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Tucked in the corner of Concourse F at Miami International Airport, the Club America Lounge bills itself as an escape from the common throng, with elevated status secured for a mere $40 entry fee.
Judging by reviews on sites like Yelp (1.5 stars), however, the lounge’s offerings of dry cookies, warm soda, polyester armchairs and slow wi-fi didn’t exactly make visitors feel like VIPs.
While that hardly qualifies as a crime, something else that went on at the obscure lounge does. It was the headquarters for a family-run money laundering operation that skimmed millions from airport revenue.
A married couple last week admitted to using the lounge in an operation that stole millions of dollars, using shadow bank accounts to loot funds intended for Miami-Dade’s Aviation Department. Former Club America account manager Elena Iglesias, and her contractor husband, Lazaro Iglesias, pleaded guilty to organized fraud, grand theft, and two counts of money laundering. After they surrender next month, they’ll each serve three years in prison and have to pay $2.6 million in restitution. Once out, they’ll be placed on 10 years of probation.
“Whether it’s $10 or $10 million, we can’t send the message that this kind of behavior is okay,” Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Martin Zilber told them during a sentencing hearing on Thursday.
A third defendant, Malena Rodriguez, 50, a secretary who worked under Elena Iglesias, pleaded guilty to the same four charges and got nine months in jail. She’ll have to pay $355,705 in restitution.
While money laundering can take many forms – usually the vague-sounding stuff of TV crime dramas or investigations of former Trump campaign aides — the lounge scam was straightforward.
Airlines often provide well-monied passengers with vouchers for use at lounges such as Club America, run by a company called International Airport Management Inc. The airlines reimburse the company with checks, which are supposed to be deposited into a county bank account.
Investigators found that for years, the three were depositing about 20 percent of the total revenues received from airlines into personal accounts, fooling tellers by using an account with a similar name: IAMI Club Amer Inc.
The paper trial was irrefutable, leading the three to plead guilty with no plea deal. That meant sentencing was up to Judge Zilber.
Miami-Dade prosecutor Isis Perez argued for five years prison for the couple, who spent the stolen money to pay off credit card bills, car loans and mortgages.
But attorneys Sam Rabin and Bradley Collins, who represented the Iglesias, asked for house arrest because of their cooperation with police. The couple had no criminal past before this arrest.
Elena Iglesias, 49, began working at the airport lounge at just 18 years old – starting out as a hostess. A mother of four, she also wrote the weekly newsletter and managed databases for Glory House, a non-profit devoted to helping victims of sex trafficking.
As for Lazaro Iglesias, 50, he worked for 13 years at Miami-Dade’s Aviation Authority, moving up from checking parking permits to supervising terminal operations.
He claimed his life was marred by trauma. Once, Lazaro Iglesias witnessed a man plunge to his death from an elevator platform. Another time, in the heyday of 1980s cocaine-fueled Miami, Iglesias was inspecting luggage and found two dismembered corpses, vacuum sealed.
“The bodies were subsequently identified as two individuals that were to serve as witnesses against a Colombian drug trafficker,” his lawyer wrote to the court.
Lazaro Iglesias also worked informing relatives about the deaths of their loved ones in the 1996 ValueJet crash that killed 110 people. He was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
“I find myself,” Lazaro Iglesias told the judge, “in a perpetual reflection between my life and my crime, trying to pinpoint where I went wrong.”