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News > Newsmakers
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Suits on the lam
Corporate chiefs wanted by the law can run, but can they hide?
June 23, 2004: 4:01 PM EDT
By Krysten Crawford, CNN/Money staff writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Maybe it's panic, hubris, guilt -- or a combination of the three. But every now and again, a corporate chief accused of breaking the law hightails it rather than face the prospect of a long time behind bars.

Lost in Paradise ...

It's happened twice in recent weeks.

There was Herbert Axelrod, a multimillionaire publisher of pet care books who fled the country in April soon after indictment in a tax fraud scheme involving a rare collection of violins. He went to Cuba, then Switzerland, and was arrested last week as he stepped off a plane in Berlin.

Next came Tomo Razmilovic, the former CEO of bar code scanner maker Symbol Technologies, who was charged with accounting fraud last month. He fled first to his native Croatia before surfacing last week in Sweden, where he told a local newspaper he intends to stay -- if Swedish authorities let him.

Axelrod and Razmilovic join a long list of corporate suits who have fled the feds through the decades.

More could soon follow. Criminal defense lawyers say clients are more anxious than ever now that a post-Enron tightening of the federal sentencing guidelines has seen jail terms skyrocket to potential life imprisonment in the worst fraud cases.

"We're going to start seeing sentences come down that are analogous to what crack dealers are getting because of the kick-up in the sentencing guidelines," said Douglas McNabb, a Houston criminal defense lawyer and expert on international extradition.

For example, former Dynegy Inc. executive Jamie Olis last month started serving more than 24 years for fraud.

Advice for the 'refugee'

McNabb said he's seen a jump in the number of calls he gets from people who have been indicted and are looking for advice on countries to which they can escape. For ethical and legal reasons, McNabb said he won't help them plot a getaway.

But there are other resources, including the Web site escapeartist.com, which addresses such subjects as "Disappear in Six Easy Lessons" and "Restart Your Life Overseas."

There's also "The International Fugitive," a how-to guide written by Kenn Abaygo. He also penned "Advanced Fugitive," a sequel to his "Fugitive: How to Run, Hide, and Survive."

Roger Gallo, the founder of escapeartist.com and anti-government crusader who prefers "refugee" to "fugitive," said in an article on his site that Havana tops his list of ideal getaways. He also recommends Cartagena, Colombia, where the ease of getting lost in the traffic outweighs an extradition treaty with the U.S.

Gallo warns against hightailing it to Costa Rica, a popular destination. "Disappearing in Costa Rica is like disappearing in Beverly Hills, and almost as expensive," wrote Gallo. "No one disappears in Costa Rica, except perhaps the Costa Ricans that you invest money with."

Another hot spot, preferred mostly by British corporate thugs, is northern Cyprus, which isn't recognized by any country other than Turkey.

You can run...

But countries have become more cooperative in recent years about handing over fugitives wanted somewhere else. Today the U.S. has about 120 extradition treaties with nations that basically establish that each will hand over fugitives wanted by the other country.

"South Africa used to be a place a lot of people would go to, then it was Spain," said Clive Stanbrook, a Belgian lawyer and co-author of "Extradition: Law and Practice." "But these places are all drying up now. There's not many left."

The remaining options aren't exactly oases, either because they're not that friendly to westerners or are desolate. They include China, Russia, and various African and Middle Eastern countries, among them Ethiopia, Algeria and Yemen.

But wannabe fugitives should take note: Just because a country has an extradition treaty with the U.S. doesn't mean it's not a safe haven.

Cuba, for example, has had an extradition deal with the U.S. for 100 years. But Fidel Castro, the target of various American-led assassination and coup attempts, isn't exactly eager to accommodate U.S. requests.

And extradition treaties themselves can contain loopholes. Razmilovic, the ex-Symbol Technologies chief, is banking on an exception Sweden, along with some other countries, carves out for its own citizens. Though born in Croatia, Razmilovic claims Swedish citizenship.

Some countries won't ship scofflaws back to the U.S. if the crime of which they're accused isn't also illegal in their own country. The potential punishment could also be an issue: Some countries, notably in Europe, won't extradite people who may face the death penalty in the U.S.

On the flip side, there are risks to fleeing abroad, extradition treaty or no. The decision on returning a wanted criminal to the U.S. is basically up to officials in the host country. Diplomacy sometimes prompts a foreign country to deliver a fugitive, even absent an extradition treaty.

Extradition law experts say that reality might not bode well for Razmilovic.

Consider too that U.S. courts have given federal agents broad authority to "trick, lie and deceive" to lure fugitives to another, more extradition-friendly country or into international waters, according to McNabb. They can also kidnap fugitives, the countries' own laws be damned.

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What's more, huge advances in technology have made it far easier for the feds to trace people through cell phone logs, credit card receipts, among other electronic trails.

And the post-9/11 clamp down on terrorist financing has given authorities more power to cut off access to overseas bank accounts, leaving scofflaws with the option of lugging around suitcases full of cash.

That means corporate scofflaws on the lam have to watch their backs day and night.

Still, it can be done. One notorious example is Robert Vesco, the Nixon-era financier accused of fraud who bounced throughout the 1970s and 1980s from Costa Rica to the Bahamas to Nicaragua before landing in Cuba. Vesco's luck ran out when he was accused in the mid-1990s of marketing a miracle cancer drug without the Cuban government's knowledge. He's due to be released from a Cuban jail cell in 2009.

Another high-profile deserter is Marc Rich, who fled to Switzerland following his 1983 indictment in a massive tax fraud and illegal oil trading scheme. There he successfully fought extradition until Bill Clinton gave him a presidential pardon before leaving office in early 2001.  Top of page




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