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Noriega coffee-smuggling scheme reported

WASHINGTON - A federal money-laundering investigation has uncovered evidence that Manuel Noriega received millions of dollars in kickbacks from a coffee-smuggling scheme, according to sources close to the inquiry. The allegations involve contraband Colombian coffee that was shipped to Panama, rebagged as Panamanian coffee and exported to the United States and elsewhere. The scheme enabled the Colombian producers to evade export quotas and sell the coffee for a higher price.

A Panamanian company run by a Noriega associate allegedly played the role of middleman and funneled payments to Noriega, according to two sources close to the inquiry.

Noriega, facing trial in Miami and Tampa on charges of drug trafficking and money laundering, is not a target of the ongoing money-laundering probe by the Internal Revenue Service and U.S. attorney's office in Miami, the sources said.

Noriega's attorney in the Miami drug case, Frank Rubino, said he had no knowledge of the coffee-smuggling investigation.

Federal authorities contend that the coffee operation reflected Noriega's extensive control over the Panamanian economy. Some law-enforcement officials even assert that the money Noriega allegedly received for protecting Colombian cocaine traffickers was dwarfed by payoffs from other forms of corruption.

Panama's controller general, Ruben Carles, said in an interview last month: "The extent of the corruption was more than we thought."

For instance, U.S. officials contend that Noriega collected as much as $100-million selling Panamanian visas to Cubans who wanted to enter the United States and Chinese fleeing their country.

The Miami money-laundering investigation is aimed at customers of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, a Luxembourg-based bank, and is several months away from returning any indictments, the sources said. The Bank of Credit recently pleaded guilty to money-laundering charges in federal court in Tampa and is cooperating with investigators.

The bank's plea bargain specifies that no further charges will be filed against the institution in Tampa. An attorney familiar with the plea talks said the deal also covered the Miami money-laundering inquiry, which began more than a year ago.

In Miami, meanwhile, it was learned that Eduardo Pardo, a co-defendant of Noriega in the drug-trafficking case, is scheduled to appear in court today to plead guilty.

Details of any plea bargain were not immediately known, but the calendar for U.S. District Judge William M. Hoeveler's court lists "Change of plea, Eduardo Pardo," and a courthouse source confirmed that Pardo was scheduled to plead guilty.