NEW YORK – Federal authorities blamed Lebanese financial institutions Thursday for wiring more than $300 million into the United States in a money-laundering scheme they said used the U.S. financial system to benefit the militant group Hezbollah.
The U.S. government said in the lawsuit filed in a Manhattan federal court that it seeks nearly a half-billion dollars in money-laundering penalties from some Lebanese financial entities, 30 U.S. car buyers and a U.S. shipping company. It also said it's entitled to claim their assets as forfeitable under U.S. money-laundering laws.
Prosecutors said the $300 million was wired from Lebanon to the United States and used to buy used cars and ship them to West Africa. They said Hezbollah money-laundering channels were used to ship proceeds from the car sales and narcotics trafficking back to Lebanon.
The accusations came two days after an indictment in federal court in Virginia accused fugitive Ayman Joumaa of leading a drug conspiracy that provided income for Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group that the U.S. has branded a terrorist organization.
A Washington-based Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman, Lawrence R. Payne, told The Associated Press in February that Joumaa's organization laundered money using 50 used car lots in the United States. Cars were exported to Lebanon and West Africa.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said the civil case brought Thursday reveals a massive international scheme in which Lebanese financial institutions, including banks and two exchange houses linked to Hezbollah, passed money through the U.S. financial system to launder narcotics trafficking and other criminal proceeds through West Africa and back into Lebanon.
The government said substantial portions of the cash were paid to Hezbollah, which has been designated by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization since 1997.
"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 said. "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."