Terror suit spurs search at dealership
BY GINNIE GRAHAM World Staff Writer
Saturday, December 17, 2011
12/17/11 at 7:39 AM
Read the lawsuit and restraining order.
A Tulsa used car dealership was searched Friday by federal and local law enforcement agents in connection with an international scheme that has allegedly funneled $483 million through terrorist-controlled channels to Lebanon since January 2007.
Ace Auto Leasing, 5717 E. 11th St., is one of about 30 U.S. car buyers along with several other entities accused of facilitating the arrangement, according to a civil lawsuit filed Thursday in the U.S. Southern District of New York.
The lawsuit alleges that Ace Auto received about $20.2 million from Hezbollah members or Hezbollah-controlled entities to purchase and ship used cars.
Hezbollah is a Lebanon-based terrorist organization responsible for some of the most deadly anti-U.S. attacks dating to 1983. The group was formed in 1982 after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. It has been designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, a Specially Designated Terrorist and a Specially Designated Global Terrorist.
Agents from the FBI, Tulsa Police and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration searched the Ace Auto Leasing lot, writing down automobile vehicle identification numbers.
Officers involved were from the joint terrorism task force, which combines the efforts of several law enforcement agencies, and the auto-theft unit of the Tulsa Police, said Officer Jason Willingham.
Jerika Richardson, spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara of the southern New York district, said no arrests were made or expected in the searches held across the country. "This is a civil action," she said. "It is not criminal ... All we have at this time is a civil action."
Records maintained by the state Tax Commission indicate Mohamad K. Soukieh is the only officer associated with the corporation Ace Auto Leasing Inc. of Tulsa.
Tulsa County assessor records indicate property utilized as a used car lot in the 5700 block of East 11th Street was purchased by Mohamad K and Daad Soukieh in 2002. Adjacent property and land was purchased in 2005 and 2007.
Soukieh could not be reached for comment.
Some owners may not have been aware their businesses were involved with the scheme, said Derek Maltz, special agent in charge of the DEA special operations division.
"We do not have detailed specific information on what these car dealership owners knew. We will investigate it jointly with our partners in the United States and hopefully we will shut them down," Maltz stated in news reports.
The money laundering scheme alleged is a complicated system involving car buyers and drug dealers with the Lebanese Canadian Bank acting at the center of the operation. Used car and other consumer good sales were used to hide the proceeds of illegal drug sales, all profiting Hezbollah and its efforts, the lawsuit alleges.
"The businesses of these car buyers typically have little or no property or assets other than bank accounts that are used to receive wires from overseas to buy cars, and to purchase used cars at auction," the lawsuit states.
"The car buyers typically do not have offices, car lots, or an inventory of used cars other than cars that are in transit to the ports. Some of the car buyers purchase cars for their own account, but others simply retain a fee of a few hundred dollars for each car that they buy."
A significant portion of the cash from car sales was allegedly transported to Lebanon by a Hezbollah-controlled system of money couriers, cash smugglers and currency brokers, according to the lawsuit.
A transportation company in Michigan is accused of frequently shipping cars to West Africa and other entities. Cash was then sent on to the Beirut airport, where Hezbollah security guarded and guided its passage to its final destination, the lawsuit alleges.
"The intricate scheme laid out in today's complaint reveals the deviously creative ways that terrorist organizations are funding themselves and moving their money, and it puts into stark relief the nexus between narcotics trafficking and terrorism," Bharara stated in a press release Friday. "Today, we are putting a stranglehold on a major source of that funding by disrupting a vast and far-flung network that spanned three continents."
In addition, the same infrastructure was used to hide and move money from drug sales from West Africa back to Lebanon, the lawsuit claims.
The system involved getting cocaine from Colombia through Africa to European markets. Proceeds were mixed with the used car profits and sent to the Lebanese Canadian Bank through exchange houses, the lawsuit alleges.
The Lebanese Canadian Bank also sent money through U.S. accounts to pay Asian suppliers of consumer goods, which were shipped to dealers in South America to pay off cocaine suppliers, the lawsuit alleges.
"DEA and its partners have exposed the Lebanese Canadian Bank as a major money laundering source for Hezbollah," stated DEA administrator Michele M. Leonhart in a press release Friday.
"The connection between drug traffickers and terror networks is evident. By attacking the financial networks of those who wish to harm innocent Americans, DEA is strengthening national security and making our citizens safer."
World staff writer Curtis Killman contributed to this report
Original Print Headline: Terror suit spurs search at dealership
Ginnie Graham 918-581-8376
Ace Auto Leasing, 5717 E. 11th St., was searched Friday by federal and local law enforcement agents in connection with an international scheme that allegedly funneled $483 million through terrorist-controlled channels to Lebanon. CORY YOUNG/Tulsa World