LOS ANGELES – A Mexican national who pleaded guilty to a federal racketeering offense and admitted participating in a scheme to launder drug trafficking proceeds – which included attempting to purchase a bank to facilitate the money laundering – was sentenced today to 87 months in federal prison.
Pablo Hernandez, 80, of Tijuana, was sentenced by United States District Judge Otis D. Wright II after pleading guilty in November to conspiring to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.
Hernandez was one of 16 defendants named in a federal grand jury indictment unsealed in 2015 that alleged a series of money laundering schemes, some of which involved the Westminster-based Saigon National Bank (now known as California International Bank). Hernandez and a second defendant, Emilio Herrera, had a series of conversations and meetings with a purported money launderer – who actually was a confidential source – which included discussions about regular cash deposits in the U.S. that would then be wired to Mexico, court documents state. During negotiations with the confidential source, Hernandez and Herrera also asked the confidential source about moving money to other countries, but they discounted a proposal to send wire transfers to Panama because associates had lost $100 million in drug money that was confiscated there.
After an account at Saigon National Bank that was used to launder funds was closed, Hernandez, Herrera and then-bank president Tu Chau “Bill” Lu discussed “the possibility of buying Saigon National Bank for the purpose of laundering money,” according to court documents.
In his plea agreement, Hernandez admitted having discussions with the confidential source “about laundering cash for the Sinaloa cartel for a fee,” prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memorandum. “[Hernandez’s] involvement in drug trafficking and associated money laundering activity is confirmed by a separate investigation by the California Department of Justice in 2014 in which defendant was identified as a drug broker and money launderer for a drug trafficking organization considered to be an extension of the Sinaloa Cartel.”
As a result of this investigation – Operation “Phantom Bank” – a total of 25 defendants were named in six indictments. So far, prosecutors have secured the conviction of 15 defendants.
Herrera died after being indicted in this case. The charges against Lu are still pending.
The Phantom Bank investigation was conducted by the FBI, the Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP), and IRS Criminal Investigation.
These cases are being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Kim Meyer and Joseph D. Axelrad of the Violent and Organized Crime Section.