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Scheme thwarted after nearly taking Florida for millions

Ali Hassan Hammoud was arrested just before he boarded a flight to Lebanon.

Ali Hassan Hammoud was arrested just before he boarded a flight to Lebanon.

A scheme to defraud state taxpayers out of millions of dollars was thwarted by some alert Regions Bank employees and one of the state's biggest road contractors — but not before some of the money was transferred to Beirut, Lebanon.

FBI agents caught Ali Hassan Hammoud, 35, minutes before he was to board an Air France flight to Lebanon, but they were too late to stop the transfer to Lebanon of some of the $5.7-million stolen from the state treasury.

The money was transferred in four installments after state officials received bogus paperwork directing them to ship the money to an account Hammoud controlled instead of sending it to Anderson Columbia, a Lake City construction company.

Details of the scheme were disclosed Tuesday after documents filed late last week were unsealed in federal court in Tallahassee.

Florida's chief financial officer, Alex Sink, said FBI agents are interviewing her employees to determine whether any state workers were involved in the thefts.

"We don't know that yet,'' Sink said. "The first thing any business that's subject to fraud has to determine is: Was there inside information? Or is anybody inside your organization complicit?''

The state also doesn't know how much money is missing. Sink said Regions Bank has returned "several million,'' including some from foreign banks, but there are still some outstanding transfers and checks that could get cashed.

She praised the quick action of Anderson Columbia officials in helping crack the case and said she is reviewing the way the department handles wire transfers to see what she can do to prevent future problems.

Hammoud, a native of Lebanon who lives in Miramar, was arrested Friday at Miami International Airport.

Law enforcement records indicate Hammoud has arrests dating to 1996 for possession of counterfeit designer clothing, operating a chop shop, vehicle theft, selling vehicles with altered numbers and fraud.

In an affidavit accompanying the wire fraud charges filed against Hammoud, FBI Agent Zachary Coates said the state began depositing money in Hammoud's bank account on July 21, after receiving a form asking that money due Anderson Columbia be paid to an account at Regions Bank in Miami instead of the true account at Wachovia in North Florida. The form was signed by "Rick Ward,'' who was identified as an accountant with Anderson Columbia.

Ward is actually a service manager for the company's Marianna branch, and his name appeared on Anderson Columbia's Web site. Ward had not signed the form and had no knowledge of it, the FBI said. No one at Anderson Columbia was aware of the change in bank accounts until they started questioning officials in Sink's office.

Records at Regions Bank indicate Hammoud's account was opened May 16. A second account was opened June 19 in the name of Zamaiss Import Export Inc., a Florida corporation listing Hammoud as its president, treasurer and secretary. Miami Lakes resident Joseph Shomar is listed as the person who created the corporation. Shomar did not return telephone calls Tuesday.

The scam unraveled after an employee at the Overtown branch of Regions Bank in Miami noticed that a multimillion-dollar deposit had been electronically transferred into Hammoud's account. The employee, whom officials did not name, had known Hammoud as a prior customer and called Wachovia to confirm that the transfer was legitimate and could be released to Hammoud.

On July 21 and 22, more than $3.8-million was withdrawn from Hammoud's account, some of it sent to Lebanon in international wire transfers. By July 23 there was a $1,405 deficit balance in the account.

Anderson Columbia officials began calling the state on July 22 to determine why they had not been paid. Brian Schreiber, comptroller for the construction company, said they initially had trouble convincing Sink's department that the company had not changed bank accounts.

"It took a while to convince them to forward us the documents,'' Schreiber said.

Schreiber said he was troubled when he learned the state would change bank accounts without contacting the company that was supposed to receive the money.

"I imagine they are looking at ways to correct it. We are making our own suggestions,'' Schreiber added. "Every vendor the state has gets paid this way. I hope someone is checking to see if they got any other bank changes like this.''

On July 23, the Overtown bank employee who initially questioned the transactions spoke to an employee at Regions' Edison branch and learned that Hammoud was in the bank requesting additional international wire transfers. The Edison branch employee made note of Hammoud's vehicle and tag number, information that was relayed to the FBI.

The FBI then learned that Hammoud had purchased a ticket on an Air France flight scheduled to leave for Lebanon late Friday. He was arrested by FBI agents moments before he boarded the flight. He remained in custody pending a hearing in federal court Monday.

Times staff writer Steve Bousquet and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Lucy Morgan can be reached at lmorgan@sptimes.com.

Scheme thwarted after nearly taking Florida for millions 07/29/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 4, 2008 3:24pm]
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