NEARLY a year after a former client filed a fraud complaint against Vinir Corporación S.A., the Costa Rican financial corporation is being investigated by the government – although not for the reasons two clients had hoped.
Earlier this month, the Central Bank announced in the official government newspaper La Gaceta that it is investigating 24 check-cashing transactions that took place at Vinir between December 2001 and April 2002.
The investigation aims to determine whether the company is in violation of Article 85 of the Organic Law of the Central Bank and the regulation of money-exchange operations.
SOME of the 39 checks exchanged in this period, totaling approximately $300,000, include transactions involving President Abel Pacheco, former Presidency Minister Rina Contreras and Public Works and Transport Minister Javier Chaves, according to the March 3 publication in La Gaceta.
One of the transactions involves Gramínea Plateada S.A., an account Pacheco claimed in October 2002 was opened by supporters during his campaign (TT, Oct. 25, 2002).
Pacheco was accused of using this and other accounts, and the Vinir money exchange services, to accept donations from foreigners, which is considered illegal for political parties under Costa Rica’s Electoral Code.
One particularly scrutinized transaction, also part of the investigation by the Central Bank, involves the exchange of a $25,000 check made out to Pacheco from Waked Internacional S.A., a Panamanian business whose president, Abdul Waked, reportedly was under investigation by the U.S. government for unspecified charges
(TT, Sept. 27, 2002).
ALTHOUGH these controversial transactions are involved in the current investigation of Vinir, neither Pacheco nor anyone else from the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) is being investigated by the Central Bank because campaign donations are not within the bank’s authority to investigate.
However, the Congressional Investigative Commission on Campaign Financing is investigating campaignfinancing irregularities both in the Unity Party and the National Liberation Party.
When concluded, the investigation could lead to possible reforms of campaign finance laws and sanctions against the parties, a spokeswoman from the Legislative Assembly told The Tico Times last week.
In the Central Bank investigation, only Vinir can be sanctioned if the corporation is found to have participated in unauthorized financial activities, and such a penalty would amount to a fine of 25% of the total amount negotiated in unauthorized transactions, according what was published in La Gaceta.
WHAT inspired the Central Bank’s decision to investigate the entity now is uncertain. Officials from the General Superintendence of Financial Entities (SUGEF), which is handling the investigation, said in a faxed response to Tico Times requests for information that they are not allowed to discuss ongoing investigations.
In the past, Vinir owner Vinicio Esquivel has maintained the Vinir exchange house was authorized to ex-change dollars and colones, including cashing checks from abroad (TT, Nov. 29, 2002).
The Tico Times was unable to reach Esquivel this week to comment on the investigation, as all known phone numbers of Vinir Corporación and Esquivel are no longer in service.
The lawyer whom a client of Esquivel’s and the daily Al Día identified as representing Esquivel – Marlen Abarca – did not return several phone calls from The Tico Times. Abarca’s secretary would not comment on whether she represents Esquivel.
TWO clients of Vinir, who last week told the The Tico Times they are still owed money by the company, said they have had equal difficulty locating Esquivel in recent months. They said they have not spoken to him since November, when his secretary and lawyer both repeatedly said he had fallen ill.
One of these clients, Robert Sharkey, said he asked SUGEF to investigate the Vinir Corporación for fraud in March 2003, to no avail. He claims the Vinir exchange house was just the front door to an investment scam that has left him minus more than $20,000.
Esquivel admitted to The Tico Times in November 2002 to encouraging clients to deposit money with Vinir Financial Services – a separate entity from the exchange house, he said.
CLIENTS reported that when they deposited foreign-issued checks with Vinir, they were offered the option of withdrawing the entire amount, effectively cashing the check, or changing it to local currency, for a 1% processing fee –or depositing some of the funds with Vinir Financial Services.
Esquivel and SUGEF both said Vinir Financial Services, which operated through a bank registered in the British Virgin Islands, was not authorized to operate in Costa Rica.
This unauthorized offshore banking service reportedly offered clients an annual 10% interest rate (TT, Aug. 29, 2003).
However, as the operations of Luis Enrique Villalobos, known as “The Brothers,” began to fall in 2002 (TT, Oct. 18, 2002) some Vinir clients began to claim Vinir Financial Services would not return their deposits.
Esquivel announced in late November 2002 that he would keep his exchange house open and offer his creditors a payback plan, although he insisted his troubles were not related to those of other investment scams.
He attributed most of his problems to the September 2002 closure of U.S.-based AmTrade International Bank, which he used for Vinir Financial Services, by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC), and to the flooding of his trout farm in the Orosí region (TT, Nov. 29, 2002).
SHARKEY said his problem began in August 2002 when he went to Vinir to cash a check for $50,000. Although Sharkey had previously used the service at Vinir with no problem, instead of cashing the check, he was offered installments. These payments quickly fell from $5,000 to $239.
Sharkey has not received a payment since November 2002, and is still owed $22,100, according to his lawyer, Arcelio Hernández.
After getting no response to their complaint with SUGEF last March, Sharkey and Hernández filed a complaint with the Prosecutor’s Office in Pavas last August (TT, Aug. 29, 2003).
“We are still trying to reach an agreement, and (Esquivel’s) attorney says she is going to communicate with him,” said Hernández, who added that he has not talked to Esquivel’s attorney in a month. “We haven’t arrived at much willingness.”
SHARKEY said he has resigned to never seeing his money again. He considered filing a civil case against Esquivel, but later decided filing a case in the heavily burdened Costa Rican court system might mean he would “be here for the rest of my life, for the rest of many lives.”
Many investors considered Vinir one of the most reliable of the unregulated financial service operations in the country. Past clients claim he always paid his debts and stood by his word (TT, Aug. 29, 2003).