Gang crime now pays by using white collar tactics
Gardai probe of Kinahan Inc reveals a web of asset transfers, debt sales and outsourcing
John Fitzgerald was not your archetypal money launderer. He had no criminal past, he didn't have a drug habit and he didn't appear to have huge financial troubles either. He was a self-employed haulier from Tullow, Co Carlow, who drove his truck on and off the ferries at Irish ports on a weekly basis.
For criminal wholesalers looking for respectable people to take cash out of the country, he was the perfect fit. As it turned out, Fitzgerald was not averse to hiding some illicit cargo among his legitimate load for a small fee. The authorities had no reason to suspect him, until August last year when intelligence came into gardai hands investigating the movement of drugs and cash by the Kinahan-organised crime gang. At 8pm one Friday, gardai set up a checkpoint at Ballyvergal, outside Carlow town and caught Fitzgerald driving through with €1.2m in vacuum-packed bales of cash hidden in the boot of his car. Fitzgerald later admitted to detectives that he was on his way to Dublin Port to take the cash out of the country. He had collected the cash from an intermediary but he didn't know whose it was or where it came from. His excuse was that his business wasn't doing well, and he had financial difficulties arising from his marital separation. Fitzgerald claimed he was to be paid €7,000 for what has proved for him to be a life-changing experience. He was imprisoned for five years with one year suspended. The €1.2m has been deemed the proceeds of crime and the case returns to the High Court tomorrow.
Fitzgerald was a lowly, but essential, bit player sucked into a supporting role in the vast criminal network that is required to turn drugs into wealth. In another era, his clean record and above-board paperwork made him the type of operator least likely to be caught. But the gardai clampdown on the Kinahan crime cartel's activities in Ireland has exposed a complicated web of activity engaged in by gangs such as the Kinahans to realise their end product.
Gardai special units were already investigating the cartel when the Regency Hotel gun attack escalated the Kinahan-Hutch feud to unprecedented levels of murder - most of the 18 victims being on the Hutch side. Gardai have averted more than 50 suspected hits and seized an estimated €8m, much of it suspected Kinahan funds. But the investigations have also yielded a wealth of intelligence on how crime pays these days.
It used to be the case that investigators followed the money. Now they follow the asset. According to the Criminal Assets Bureau, moving cash is such a risk these days, that criminals are borrowing from corporate entities, operating in a world of asset transfers, debt sales, money wholesaling and outsourcing risk, which is where Fitzgerald and others like him come into the picture. Gardai believe that rival criminal gangs are using cash "wholesalers" to take money out of the country, gathering cash from their shady "clients" and farming out the smuggling of it to people on the fringes of the criminal network who have no record.
Assets such as Rolex watches and expensive luxury cars are not only good for flaunting wealth but are the new currency, as revealed by the Criminal Assets Bureau's raids last year on the Byrne gang - whom gardai believe ran the Kinahan cartel's Irish operations. Bureau officers found a network of dodgy garages and car dealerships in the UK and Ireland that supplied high-end cars on a bogus "sale or return" basis to criminals.
This allowed criminals to claim to law enforcement that they were not the owners of a €100,000 SUV, while allowing them to transfer the vehicle among themselves in lieu of payment. They used a network of people with clean records, on the fringes, to register cars owned by criminals in their names, among them a public sector worker, again in a bid to disguise ownership.
Drug debts are also used as currency, with gangs accepting them as payment for drugs or arms transactions.
But according to Assistant Commissioner John O'Driscoll, who runs Special Crime Operations, money laundering still involves to a significant extent "huge quantities of money being gathered together", taken out of the State and going through a process where it is eventually laundered and coming back into the country at a later stage in a legitimate form.
"We believe there is cooperation between organised crime groups. So, while they may organise their drug selling separately, they may come together or cooperate in terms of laundering the money by using the same laundering mechanism," he said.
Once the cash is out of the country, they can filter the cash through so-called "bankers" operating on the international black money market. "If, for example, a criminal gang was to give €1m to one of these so-called bankers, they would charge a fee, and someone in another jurisdiction might release €900,000 to the criminal gang. These are significant people in terms of the criminal underworld," he said.
He credits the latest run of successes against crime gangs to the restructuring of the serious crime units, bringing together armed emergency response gardai, intelligence and drugs specialists under Special Crime Operations.
"Clearly we know a lot about what's going to happen now. And clearly all of the arrests, and the seizures of cash and firearms, indicates that we know what's going on before we move in and engage in those actions," he said.
"When you get a piece of intelligence, it's like getting one piece of a jigsaw. Add another 10 pieces on, and now we have a hell of a lot of a complicated jigsaw done. We keep adding pieces into what is becoming the full picture. As that jigsaw is developing, it is revealing the people, it is revealing the weapons, it's revealing the money, and the operational activity; it is linking it altogether and the cells are filling up in Mountjoy Prison."
The gardai successes are mounting up.
Last week, Martin Aylmer (31), from Marino in Dublin, was sentenced to three years and nine months for helping a criminal organisation to murder Michael Barr, a barman who was shot dead at Sunset House in the north inner city in a crime linked to the Kinahan gang. Last Thursday, Jason Keating, a 27-year-old from Rush, pleaded guilty to helping a criminal organisation murder Noel 'Duck Egg' Kirwan, a long-time friend of Gerry Hutch.
John Fitzgerald was the third money launderer for organised criminals to be jailed this year. Paul Carew, a father of two children, from Saggart, received an eight-year sentence in March for laundering €600,000 linked to the Kinahan cartel.
Gardai said he was a "trusted" person in the criminal gang. Carew claimed he had lived a blameless life, working steadily from the age of 15, only succumbing to an opportunity to make some cash after he got into trouble with his mortgage and his relationship broke down. He claimed his first job was to move €68,000 for an unknown paymaster, but he was caught by gardai. The money was confiscated, and Carew got a suspended sentence. But he claimed he was not allowed to walk away. The gang held him responsible for the loss of €68,000 and forced him to repay the debt. He was taken to the Phoenix Park, in Dublin, where "he was presented with firearms and told 'these are your options',", his lawyer would later tell his trial. Carew was caught for a second time last year transferring boxes of cash from his van to another at a car wash in Tallaght, while under gardai surveillance.
Glen Byrne, a carpenter from City West, was jailed for three-and-a-half years in July for his part in the money-laundering scheme. Although he had renovated the Crumlin home of one of the Byrne gang and had been questioned by the Criminal Assets Bureau after his name surfaced in a suspect car purchase, he had no criminal record and a judge found that he was "not motivated by financial duress", had "no declared drug addictions or debts and he was already a contributing member of his community when this offence occurred".
The successful prosecutions of relatively minor players such as Carew and Byrne does more than disrupt the gang's operations and take dirty money out of the system.
The ripple effect reaches all the way to Dubai, where Christy Kinahan and his sons were forced to move after the attention of Spanish and Irish police became too intense post Regency shooting.
"The Irish criminals now are under so much attention that it is not good for business. If people that we are paying so much attention to go and attempt to do business with other people, they typically don't like anybody having any great interest in them. If you are doing business with people who are under such serious scrutiny, it is not good for business," said Assistant Commissioner John O'Driscoll.
"The reality is that you can only achieve so much in this jurisdiction and that again illustrates the importance of the international aspect of our cooperation in terms of tackling organised crime. I put great emphasis on that and, personally, I think it will yield very significant results in time."