Fate of Md. fugitive hinges on old treaty

January 26, 1995|By Michael James | Michael James,Sun Staff Writer

Martin Bramson -- international fugitive, alleged confidence man and multimillionaire crook -- sits today in a prison cell in the tiny European nation of Liechtenstein, where it would seem at first glance that his luck has finally run out.

But a 1936 extradition treaty between Liechtenstein and the United States may have a loophole and give Mr. Bramson his freedom again: It seems to have no provision for white-collar crime.

"Extradition will be a very difficult process. There will be a lot of problems for the U.S.," said Dr. Benedict Marxer, a judge in the Liechtenstein Court of Justice who is handling Mr. Bramson's extradition case.

Prosecutors in Maryland want to bring Mr. Bramson back to the states to face charges of bilking $10 million from doctors in a phony insurance scheme.

After more than three years of eluding Interpol and FBI agents, who unsuccessfully chased him through resorts in Mexico and the Cayman Islands, the former Columbia resident was arrested last week as he crossed the Liechtenstein border in his car from Austria.

The Liechtenstein state police have his Swiss francs -- about $3.2 million worth -- and his gold bullion, amounting to $215,000 more.

But Mr. Bramson may have that one trump card left to play -- the untested, 58-year-old treaty.

While U.S. prosecutors and justice officials say they are confident they will get Mr. Bramson extradited, officials in Liechtenstein -- a country of but 30,000 people that hasn't extradited anyone for prosecution overseas in more than 20 years -- are much more skeptical.

The Liechtenstein-U.S. extradition treaty dates back to 1936 and addresses mainly violent crimes such as murder, rape and kidnapping -- but it contains no obvious provisions for "white-collar criminality," according to Dr. Marxer.

Mr. Bramson is charged with money laundering, mail fraud and wire fraud.

"Back in 1936, nobody was too concerned about money laundering," Dr. Marxer said in an interview from his office in Vaduz, the nation's capital. "It is a relatively old treaty. We will have to determine whether the charges against Mr. Bramson are contained in it. . . . If they are not, he would be immediately released."

An official request for extradition has not yet been received from the United States, so a hearing has not been scheduled, Dr. Marxer said. In the meantime, Mr. Bramson will stay in a solitary cell in Liechtenstein Prison, also in Vaduz.

Liechtenstein, between Austria and Switzerland, comprises only about 160 square miles.

It is still unclear what Mr. Bramson was doing there when he was randomly pulled over at the border for a routine inspection.

If he is released by Liechtenstein authorities, there is little recourse for U.S. officials, said Andrew Manning, an FBI spokesman.

"We can't go and arrest him ourselves. We have to deal through the officials of that country," he said.

Gary P. Jordan, an assistant U.S. attorney in Baltimore, said he believes Mr. Bramson's alleged crimes of fraud clearly make him candidate for extradition.

"Our challenge here is to translate the [Liechtenstein] criminal code into our code, and vice-versa," he said.

"Money laundering is a fairly American concept, but I've never encountered a country that did not have fraud in one way or another in their criminal code," Mr. Jordan said.

"Certainly the scheme that [Mr. Bramson] pursued against the doctors included false representation, which is the most basic form of fraud. It would be very surprising if we were not successful."

Mr. Jordan said the United States will be represented at the extradition hearing by either a member of the U.S. Embassy in Liechtenstein or a local attorney available for hire in that country.

In the event the United States loses its fight to extradite Mr. Bramson, "We will then try and track him to the next country he tries to go," Mr. Jordan said.

Mr. Bramson, 49, is believed to have been the mastermind behind a Columbia-based boiler-room operation he started with his brother, Leonard, and father, Norman, that offered below-market premium malpractice rates to high-risk doctors.

Prosecutors allege the unlicensed business never paid major claims.

Premiums paid by doctors were not applied to insurance but were laundered through more than 240 banks in Europe, Canada and the Caribbean, authorities said. About $5 million is unaccounted for.

John Russell, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice, said the Office of International Affairs is preparing for the Liechtenstein extradition and is cautiously optimistic about Mr. Bramson's return.

"It's in the hands of the foreign authorities, but they arrested him at our request and that's a good sign," Mr. Russell said.

Norman and Leonard Bramson were convicted of fraud and other crimes and are in prison.

Martin Bramson had been on Interpol's wanted list since shortly after his disappearance from his Columbia home -- where he was under house arrest -- in October 1991.

His whereabouts have been a mystery for much of the past three years, though he was known to have been in Mexico and the Cayman Islands "having a real good time," said Mr. Manning, the FBI spokesman.

The wealth Martin Bramson, a former pharmacist and law school graduate, amassed during his alleged criminal enterprise made him difficult to catch, Mr. Manning said.

Intelligence information suggests that Martin Bramson did not hold any jobs while on the run and probably carried large amounts of cash with him, officials said.

When he was caught during a routine stop in Liechtenstein, he had 16 kilograms of gold and more than 4 million in Swiss francs.

"The criminals with money are the hardest to catch. They can go anywhere at any time," Mr. Manning said.

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