BY JAY WEAVER | Miami Herald
Posing as men of the cloth, businessman Victor Vazquez and his wealthy friend David Margolis flew back and forth to Cuba by cleverly exploiting a religious loophole in the long-standing travel ban to the communist island nation.
On the afternoon of Dec. 13, 2006, a team of U.S. Treasury and Customs agents finally caught up with them upon their return to Miami International Airport.
When asked about the Fort Lauderdale waterfront home that he used as a ‘‘church’’ to obtain his religious license, Margolis admitted, ``You have me dead to rights.’‘
Vazquez, at first defensive, admitted he assisted Margolis in preparing his application and that ‘‘he knew the church did not exist,’’ agents said.
Vazquez, 40, of Delray Beach, and Margolis, 76, of Fort Lauderdale, would soon become the nation’s first defendants to be charged with illegally obtaining religious travel licenses to get around the 44-year-old travel ban to Cuba.
Vazquez, who had obtained five such licenses illegally, profited by selling his permits to thousands of Cuban Americans seeking to dodge restrictions that became even tighter under the Bush administration.
Last month, a court presentencing report said Vazquez sold the use of his licenses to 6,500 travelers—estimating the government’s ‘‘loss’’ and his ‘‘gain’’ at $975,000. His attorney, Celeste Higgins, called it a ‘‘reckless estimate.’’ She said the government suffered no loss and Vazquez pocketed between $120,000 and $400,000, citing his plea deal.
Vazquez and Margolis, who recently pleaded guilty, will be sentenced Friday and Monday, respectively, in Miami federal court. Vazquez could face up to three years in prison for conspiring to defraud the U.S. government. Margolis, convicted of a lesser charge of filing a false government application, faces up to six months but could get probation.