ‘Romper Room.’” 1990′S OPPORTUNITY Ricci came to the law late in life but was a natural. Previously a real estate broker and New York restaurateur, he attended Thomas Jefferson Law School in San Diego, Calif., graduating in 1988 at the age of 47. A fast-talking, stout man, Ricci peppers his speech with obscenities and personal observations. He is proud of his street smarts and his roots, often bragging of growing up in Brooklyn. And the crusty, “How ya doin’?” manner seemed to go over well with his immigrant clientele as well as with journalists. Ricci passed the bar examination in Indiana and settled in Florida, where his mother, father and brother lived. He began practicing immigration law, which did not require admittance to the Florida Bar. Married to a Venezuelan, Ricci was quick to show her picture to clients and throw out the few Spanish words he knew. “He was a lover of Hispanics,” said one of his business associates and a co-defendant in the case, James Deegan. Ricci’s specialty was a new visa approved by Congress in 1990 for foreigners willing to invest at least $1 million in start-up companies that would create a minimum of 10 new jobs over a two-year period. (The threshold was $500,000 if invested in depressed areas.) Using a Virginia investment bank called InterBank and American Capital Investors in Boca Raton, Ricci devised a scheme in which foreigners would put up only $100,000 and the bank would loan them the rest. The cost to the investor would be between $20,000 and $40,000 (Ricci’s fee) and the loss of interest for three years on the $100,000. Ricci marketed his so-called Jumbo Visas in the international editions of Time magazine and on his own Web site, www.usvisas.com, holding twice-weekly seminars in his office. Hundreds of clients from such scattered places as Indonesia, Canada and Singapore gave Ricci $100,000 deposits. The money, he assured them, would be kept untouched in escrow accounts and released for investment once the visa was approved. Ricci’s attorney, Michael Dubiner, would not say how much Ricci collected in escrow in total, but according to bankruptcy files, it was at least $6 million. But in December 1997, the general counsel of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service stated in an opinion that the Jumbo Visa approach was illegal because the foreign nationals were not coming up with the required investments. The INS began turning down applications from Ricci’s clients. Nevertheless, for more than a year Ricci continued to assure his clients that they would get their visas, according to ex-client Patel Rajnikat. In a federal suit filed against Ricci last year, Rajnikat, who is from India, said he gave Ricci $120,000 in March 1998 after Ricci told him he would get a visa within 60 days. Rajnikat was denied his visa in March 1999 and demanded his money back. But, he says, Ricci told him the money was no longer in escrow. The INS denial of Jumbo Visas had a disastrous effect on Ricci’s business. In October 1999, he filed for bankruptcy for himself and his law practice. He listed debts of $7.6 million, and his creditors included 63 people from throughout the world who gave down payments of at least $100,000 each under his Jumbo Visa program. The bankruptcy filing stayed Rajnikat’s lawsuit, along with a handful of others. Ricci filed an affidavit with the Indiana Bar, placing his law license on inactive status, and the Indiana Supreme Court filed a 19-count complaint against him relating to the visa scheme, which could lead to disbarment. According to the complaint, by listing his clients as creditors Ricci was admitting their funds were not in escrow. Facing a hearing in Indiana this month, he agreed to the temporary suspension of his law license until a ruling is made. Meanwhile, a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Va., is investigating Ricci and InterBank, the investment banking firm he worked with, according to court documents. The INS recently raided InterBank’s Virginia offices. Dubiner, Ricci’s attorney, declined to say whether Ricci is the target of a criminal investigation in South Florida as well. A source close to Ricci, who did not want to be identified, insists the escrowed funds are all secure but in investments and can’t be touched for three years. THE STING In an attempt to get out of the financial mire, Ricci made a grave error, says the source. Although the precise details aren’t available, according to the U.S. attorney’s office, he was caught agreeing to launder $300,000 in drug money — for an undercover agent. The federal charge carries a potential sentence of 20 years in prison. That government sting operation led to a much larger, year-and-a-half long government sting operation. This time, Ricci was undercover, and he proved to be an adept actor. In September 1998, Ricci agreed to help the government, to turn informer and wear a wire on one of his clients. “He had no choice,” says the source close to Ricci. With Ricci’s knowledge, FBI agents hid a video camera in Ricci’s office and tapped his phone. The trap was set. The first to fall into that trap was Jose Ferraz, then 43. Ferraz had contacted Ricci about five years ago about getting a visa. Described in press accounts as a dapper, well-dressed man whose attractive wife was an attorney in Brazil, Ferraz came from a wealthy, prominent family. According to a recent article in the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo, “It would be difficult to find someone within Sao Paulo’s business elite who did not know personally, or at least have heard of, Jose Maria Texeira Ferraz Jr.” In the states, he became known simply as Jose Ferraz. Armed with his lofty connections in the Brazilian government, Jose Ferraz came to the United States to seek his fortune. Ferraz’s business partner was Oscar De Barros. Both names had surfaced from time to time in some dubious episodes in Brazil. De Barros had been questioned in a bribery scheme on behalf of a company angling for the fiber-optic cable contract for Sao Paulo. The two were also investigated by Brazilian authorities for allegedly trying to sell information on secret bank accounts in the Cayman Islands that allegedly contained millions in campaign funds diverted by the president of Brazil. But the deal that landed Ferraz and De Barros in federal prison, facing sentences of 20 years, involved Ricci. According to the source inside Ricci’s office, during routine questioning of Ferraz associated with filling out his visa application in November 1998, Ricci grew suspicious about his client’s claims to be a coffee importer. Somehow, according to the source, it came up that Ferraz and his associates were looking for a plane and pilots to transport drugs from Brazil to Mexico. None of the defense lawyers involved know whether the government already had its eye on Ferraz and De Barros, or whether Ricci offered them up. The U.S. attorney’s office refuses to comment. During a one-and-a-half year investigation by the FBI’s High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force in Miami and New York, with assistance from the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Customs Service, agents uncovered a new cocaine trafficking outfit planning to start between Brazil and Mexico. It is not clear whether the drugs were destined for the United States. Undercover videotapes obtained by the Miami Daily Business Review, all made in Ricci’s office in late November 1998, reveal Ferraz and De Barros hooked Ricci up with Deegan, a fellow Brazilian who was in touch with the Latin American drug dealers. Deegan, who had served four years in a U.S. prison for money laundering, was in the process of looking for a plane to carry drugs. Ricci’s supposed role in the plan was to find a plane and pilots. ‘THE CARTELS ARE MOVING’ On the videotapes Ricci talks to Deegan, Ferraz and a man named Richard Lacy about the deal. The men discuss in detail how they will recruit pilots for the mission. (“We need to look for men who really need the money,” says one of the men.) They discuss whether they should tell the pilots they are shipping drugs. (“No,” says Deegan, “it will all be boxed.”) They consider how much money they’re each getting. (The pilots get $200,000 and Ferraz and De Barros, says Ricci, will apparently clean up with $2 million after each flight.) And they talk about what kind of plane they’ll need. (A Boeing 727 or a smaller Learjet.) “This is the beginning of a hell of an operation,” Deegan tells Ricci, scooting forward excitedly in the leather wing chair. “I met with the guy they sent from Colombia. The cartels are moving from Colombia to Mexico.” Deegan adds, “I know the boss in Mexico. I can land anywhere I want. The Mexican army is going to unload the boxes.” In wiretaps, Deegan also discussed using the plane for arms shipments to Angola, a Portuguese-speaking country in southwestern Africa that has been torn apart by civil war for nearly two decades. Deegan outlined what looked to be a massive drug operation, involving the importation of up to 10 tons of cocaine and marijuana every 40 days. According to Joe Kilmer, DEA spokesman in Miami, such a shipment would be “huge.” “There have only been half a dozen shipments that large, ever,” said Kilmer, adding that the street value of such a shipment would be a whopping $900 million. The trial run for the operation was to be in December 1998. But the flight never took place. Why? Deegan tells the Miami Daily Business Review it’s because the suppliers in Mexico and Colombia “suddenly disappeared.” Were they tipped off by someone inside? “I don’t know,” says Deegan. He says he suspected then that Ricci was an informant: “I told Ferraz, ‘He does everything out in the open. I wonder if he is undercover.’” Who were the suppliers? Clearly the feds wanted to know. They apparently never found them. “They disappeared,” says Deegan, with a short laugh. “Maybe they died.” THE ARRESTS In March of this year, six men were arrested in connection with the investigation, all for conspiring to launder drug money: Nigel Ramsay, a British stock broker; Lacy, the man who allegedly arranged for the pilots; Ricci, Deegan, Ferraz and De Barros. Of the six, only Ferraz and De Barros remain in federal prison in Miami, neither of them having yet put up $100,000 that federal authorities must accept as untainted by criminal enterprise. Trial is set for September in West Palm Beach before U.S. District Judge Kenneth Ryskamp. All have pleaded not guilty, except Ricci, who was indicted separately and pleaded guilty. Ricci is scheduled to be sentenced in October. Deegan, who has cooperated with the government and has cancer, is hoping for a lighter sentence. (He lives in Manhattan, where his wife owns an Italian restaurant, Padrone’s). Both Ricci and Deegan have refused the government’s offer of protective custody, according to their lawyers. Are they afraid of retaliation for cooperating with the feds? Deegan says he isn’t. “Why should I be?” he asks, adding that the suppliers “disappeared.” Meanwhile, the FBI says it is continuing to investigate the case and refuses to reveal details of the scope of Operation Takeoff. “It is an ongoing investigation,” says FBI special agent John Quinlan. As for Ricci, sources say he recently had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized, and that he has likely already cut a deal with the government. He is still living in South Florida. Bankruptcy court forced him to sell his lavish Jupiter house and car and he now rents a small house. According to the source close to him, Ricci and his wife live in fear that they will be victims of retaliation for his cooperation with the government and have already received a few veiled threats. Ricci now takes medicine for depression but keeps his spirits up, still wisecracking with guests. His family has stood by him, says the source, and his daughter is now graduating from Nova Southeastern University’s law school. He has applied for disability benefits but hopes to practice law again someday. He may write a book about the intriguing case. Ricci “loves the law,” says the source. He “isn’t one to sit and watch the grass grow.” Staff intern Rafael R. Ribeiro contributed to this report.

This content has been archived. It is available exclusively through our partner LexisNexis®.

To view this content, please continue to Lexis Advance®.

Not a Lexis Advance® Subscriber? Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® is now the exclusive third party online distributor of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® customers will be able to access and use ALM's content by subscribing to the LexisNexis® services via Lexis Advance®. This includes content from the National Law Journal®, The American Lawyer®, Law Technology News®, The New York Law Journal® and Corporate Counsel®, as well as ALM's other newspapers, directories, legal treatises, published and unpublished court opinions, and other sources of legal information.

ALM's content plays a significant role in your work and research, and now through this alliance LexisNexis® will bring you access to an even more comprehensive collection of legal content.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]

 
 

ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2020 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.