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After arresting four people -- including the owner of a Miami-area real estate company -- authorities in Argentina appear to have unraveled the mystery of a $65 million property empire that included luxury condos in South Florida and New York City, as they pursue a major corruption case against former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

The four people arrested by federal police in Argentina last month are Elizabeth Ortiz Municoy, an Argentine national who runs an international realty business that until recently operated a branch in Surfside; Sergio Todisco, Municoy's former husband and a clothing manufacturer; Carolina Pochetti, the widow of a former top aide to the Kirchner family; and Carlos Cortez, a businessman who travels between Argentina and South Florida.

Prosecutors accuse them of investing illicit money on behalf of the Kirchner aide, Hector Daniel Munoz, outside the country using a web of shell companies.

The arrests were ordered by an Argentine federal judge overseeing a case in which Fernandez de Kirchner is accused of accepting cash bribes from construction companies in exchange for government contracts. The money was allegedly delivered to her homes in bags by a driver who kept meticulous notes of his deliveries. The driver is cooperating with prosecutors and has handed over notebooks listing his deliveries.

Lawyers for the Kirchner family have said the charges are politically motivated.

One person listed in the notebooks as accepting bags of cash on behalf of the Kirchners is Munoz, who for many years was the personal secretary of Nestor Kirchner, the late husband of Fernandez de Kirchner and also a former president. Munoz died in 2016.

But before that, prosecutors believe he used some of that money to invest tens of millions of dollars worth of properties in the United States, including homes in Miami and Manhattan and commercial properties such as pharmacies and bank branches around South Florida. The properties -- among them a CVS pharmacy building in Little Havana -- were purchased by Florida companies registered to Todisco and Municoy, leading to questions about how the couple could have afforded so much valuable real estate.

Munoz's connection to the properties was uncovered when a leak of secret corporate documents called the Panama Papers revealed that he and his wife owned a British Virgins Island company registered in Todisco's name. Prosecutors are still trying to determine if Munoz, the former Kirchner aide, had stolen money from the bags of cash and then used it to buy properties for himself, or whether he was doing the deals on behalf of the Kirchners.

Federal law enforcement officials in the United States are looking into the allegations that dirty money was invested in South Florida, according to sources familiar with the case. The Argentine press reported that U.S. law enforcement had shared information on Todisco and Municoy's financial activities with authorities there. The U.S. Justice Department would not comment on whether it had provided information to Argentine authorities.

All the U.S. properties have been sold, meaning that authorities will have to track down the money if they want to seize any assets.

Under Argentine law, suspects can be detained without being indicted. That is the case with the four people arrested. Municoy and Todisco were taken into custody in the city of Mar del Plata, where they live, in late October. Neither of their lawyers responded to requests for comment.

Municoy, who previously told the Miami Herald that she knew nothing about the multimillion-dollar transactions and had "nothing to do" with the properties, is now cooperating with prosecutors and sharing information about how Munoz acquired the real estate, according to local press reports. She reportedly told prosecutors that her ex-husband was to blame for the scheme.

As a result of her cooperation, Municoy has been released from jail. Todisco, Pochetti and Cortez remain in custody.

Municoy appears to have been cutting her ties in the United States as the investigation heated up. Last year, she sold her $800,000 condo in Hollywood. The office of her Surfside business, Municoy International Properties, has been empty for more than a year. A website for the company, which previously listed luxury homes, now says it is "under construction."

One thing she has kept up: her monthly $300 payments to the real estate broker whose license she used to buy and sell properties, according to the broker, Thomas Baker of Boynton Beach. (Municoy is not a licensed real estate professional in the United States, but it's legal to use a third-party broker's license.)

"She does still owe me for this month," Baker said. "I'm going to have to cut her loose. I never had an inkling she did anything wrong."

Meanwhile, Todisco is also seeking to cooperate with prosecutors, which could reduce his sentence if he's convicted, but the judge overseeing the case rejected the collaboration agreement. Todisco, Munoz's alleged front man, has admitted to acquiring the properties, but said he knew Munoz "as a businessman" and didn't know the "origin of the funds," according to Argentine newspaper Clarin.

Pochetti, Munoz's widow, has denied participating in the alleged money-laundering scheme and told the court that she felt "deceived" by her husband, the former Kirchner aide. She claimed that she hadn't asked questions about the growth of the family's wealth, according to press reports. Her attorney could not be reached.

Cortez, who has also been accused of participating in the alleged scheme, was arrested at the airport in Buenos Aires after returning from a trip to Miami. Prosecutors suspect he had traveled to the United States to hide assets, Clarin reported.

Cortez also invested in South Florida real estate. In total, companies registered to him paid $2.9 million for condos in Miami and Sunrise.

One of those companies, New Dreams LLC, was set up with help from Olga Santini, the Miami representative of Mossack Fonseca, the now-closed Panamanian law firm whose files were leaked in the Panama Papers. Cortez also had Mossack Fonseca -- the firm that set up an offshore company for Munoz -- register a company named New Dreams in Nevada.

The connections don't end there. Cortez later sold one of his Sunrise condos to Guillermo Eduardo Fernandez, an alleged front man for Jose Lopez, a former public works secretary under Kirchner and Fernandez de Kirchner arrested in 2016 after he was found throwing bags of cash and a semiautomatic rifle over the walls of a nunnery outside Buenos Aires. Lopez is cooperating with prosecutors in the corruption case against Fernandez de Kirchner, according to press reports.

Another couple accused of participating in the scheme is still at large.

A federal judge in Argentina has ordered the arrests of Carlos Gellert and Perla Puente Resendez, according to press reports. Resendez was the director of many of the Florida companies that held the real estate after Todisco and Municoy resigned as directors in 2015.

Resendez is related by marriage to the widow of the former Kirchner aide, according to the Argentine website BorderPeriodismo. Resendez's husband, Gellert, is the widow's cousin.

Property records show that Gellert and Resendez own a home in Mission, Texas.

Charles Serfaty, a lawyer was the registered agent for Resendez's Florida companies -- which are now listed as "inactive" in state records -- could not be reached for comment. Neither could Resendez and Gellert.

The Florida and New York properties were later sold for nearly $73 million, and part of the money was reintroduced into the banking system and transferred to other U.S. states, and to Mexico, Hong Kong and Andorra, according to a report by a special financial crimes unit that was cited in press reports.

Although Fernandez de Kirchner was indicted in September on charges that her administration accepted bribes, she is a senator and therefore has immunity from arrest, although not from prosecution.

Fernandez de Kirchner's attorney, Gregorio Dalbon, said in an email that she "has nothing to do with any properties in Miami" and "nothing to do with Nestor Kirchner's secretary."

"No one doubts in Argentina that (Fernandez de Kirchner) is the victim of judicial and media persecution in an attempt to defame and banish her," he added in an email. "This is something that will not happen because there is no proof that has destroyed her presumption of innocence."

To recover any funds taken by Munoz, prosecutors will have to figure out where the money from the property sales went. That's something prosecutors probably expect Municoy to reveal, although she's been quiet on that subject in the past.

©2018 Miami Herald

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NW News on 11/04/2018

Print Headline: After investing big in Miami real estate, 4 Argentines held in corruption scandal

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