NY banker arrested in Argentina

July 29, 2008 7:13:16 PM PDT
A banker arrested in Argentina on charges that he stole more than $5 million from the accounts of customers at UBS AG and JPMorgan Chase claims he was only following orders when he laundered money to avoid paying taxes, his defense lawyer said Tuesday. Hernan Arbizu was arrested Monday in Buenos Aires on a U.S. request to extradite him to New York, where he faces up to 30 years in prison and more than $5 million in fines if convicted of embezzlement, bank fraud and aggravated identity theft.

Arbizu, 39, will challenge his extradition but is ready to cooperate with authorities in any way, defense lawyer Pablo Argibay Molina told The Associated Press.

In fact, when the U.S. charges were filed in May, Arbizu not only turned himself in but also acknowledged the charges against him in a declaration to the court titled "My error," Molina said. In the declaration, Arbizu described the crimes he committed but said they were common practices that JPMorgan used to evade taxes and launder ill-gotten money, the lawyer said.

Prosecutors say Arbizu was a vice president in the private banking division at JPMorgan, responsible for maintaining and developing private banking relationships in Latin America, when he embezzled the money between March 2007 and April 2008.

He caused $5.37 million to be transferred out of private banking accounts at the UBS and JPMorgan financial services companies during that time, court papers said.

Molina challenged that figure, saying the theft totaled $2.8 million.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. fired Arbizu in May. A spokesman said Tuesday the company "appreciates the cooperation and the prompt joint action of the Argentine and American authorities" but would not comment beyond that.

In a civil lawsuit filed last month in federal court in Manhattan, JPMorgan accused Arbizu of stealing company property, including confidential and proprietary information, documents, materials and assets.

The company said it had given Arbizu responsibility for 18 months beginning in November 2006 to manage more than $200 million in assets for its clients and had paid him $300,000.

It said that in his position, he was responsible for developing and maintaining relationships with wealthy individuals and their related businesses, corporations, trusts, institutions and other entities in Argentina and Chile.

It said that in May it discovered Arbizu had caused unauthorized and illicit wire transfers between the account of a client and accounts at other firms.

"In the meantime, defendant has fled to Argentina," it said. "JPMorgan terminated him immediately thereafter."

The company said it sought through its lawsuit to block Arbizu from exploiting the knowledge he had from managing 13 accounts for his own gain or the gain of a competitor.

JPMorgan said the confidential information included names, addresses, telephone numbers, income sources and amounts, asset holdings, investment preferences, risk tolerances and financial goals.

In the lawsuit, JPMorgan said Arbizu had called the head of JPMorgan's Latin American Private Banking division, Alvaro Martinez-Fonts, and "confessed to his wrongdoing and stated that he feared returning to the United States would result in his arrest."

The lawsuit sought to force Arbizu to give up anything he had stolen.

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