Two men were arrested and charged with using fake religious organizations to get thousands of people permission to travel to Cuba, prosecutors said Thursday.
Victor Vazquez and David Margolis invented nonexistent religious organizations to apply for federal government licenses that allow U.S. residents to travel to Cuba, U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta said. Nearly all travel to Cuba from the U.S. is banned, except for certain religious, humanitarian and research reasons.
Prosecutors say the men then provided the licenses to travel agencies, which sold the use of them to more than 4,500 people for about $250 above the normal cost of tickets. The scheme began last April, prosecutors said.
Vazquez and Margolis each were charged with one count of conspiring to violate Cuba-related travel regulations. Vazquez was also charged with two counts of lying on applications to obtain religious travel licenses to Cuba. The maximum sentence for each charge is five years.
They made their first court appearances Wednesday in Fort Lauderdale. Margolis was released on a $1.25 million bond. Vazquez’s pretrial detention hearing continues Friday.
Margolis’ attorney Richard Rosenbaum said he plans to plead not guilty and defend the case vigorously if an indictment is handed down.
“Mr. Margolis has never been in trouble for anything in his entire life,” Rosenbaum said.
A telephone message left for Vazquez’s attorney, Robert Eckard, was not immediately returned.
“Today’s criminal charges are a wake-up call to those who seek to violate the economic and trade sanctions against the Cuban regime,” Acosta said at a news conference.
Acosta wouldn’t say if his office had specific plans to bring charges against the travel agencies or the thousands of people who traveled using the licenses.
“We start here, but that doesn’t mean we end here,” Acosta said.