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Lebanese citizen who diverted millions in state road money sent to prison

TALLAHASSEE — A 36-year-old Lebanese immigrant who managed to get his hands on millions of dollars in state transportation money has been sentenced to nine years in federal prison.

But questions remain surrounding just how a Lebanese citizen with multiple arrests for auto theft and operating chop shops in Miami could divert about $10 million from the state's coffers to his own bank account.

U.S. District Judge Stephan P. Mickle sentenced Ali Hammoud on Monday in Tallahassee. Hammoud pleaded guilty to five counts of wire fraud and identity theft as part of a sealed plea agreement that could see him testify against others.

Hammoud admitted involvement in a scheme that diverted more than $5.7 million from the Wachovia bank account of Anderson Columbia, a Lake City construction company, to his own accounts at Regions Bank in Miami. Hammoud tried to withdraw an additional $5 million, but the scheme was discovered before the transfer was completed.

Some of the money had been sent by wire transfer to bank accounts in Lebanon.

Trying to recover the money, Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink filed a civil suit against several banks, a Miami jewelry store that sold Rolex watches to Hammoud and others. About $900,000 has not been recovered.

The FBI arrested Hammoud in July 2008 as he boarded an Air France flight in Miami for Beirut, Lebanon. He had $2,000 cash and a new Rolex when taken into custody.

The scheme unraveled after John Godbold, controller at Anderson Columbia, one of the state's biggest road builders, discovered that more than $5 million in expected state payments failed to arrive in the firm's bank account at Wachovia on the morning of July 22, 2008.

Godbold alerted officials at the bank and in Sink's office.

"Every morning we make sure the money is deposited in the bank," said Brian Schrieber, comptroller for Anderson Columbia. "The FBI did a good job in catching him after John found it."

When Hammoud entered a guilty plea earlier this year, his lawyer told the judge that his client was not aware of the amounts of money being deposited in his accounts until after each deposit was made — an indication that others were involved. But no one else has been prosecuted.

Federal investigators said the money was diverted from the paving company's bank account at Wachovia to an account Hammoud owned at a Regions Bank branch in Miami after bogus paperwork was filed with the state directing the change in deposits.

State officials apparently processed the change without verifying it with Anderson Columbia.

Sink fired two of her top administrators after auditors determined that her office lacked the internal controls necessary to manage the billions of dollars it pays to vendors every year.

Lucy Morgan can be reached at lmorgan@sptimes.com

Lebanese citizen who diverted millions in state road money sent to prison 08/18/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 19, 2009 10:59am]
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