TAMPA — West Africa needed used cars. Florida had them. It seemed simple enough to exporter Sammy Mansour, who routinely filled orders for overseas buyers through Mansour Brothers Auto Trading.
Rarely did he meet his customers, Mansour says.
"They send me the money. I buy the cars," he says. "I ship the cars, and this is where it ends."
He wishes it had always ended there. He wouldn't still be worrying about his reputation.
Instead, the U.S. government alleged in a 2011 civil lawsuit that 30 such exporters nationwide — including Mansour Brothers — had been caught up in a money-laundering scheme that supported Hezbollah, a terrorist group based in Lebanon.
On a global level, the case had some teeth. This summer, federal attorneys reeled in $102 million in a settlement against the now-defunct Lebanese Canadian Bank. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan, which filed the lawsuit, put out a news release.
But no one trumpeted a deal struck a year ago with Mansour Brothers. The government dropped the firm from the lawsuit in exchange for it forfeiting two bank accounts worth $821. That was after initially seeking $3.2 million, the total money wired for car sales from 2007 to 2011.
Mansour's attorney, Timothy Shusta, considers the $821 settlement to be a reflection of the merits of the lawsuit. He has seen similar outcomes with other car exporter clients. Some, such as Mansour, settled to avoid costs of litigation.
"If you look at the government alleging $3 million … and then settling for $800, that means their case against these car dealers, or their ability to prove it, wasn't real strong in my view," Shusta says.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York declined to comment.
Mansour was not charged with a crime, and he wasn't sued individually. The government targeted only the assets of the business.
The agreement states that he "did not know or have reason to know" about alleged money laundering.
He admitted to no wrongdoing but agreed to adopt anti-money-laundering guidelines and not to enter into transactions with parties believed to be affiliated with Hezbollah.
Mansour took it a step further. He no longer exports cars.
It's been nearly a year since the case was settled.
Still, when Mansour searches his name on the Internet, he sees allegations that his business aided terrorists.
His children, ages 9 to 14, hear mean comments about it.
" 'Oh, your dad's related to Hezbollah?' … This is the life I've been living," said Mansour, 48.
It's hard to stomach for a naturalized American citizen who emigrated from Lebanon 30 years ago and owns gas stations in Tampa.
"If the government is against it, I am against these people," Mansour said. "I'm almost, like, born here."
Patty Ryan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3382.