Businessman testifies in visa fraud trial he was middleman

Witness said he helped defendants wire money through offshore account

March 30, 2001|By Walter F. Roche Jr. | Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

ALEXANDRIA, Va. - A Bahamian businessman testified yesterday that he served as the middleman as hundreds of thousands of dollars were swiftly and routinely wired in and out of an offshore bank account for a firm whose principals are on trial for visa fraud.

Testifying in U.S. District Court here, Howell Jones said the wire transfers, most of them in the $400,000 range, were so frequent that officials at one bank raised concerns that the actions appeared to resemble a money laundering scheme.

Prosecutors allege that the transfers were part of an elaborate scheme concocted by James F. O'Connor and James A. Geisler, to fool officials at the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service into thinking that visa applications filed by their company met the standards for an investor visa program created by Congress in 1990.

Under the program, foreigners can qualify for permanent green cards by investing from $500,000 to $1 million in an American business. The defendants are accused of misleading the foreigners by telling them they could qualify by investing as little as $100,000.

The two Virginia men, charged with visa and bankruptcy fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering and income tax violations, were the principals of the Interbank Group, the Herndon, Va., firm that initiated the multiple wire transfers.

Jones, who ran a company called Britannia Assurance, was called as a prosecution witness.

He said that under an arrangement worked out in advance with Interbank, O'Connor would routinely wire a little over $400,000 into an account in the Bahamas and then Jones would wire the same money back. For every $400,000 run through the accounts, he said he earned a $1,000 fee.

"We tried to turn it around on the same day," Jones said.

Jones also testified that in addition to the wire transfer to accounts controlled by Interbank, there were two transfers for $400,000 each to personal offshore accounts of O'Connor and Geisler. Overall he said there were about 163 wire transfers over an 18-month period ending in 1998.

The Bahamian executive said that he was also involved in providing annuities for Interbank arranged through a company with which he shared office space.

David Barber, a former salesman for Interbank, testified that he and other company employees earned commissions ranging up to $4,000 for every client they signed up for the Interbank program.

He said those signed up were assured that their investment money would be kept in an escrow account until the applicant was granted a visa.

Barber said that after clients complained to him that they weren't getting their visas and wanted their money back, he confronted Geisler and O'Connor.

He said he was told that despite the promises made to investors, money had been taken out of the escrow accounts.

"They said they were trying to make the wrong right," Barber said. He said he resigned from the firm shortly afterward.

In other testimony yesterday, several more foreign investors testified about how they signed up for the Interbank program after being assured they could qualify with an investment of only $100,000 or $150,000.

All testified that they did not get the promised visas, nor did they get their money back from Interbank.

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