Vladimiro Montesinos was a bad guy on the run.
By the autumn of 2000, the former head of Peru’s secret police had the law on his tail. Wanted all over Latin America, he was suspected of torture, running death squads, spying for the CIA, trafficking in drugs and extorting money for fixing trials. He even had videos of himself bribing elected officials.
He also had more than $43 million that he had looted from the national treasury, and he needed a place to stash the cash.
Where better than the Cayman Islands, known for its numbered accounts and secretive banking regulations? Once he deposited his purloined pesos, Peru might never see them again.
Forty-three million dollars is a lot of money for a country like Peru. Authorities had no intention of simply writing off the loss, or letting an accused criminal go free.
Pacific Industrial Bank, the financial institution where Montesinos hid the $43 million, realized it had been duped. So bank officers contacted one of the few people in the world who could help them: Miami attorney and money-laundering expert Carlos Loumiet.
It’s an exciting tale, but you have to drag the details out of Loumiet to find out how it ends. The soft-spoken, unassuming 55-year-old prefers to stay out of the spotlight.
“Ideally, most financial institutions don’t want their attorney to make headlines,” he says. “There’s no advantage to press coverage.”
His career is proof, however, that international business law can be exciting. With a colorful practice that crosses borders, cultures and continents, he’s drafted anti-money-laundering legislation for Panama, Antigua and Barbuda. He has also worked on power plant projects in Ecuador, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic and Haiti; on telecom projects in Colombia, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Peru; and with government concessions in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.
He’s fluent in English, French and Spanish and has a working knowledge of Portuguese, and has lived in or visited most countries in Latin America. A traveler for business and pleasure, he has a fondness for beaches and warm climates, but he still takes regular family ski trips to Colorado. A workaholic by nature, however, he prefers short getaways to long vacations.
“At the end of a week,” he says, “I’m itching to get back to work.”
His base of operations is a corner office at Hunton & Williams in Miami, where he’s a partner and chair of the Florida Business Practice group and co-chair of the International Practice group. He joined the firm in 2001, after spending nearly 19 years at Greenberg Traurig.
His workspace is comfortable but not huge, with a view of downtown Miami out of one window and Biscayne Bay from the other. Loumiet is surrounded by snapshots of his five children — a son, 25, and four daughters ranging in age from 12 to 23.
Miami has become a global business powerhouse that’s perfect for an international business attorney. As the “capital of Latin America,” it’s the headquarters for Latin corporations doing business in the States, and vice versa. Loumiet likes the diversity of culture in the city, and also the diversity he finds in his practice. In Florida, he says, an attorney can help draft legislation or have an impact at a variety of levels.
“Here, you have the option to do more as a lawyer than just be completely focused on the business aspects of your career,” Loumiet says. “Frankly, for me, it’s just more fun.”
Combating money laundering qualifies as fun. Most people have a basic grasp of the crime: taking the proceeds of a felony, usually drug dealings, kidnapping or terrorism, and channeling them through a bank or legitimate business. Today, the term has been widened to include any proceeds from a predicate crime — and there’s a long laundry list of predicate crimes, about 160 at last count, including tax evasion, false accounting or helping someone else launder money. Former House majority leader Tom DeLay is (as of this writing) under indictment for, among other things, charges of money laundering.
Prosecutors like the expanded reach of the new laws because they can file more charges, and often the penalty for money laundering is more severe than for the original infraction. But widening the scope of what’s considered money laundering isn’t necessarily a good idea.
It cheapens the crime, Loumiet says, “and degrades it in terms of people’s perception of its gravity. With the best of intentions, laws can be expanded to the point where, in the long run, they have the potential to do more harm than good.”
Most of his practice involves basic international business law, a career he was born to pursue. His father, who is French, was an international businessman. His mother is Cuban and the kids were born in Havana. Young Loumiet was 8 when Castro came to power.
“I remember Fidel’s entry into Havana,” Loumiet recalls, “riding on the front of a tank. Someone said how noble he looked.”
But Loumiet’s father knew that conditions would deteriorate, so he took all the money he could get his hands on and sent the kids to boarding schools in Miami. Loumiet, then 8, and his older brother went to Miami Military Academy; their sister was sent to a girls’ school.
Military school was a tough place, he says. He was the youngest boy there and had to learn English in a hurry. Many of his older classmates had been sent there because they were disciplinary problems back home. The land where the school once sat is now part of the city of Aventura, a Miami suburb. “I didn’t shed any tears when it closed down,” Loumiet says.
His parents got out of Cuba two years later. Because of his father’s work they lived in Peru, Mexico and Ecuador before coming back to the United States.
Professionally and personally, Loumiet has a reputation for being principled and smart — and not just about legal subjects or because he graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Yale. He can talk knowledgeably about black holes in space or the latest bestseller, according to his admiring young colleagues. But he’s also unassuming, the last person to show off how smart and capable he is, says Enrique Martin, one of the young lawyers on his team.
Others notice, though. He’s been named to nearly every “Who’s Who” list a lawyer can be on: one of the top lawyers in the nation and in Florida, one of three leading international lawyers in South Florida and one of the top 100 most influential Hispanics in the nation. He’s been named a “Lawyer of the Americas” and made American Lawyer’s “45 under 45” list in the 1990s. He’s also known for helping Hispanics with international business and capital issues.
Both clients and protégés seek him out for advice, legal and otherwise.
Yolanda Suarez first met Loumiet more than 20 years ago when she was a law student interning at Greenberg Traurig. As chief of staff at Stanford Financial Group, she’s still doing business with him — in fact, he recommended her for the job.
She praises his “thorough grasp of the banking and financial services industry.” The bigger lesson though concerned the care and feeding of clients — and about the times when, perhaps, it’s not best to get involved.
The secret is this: honesty. You can’t separate Loumiet the lawyer from Loumiet the human being, she said. Both place a high value on principle and integrity. Suarez has known him to refuse cases because the people involved were not the caliber of people he cared to associate with. If he feels they’re not honest, he won’t be their lawyer.
Loumiet also is nearly legendary for his persistence. Client after client, across the spectrum of his practice, cites his willingness to find a way to make a deal work, no matter what the obstacles.
In the office, he’s the go-to guy when colleagues have questions.
“I’m the graybeard of the group,” he says of his team of sharp young attorneys. “I’m dragged into all sorts of things by the group.”
Some members of “the group” have been together for more than 15 years, since they were at Greenberg Traurig. When the younger attorneys were ready to leave, Loumiet says, they persuaded him to come along. His motivation: he was facing 50 and ready for a new challenge.
Teamwork is important to Loumiet. Working well together is better for the client and better, psychologically, for the attorneys as well. When he’s hiring, he looks for smart people who have impressive résumés but who also can work well with others.
“If you’re a lone wolf,” he says, “this is not the place for you.”
Loumiet makes an excellent leader of the pack. He’s a remarkable teacher with “a contagious enthusiasm for the practice of law,” says John Haley, who has been on Loumiet’s team for six years. “He really loves the practice of law for its own sake.”
He has stood behind the lectern at the University of Miami and his alma mater, Yale Law School, and passes on his knowledge of his field every day in the office. He almost dropped out of law school after his first semester, though. Law involved a strange way of thinking, he recalls, and he wasn’t sure he liked it. But the dean of Yale Law School — Guido Calabresi, now a judge on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — convinced him to stick it out.
Sometime during the second semester, he says, the mental lightbulb went on and he started thinking like a lawyer.
“I don’t think I would have been good at anything else,” he says.
In his down time, Loumiet enjoys reading, especially history and mysteries. A good history book, he says, “can transport me to another place and time, and I always find that fascinating.”
He also likes movies, Broadway and tennis — but not golf. No patience for it, he explains.
Around the office, he’s known for his devotion to University of Miami football. He doesn’t just go to the big games, he’s out there watching scrimmages — even in the rain, even if there’s no one else in the stands. When he comes into the office on weekends — which is common — he’s often in a UM shirt or ball cap.
This is what Loumiet is reluctant to tell about the Montesinos story: Montesinos had used straw men, a common tactic, to set up bank accounts at different institutions, including Pacific Industrial. One day he sent an emissary to Pacific Credit Corp., a Miami company affiliated with the bank, to withdraw $38 million. The FBI promptly arrested the go-between — who, according to Loumiet, may have been planning to kill Montesinos once he had the money — and learned the whereabouts of Latin America’s most-wanted fugitive.
The bank contacted Loumiet and a partner, Mark Schnapp, both of whom were at Greenberg Traurig at the time. Loumiet is quiet about his exact role in the affair — he says everything about money laundering must be done behind the scenes — but it’s clear he did some heavy negotiating with all the parties involved. The bank wanted to do the right thing, but skeptical Peruvian authorities had to be convinced that the bank wasn’t part of the scam. Instead of waiting for the usual court order, the bank gave the funds back to Peru.
“It was one of the first banks to voluntarily return a significant amount of money,” Loumiet says.
Montesinos, it turned out, was holed up in Caracas. Peruvian and Venezuelan authorities, with support from the FBI, made the arrest. He’s being held in a special maximum-security prison in Peru while awaiting trial on numerous charges, including murder and — of course — money laundering.