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Four found guilty of staging accidents for money

Published November 18, 2006


TAMPA - Defense attorneys said their clients were unwitting victims of an FBI investigation gone wrong.

Prosecutors said the defendants staged accidents for money - and there were tapes to prove it.

After deliberating for just over one day, jurors sided with the government Friday, finding all four defendants guilty of all charges in an FBI investigation called Operation Misplaced Trust.

As the verdict was read, tears flowed down the face of Denise St. Fleur, a Haitian immigrant who was found guilty of one count of conspiracy and one count of mail fraud. She and the other Haitian defendants, Jean Maxie Ciril and Amos Odon, could receive up to 10 years in prison when they are sentenced Feb. 2.

But their real punishment will come after prison, when they face deportation back to their native country, said Lori Palmieri, Odon's attorney.

"That's why they went to trial," Palmieri said. "They didn't want to roll over and accept deportation without a fight."

Alfredo Polo Padron, a clinic owner who immigrated to Florida from Cuba, was found guilty of one charge of conspiracy and four counts of mail fraud and could be sentenced to 25 years in prison.

His attorney, Richard Escobar, said he plans to appeal the verdict. "We are well prepared to argue this case in the appellate court and we will," Escobar said.

Jurors said Friday they didn't have much difficulty reaching a decision. The case laid out by Assistant U.S. Attorney Donald Hansen convinced them, said Rebecca Battas.

"The government had the evidence," she said. "It was cut and dried."

Defense attorneys were especially critical of the confidential informer used by the government, lawyer Michael Sperounes.

Sperounes was the co-owner of a personal injury clinic when his financial records were subpoenaed. He then offered to help the FBI and began taping people he suspected were involved with staged accidents.

Defense attorneys said Sperounes violated Florida Bar ethics. They also said the three-year investigation, which cost more than $500,000, failed to catch its intended target: doctors and lawyers. Sperounes was paid nearly $200,000 by the government. He was never prosecuted and continues to practice law.

"He got a pass from the federal government," Palmieri said. "He got a pass from the Florida Bar. How is that fair?"

Most of those charged in connection with Operation Misplaced Trust were poor Cubans and Haitians, some with limited knowledge of English.

But Hansen showed jurors videotapes that showed some defendants agreeing to participate. He also produced documents signed by the defendants, which he said proved they knew what they were doing.

Juror Ray Jarman said the government's evidence was impossible to ignore. "It was pretty obvious from the beginning," Jarman said. "They had proof."

[Last modified November 17, 2006, 23:50:14]

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