September 25, 2023


Taste the Home & Environment

Leak reveals Florida real estate investor’s Swiss accounts


Suisse Secrets

A cache of leaked data from a cornerstone of the global banking industry reveals how the rich, the powerful and the corrupt use secret Swiss accounts to move millions — and funnel some of it into Florida real estate.

Antonio Velardo wasn’t happy.

The suspected Italian money launderer, who would go on to invest in scores of South Florida properties, heard Switzerland had moved to dilute its famous banking secrecy laws, so that foreign authorities would be able to track down any bank accounts linked to tax evasion.

“Look, I need all the information on Switzerland,” Velardo demanded of an associate in March 2009 in a profane missive. “I really don’t like this fact. … These f–kers [the Swiss] have sold themselves. Switzerland will become a f–ked up country. A–holes.”

Velardo, who had allegedly turned to Switzerland to stash several million dollars, had reason to be concerned. As part of a probe code-named Operation Metropolis that started the previous year, he was being pursued by Italian investigators who believed he was cleaning money for the ’Ndrangheta, one of the world’s biggest criminal groups.

Velardo would ultimately be acquitted in that probe and also beat the charges in another investigation connected to the ‘Ndrangheta. That was in part, prosecutors and a judge said, because Velardo’s Swiss accounts remained secret. Until now.

Drawing on bank account data leaked from Swiss banking giant Credit Suisse as part of the Suisse Secrets project, reporting that stems from a massive leak of internal bank documents from Credit Suisse, as well as information from Italian legal sources and other insiders, reporters from IrpiMedia, OCCRP and the Miami Herald discovered additional details about Velardo and an Italian real estate venture with his partner, convicted Irish Republican Army bomber Henry “Harry” Fitzsimons. Investors lost millions on the real estate project, but it has never been clear where much of the money went.

James O’Brien, OCCRP

Some of Velardo’s own money can now be traced to Credit Suisse, where he held secret accounts. Some of them were inaccessible to Italian authorities seeking to follow the money, even after police seized a seaside apartment complex called the Jewel of the Sea after investigators suspected it was used to launder ’Ndrangheta drug money. Velardo and Fitzsimons were major players in the project.

Companies tied to Velardo and three other associates would go on to buy more than 130 properties across Florida in the years to come, as previously documented by the Herald as part of the Pandora Papers investigation, with the majority of homes in Miami-Dade County. The homes acquired by Velardo’s companies were typically modest, with an average purchase price of $100,000, and Velardo’s companies often sold them quickly and for a steep profit.

Many of those purchases came as Velardo fended off criminal charges in both Operation Metropolis and another probe focused on money laundering and the ‘Ndrangheta. Nearly all of the Florida real estate purchases were cash transactions.

Velardo wouldn’t say whether the money from his Credit Suisse accounts was used to buy the Florida real estate, but some of the Swiss accounts were opened in the name of companies with similar names to ones he used to make his Florida purchases.

The real estate acquisitions highlight the ease with which anyone can buy properties in Florida with no questions asked, even people facing criminal charges. And the revelations about Velardo’s Swiss accounts illustrate the degree to which the global elite can keep details of their finances secret, even from criminal investigators.

Velardo has now reinvented himself as a real estate investor and would-be Bitcoin expert in Latin America and the Caribbean, boasting that he has a “master’s degree in digital currency.”

Simon Chambers represents dozens of jilted investors, who say they lost the equivalent of $9 million in the Italian real estate venture. After years of litigation, his clients were compensated at rates of 40-50% via an insurance claim. But had the extent of Velardo’s Credit Suisse accounts been known, Chambers said, the case might have been different.

“We knew the money had gone somewhere,” Chambers said. “It had to go somewhere.”

Asked to comment on the findings of the Suisse Secrets investigation, the bank said: ”Credit Suisse has a strict duty of confidentiality and care to its clients, and we are unable to comment on claims put to us regarding any individuals, whether they are clients or not.”

When Harry met Antonio

The 44-year-old Naples, Italy-born Antonio Velardo lived in the United States and U.K. before relocating to Cape Verde, the Atlantic archipelago off the coast of Senegal, where the ’Ndrangheta is believed by Italian investigators to have a presence.

That’s where, in the mid-2000s, he started working with Fitzsimons, an enigmatic senior IRA officer who served a decade in prison for a 1971 bombing. Once free, Fitzsimons told reporters he had quit the IRA but still backed its political cause. Then, seemingly overnight, he became a heavyweight property developer in Belfast.

In 2006, the pair opened an Irish company, VFI Overseas Properties Real Estate Agent Ltd., to launch real estate projects around the ‘Ndrangheta heartland of Calabria, on the toe of Italy’s boot. The Calabrian town of Africo wasn’t an obvious tourist destination, given its oppressive levels of organized crime. Nonetheless, by March 2007 Velardo and Fitzsimons were involved in a major project on ’Ndrangheta turf.

Italian real estate developer Antonio Velardo and his Irish business partner Henry “Harry” Fitzsimons accepting an award on behalf of their company VFI Overseas Property at the 2009 CNBC European Property Awards.

In March 2007, Velardo and Fitzsimon’s company signed a deal with Antonio Cuppari, who was constructing a huge apartment complex in the town of Brancaleone. Under the deal, VFI would sell apartments at the Jewel of the Sea, as Cuppari’s project would come to be known, in exchange for an unusually large 31% of the total sale price up front.

But what foreign buyers didn’t know was that the complex was being built by an ‘Ndrangheta member.

Cuppari was the local bagman for the Brancaleone-based Morabito Tiradrittu clan of the ‘Ndrangheta, the Italian crime syndicate that dominates the cocaine trade between Latin America and Europe.

In May 2007, Velardo bought plots of land next to Cuppari’s, with the idea of folding them into the Jewel of the Sea development. He knew, authorities believe, that since he was working with Cuppari — a high-ranking ’Ndrangheta man masquerading as a developer — he was protected.

Jewel of the Sea Complex
The Jewel of the Sea complex, at which many apartments remain unfinished, is seen in 2022. IrpiMedia

While Fitzsimons and Velardo officially invested one million euros (a little more than $1.1 million under current exchange rate) into the project, Cuppari kept pouring in funds that Italian officials later proved to be ’Ndrangheta drug money.

In 2007 and 2008, Italian police began investigating Velardo. They suspected him of laundering profits not just for the Morabitos, but also for another ‘Ndrangehta clan, the Mancusos of Limbadi, 37 miles to the north.

After years of police surveillance of Cuppari, Velardo and Fitzsimons, antimafia authorities seized the partially built Jewel of the Sea in 2013. Cuppari was ultimately sentenced to 10 years in prison for mafia association and being part of the ’Ndrangheta of Africo, a section of Calabria. Velardo and Fitzsimons were tried and acquitted for lack of evidence.

Although VFI sold hundreds of apartments in the complex, according to court records, journalists found that only 33 purchasers ever received the keys to their properties. Chambers said that many units were sold but never built. In addition to the insurance money Chambers’ clients received, Giambrone and Law, a law firm that represented VFI, would later be ordered to pay 41 customers some 3.5 million euros (just under $4 million) in compensation.

Closing in on Credit Suisse

Though Italian authorities suspected Velardo had wealth hidden away, they struggled to find it.

On wiretaps, Velardo mentioned a Ferrari bought for 300,000 euros ($340,000) and a 10-million-pound ($13.6 million) London property purchase. His bank accounts, he claimed, held enormous sums. When a friend pitched him the idea of buying paintings, Velardo explained he only invested big.

Italian financial police in the southern city of Catanzaro had a breakthrough in March 2010 as part of a separate sting against Velardo and his associates, this one code-named Black Money. By now, the Jewel of the Sea buyers were trying to get their money back.

At the Italian-Swiss border, police stopped one of Velardo’s Calabrian accountants, Ercole Palasciano, just after he had met Velardo. They searched financial files he was carrying. The papers showed that Velardo and Fitzsimons owned a trust company together in Cyprus, which appeared to be where they were sending real estate profits — including Jewel of the Sea money — to avoid taxes, according to court records.

Velardo had also stashed some money in Switzerland.

The Suisse Secrets data shows that Velardo had one personal account and two corporate accounts at Credit Suisse. By 2011, his personal account had reached maximum balances of 1.75 million Swiss francs ($2 million) and one of the company accounts was worth 1.52 million Swiss francs ($1.7 million), according to the Suisse Secrets data. A smaller company account held a maximum balance of 29.300 Swiss francs ($33,000) before being closing in 2012. Velardo also had three other accounts that do not appear in the data, Italian police later learned.

By the time Velardo was picked up on wiretaps fretting over Swiss banking secrecy, Italian officials had asked Swiss authorities to trace his assets but they were short on hard facts. It was not until 2014, one year after the Black Money and Metropolis charges against Velardo and five years after he had been wiretapped that Italian authorities would learn of these accounts’ existence from the Swiss.

According to Italian investigators, Swiss authorities did belatedly move to freeze two of Velardo’s accounts, one of which is shown in the Suisse Secrets data set. These accounts held more than 300,000 euros ($339,000). However, the Swiss said three company accounts related to him could not be seized. This, they told the Italians, was because the accounts were held in the name of Apax, a Marshall Islands company, and not in Velardo’s name.

Velardo registered two Florida companies in 2012, Apax Holding Corp and Apax 01 LLC, that were responsible for the bulk of the Florida purchases. Like other investors, Velardo previously told the Herald he was drawn by the “unique opportunity” to buy distressed and foreclosed properties at a discount after the Great Recession. All told, the two companies, later known as American Wise Investments Holding Corp and American Wise 01 LLC, were involved in the purchase of nearly 50 properties in Florida between 2012 and 2015 for more than $4.7 million. All came as Velardo was still facing criminal charges in Italy.

Velardo declined to say whether money from his Credit Suisse accounts was used to fund these Florida property purchases.

Tracing the financial flows

That the Credit Suisse accounts survived Velardo’s trials — which were widely covered in Italian media — and suspected ‘Ndrangheta connections raises serious questions about due diligence procedures at the bank.

By 2013 he was infamous: a suspected ‘Ndrangheta money launderer, in business with a convicted terrorist.

“Swiss banks are key for the ‘Ndrangheta,” said an antimafia prosecutor in Calabria. “Clans can bring money in safes there, and we would never know. It has taken place since the 1980s, with the spalloni [bagmen] of the ‘Ndrangheta walking up to Switzerland with cash.”

Credit Suisse Group Zurich.jpg
Credit Suisse headquarters in Zurich Credit Suisse

In a statement, the bank said: “Credit Suisse operates its business in compliance with all applicable global and local laws and regulations. In recent years the bank has taken a series of significant measures in line with Swiss financial reforms, including considerable investment specifically in compliance and combating financial crime.”

Facing two separate sets of charges stemming from alleged money laundering by 2013, Velardo was later acquitted in Reggio Calabria on the Operation Metropolis charges. Though initially convicted on one of the charges in the Black Money probe, the charge was later dropped on appeal after the statute of limitations expired. Fitzsimons, his partner, was also acquitted after being arrested in Senegal and extradited to Italy to stand trial.

In acquitting Velardo, Fitzsimons and Cuppari in 2016 on the money laundering charge in the Metropolis probe, a judge wrote that prosecutors had not made their case that the funds used for the project came from illegal sources. The judge added that prosecutors had been hindered by “the scarce collaboration offered by the foreign police authorities,” and that it would have been beneficial if prosecutors had been able to access the Swiss accounts they presumed Velardo and Fitzsimons held.

That was echoed by prosecutors who worked on the case.

A prosecutor who worked on the case said it was difficult to prove a case against Velardo and Fitzsimons because they kept their money moving between so many different jurisdictions.

“It was impossible to demonstrate the money flow,” he told OCCRP.

Velardo did not answer questions about his own alleged personal ties to ‘Ndrangheta-connected people.

Jamie Diaferia, a spokesman for Velardo, insisted that Velardo had not known Cuppari was connected to the ‘Ndrangheta.

He said in a statement:

“VFI’s role in the Jewel of the Sea development was limited to serving as a broker agency on the sale of units. Although some individuals connected to the development were sued, VFI’s owners were not. No one, including investors in the development and purchasers of units, has ever alleged that VFI or its owners committed any wrongdoing.”

Dan McGuinness, a lawyer representing Fitzsimons, told OCCRP that his client had been subjected to an “inexcusable judicial error” and was completely innocent, noting that the Italian Supreme Court had acquitted him of money laundering. The basis for Fitzsimons’ acquittal was lack of evidence.

Fitzsimons’ wealth stems from a 40-year business career, and he is now retired, his lawyer said.

‘It’s become an absolute nightmare’

Velardo’s business focus appears to have veered away from his native Italy. After his Florida real estate buying spree, he has more recently popped up in the Caribbean, where he heavily touts his business expertise on a website, a LinkedIn page, and a personal Medium blog. He describes himself as the head of a firm called Real Capital Caribe that invests in Dominican Republic real estate.

But there are signs that Velardo’s ties to Calabria remain strong. In 2018, Francesco Colacino, who was investigated alongside Velardo in the Black Money probe, was given power of attorney over Real Capital Caribe bank accounts

Real Capital Caribe is now selling apartments in two condo hotels in Santo Domingo.

The Jewel of the Sea complex, meanwhile, is desolate. Construction never resumed.

Jewel of the Sea Aerial
A partial aerial overview of the Jewel of the Sea complex, taken in 2022. IrpiMedia

“If I would have known [then] what I know now, I would have jumped on the fastest plane on the planet and left,” one owner said.

“It is a jewel of the sea, but it’s become an absolute nightmare for us.”

Shirsho Dasgupta of the Miami Herald and Rahma Behi and Walid Mejri of Al Qatiba contributed.

This story was originally published February 22, 2022 8:58 AM.

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Ben Wieder is a data and investigative reporter in McClatchy’s Washington bureau. He worked previously at the Center for Public Integrity and Stateline. His work has been honored by the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, National Press Foundation, Online News Association and Association of Health Care Journalists.