McALLEN – Confusion over what, exactly, a man was pleading guilty to led a judge to delay accepting his plea in a case in which prosecutors allege a McAllen beauty supply store was used to launder drug money under the guise of selling hair clippers and other beauty products.
Francisco Dominguez-Bermudez and Yolanda Peña were due to plead guilty in federal court on Monday for their role in the convoluted money laundering scheme; however, the nearly two-hour hearing did not end as planned.
U.S. District Judge Ricardo H. Hinojosa refused to accept Bermudez’s guilty plea and narrowly accepted Peña’s separate admission of guilt after confusion arose about their knowledge of the illegality of their alleged actions during the one-year scheme.
“In 39 years (on the bench), I have the hardest time understanding what he was doing,” Hinojosa said, referring to the allegedly illegal actions prosecutors spent nearly an hour trying to figure out. explain.
Bermudez and Peña are just two of four defendants named in a superseding indictment alleging that South Tex Beauty Supply – a wholesaler located on Broadway Street in McAllen – was actually a front used to launder money from illicit transactions of drugs that have taken place across the country.
The other two accused are Maria Estela Surprise and Daisy Yannette Surprise, owners of the beauty products company.
In court Monday, Peña testified that she had been their employee for about 20 years.
During this time, Bermudez was a longtime customer who regularly paid cash for bulk orders — mostly “Wahl” brand clippers — which he then sold in Mexico.
Prosecutors said Bermudez would turn himself into a beauty product “distributor,” although he was not directly questioned about it on Monday.
Instead, much of the discussion revolved around prosecutors’ allegations that Bermudez had gone from being a legitimate distributor to facilitating the laundering of drug trafficking proceeds.
“He was provided with a product, he sold it in Mexico, converted it into pesos, which he would then give to drug traffickers,” Assistant US Attorney Patricia “Pat” Profit said.
The product Profit was referring to was legit – beauty products.
According to the prosecutor, rather than paying cash for supplies, as usual, Bermudez began paying with money orders that had been purchased with proceeds from the drug trade.
He would have done it under the direction of Maria Surprise.
Bermudez would then take the beauty products and sell them to legitimate customers in Mexico, where he accepted pesos as payment.
Afterwards, he reportedly handed over those pesos to an unnamed drug dealer in Mexico who Profit says was the one who fired the shots.
This is what Bermudez defense attorney Reynaldo M. Merino called “trade-based money laundering.”
But, no matter how many times Profit or Merino tried to explain how the scheme worked, the judge seemed puzzled.
According to ComplyAdvantage, a technology company that provides anti-money laundering software, commerce-based money laundering often works by overcharging or undercharging, issuing multiple invoices for the same shipment, or shipping in too much or too little of legitimate supplies.
In other cases, trade-based money launderers sometimes misrepresent the goods they sell – saying they are of higher quality than they actually are – in order to transfer the difference to their accomplices. .
But none of that was mentioned in court on Monday.
Not once have prosecutors alleged that Bermudez kept a share of money orders used to pay for beauty products, or dozens of pesos that he then turned over to the Mexican drug boss.
Instead, Profit has repeatedly claimed that Bermudez authorized the use of his bank account at the International National Bank to make deposits, knowing that the funds had been obtained illegally.
“It is he who accepts the money orders deposited in his account. … They may have been (for) a legal product, but they were purchased with illegal products,” Profit said.
“Are you going to tell me he was doing this for free?” a visibly frustrated Hinojosa asked several long moments later before cutting Profit off as she began to respond.
“I won’t take his guilty plea today,” Hinojosa said, referring to Bermudez, who had stood quietly with his shoulders slightly slumped for the better part of an hour.
The judge almost didn’t accept Peña’s guilty plea either, as the court turned its attention to his case immediately afterwards.
Peña pleaded guilty to accepting nearly $55,500 in cash from an undercover asset she believed to be a truck driver delivering drug proceeds from Dallas.
Peña admitted to meeting the truck driver at the beauty supply store before asking him to come to a private office upstairs while she went to get a money counting machine.
The couple were joined in the office of my Maria Surprise, who allegedly told Peña to be careful counting the money lest ‘her throat would be slit if she wasn’t accurate’, according to a document read at aloud by the prosecutor.
But again, the judge had questions.
Namely, Hinojosa tried to determine if Peña had kept some of the proceeds for herself and if she was truly aware that the money’s origins were ill-gotten.
“How much did you earn? Hinojosa asked Peña.
“Just the hours I worked, that’s all,” she replied in Spanish, saying her pay at the beauty supply store was only $12 an hour.
Peña initially said she suspected the money was dirty, but when pressed further if she understood what she had done was illegal, she replied “yes”.
Hinojosa has set Peña’s sentencing hearing for September 28. He further ordered prosecutors to submit written documents outlining more clearly Bermudez’s role in the money laundering scheme.
Meanwhile, Maria and Daisy Surprise, who have both pleaded not guilty, are due in court on August 5.