MIAMI (Reuters) - A Miami man described as "a financier for fraudsters" has been charged with playing a central role in a money-laundering operation that funneled millions in proceeds from a U.S. healthcare fraud scheme into Cuban banks.
Oscar Sanchez, a Cuban-born U.S. citizen, was arrested by the FBI last week and appeared at a detention hearing in federal court in Miami on Monday.
He is alleged to have been a leader of a criminal group that diverted about $31 million in funds bilked from Medicare, the U.S. federal health insurance program for the elderly, into banks in Havana.
A grand jury indictment, unsealed on June 13, charges the 46-year-old Sanchez with conspiracy to commit money laundering through a syndicate with links from Montreal and Trinidad to Cuba from around April 2005 and through October 2009.
He faces up to 20 years in prison on the conspiracy charge and prosecutors are also seeking the forfeiture of more than $22 million in Florida real estate and other property purchased in his name, according to court documents.
"There is no allegation and we have no evidence that the Cuban government is involved in this case," Alicia Valle, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami, said in a statement.
The Miami Herald, which first reported on the case, said it was the first that directly traced money stolen from Medicare into the Cuban banking system.
Miami has long been described by law enforcement officials as a hub for healthcare fraud in the United States, and a large number of suspects arrested for Medicare fraud schemes there have been Cuban Americans.
Peter Raben, a lawyer for Sanchez, said he emigrated to the United States from his communist-ruled homeland 32 years ago.
"He's going to plead not guilty and he's eager to see what the evidence is to defend this case in court," Raben said.
Sanchez was due to be arraigned on Friday.
In addition to laundering millions in government payments to crooked Medicare providers, who offered bogus HIV and medical equipment services, Sanchez is alleged to have provided cash to cover the day-to-day expenses of suspects committing Medicare fraud.
"He provided cash to healthcare fraud masterminds who wanted their money out of the U.S. banking system," a court document said. "Benefiting both sides of the transactions, Defendant Oscar Sanchez was a financier for fraudsters and a capitalist for the Cuban banks," it said.
Reporting By Tom Brown; editing by Doina Chiacu and Todd Eastham