Antonio Giraldi, whose Beverly Hills office looked more like a boutique than an international bank, thrived in a world far removed from that of drug dealers and their bags stuffed with cash.
But a federal jury in Brownsville, Tex., on Thursday connected those two worlds, finding him guilty of laundering $30 million for a drug organization headed by Juan Garcia Abrego of Mexico.
"This case is a good example of how a bank officer legitimized a drug dealer," Assistant U.S. Atty. David Novak said.
Giraldi, a boyish-looking senior officer for American Express Bank International, lowered his head as U.S. marshals escorted him in handcuffs out of the courtroom.
Jurors found him guilty on all charges: conspiracy, 10 counts of money laundering, two counts of bank fraud and four counts of misapplication of funds.
Giraldi's former assistant, Lourdes Reategui, 46, was found guilty of conspiracy, one count of bank fraud and four counts of misapplication of funds. She was acquitted of the 10 money laundering counts and a second bank fraud count.
U.S. District Judge Filemon Vela ordered Giraldi held on a $1-million cash bond until sentencing, which was scheduled for Aug. 12. Bond for Reategui was set at $500,000.
Giraldi is a senior vice president in the bank's Miami office. He worked in the bank's posh branch in Beverly Hills when many of the transactions occurred.
Reategui, Giraldi's assistant in Beverly Hills, now works for a Los Angeles real estate company.
As the jury deliberated for over three days, Giraldi, 37, had paced the hallways, often patting reporters on the back, and making small talk about his hopes to return to work and take a mountain biking vacation.
Instead, Giraldi probably faces at least a decade in a federal prison, depending on federal sentencing guidelines and on Vela.
"I cannot fathom how we arrived here," said Giraldi's attorney, Christopher Milner. "I think the basis for an appeal is clearly in the record based on the dearth of the evidence (against Giraldi)."
Reategui's attorney, Robert Turner, called the verdict inconsistent.
"The jury has decided that my client is guilty of conspiracy and not guilty of the money laundering. You figure it out," he said.
Simon Barker-Benfield, a spokesman for American Express in New York, said: "We're greatly disappointed by the verdict. But we do emphasize that the bank does have a strict policy against doing business with clients engaged in criminal activities."
The three-week trial, watched closely by international banks, focused on the relationship between bank officers and their wealthy, often secretive clients.
Defense attorneys, whose fees were paid by American Express, contended that their clients had no reason to suspect that they were handling tainted money.
But prosecutors charged that Giraldi and Reategui intentionally schemed and lied in bank records to make their biggest client, Ricardo Aguirre Villagomez, appear to be a legitimate businessman.
The government alleges that Aguirre, a gas station manager in Matamoros, Mexico, was handling millions of dollars for Abrego.
Abrego is the reputed head of a drug empire in northeastern Mexico that, according to federal agents, imports hundreds of tons of Colombian cocaine into the United States each year and generates more than $20 billion in sales.
U.S. Customs Special Agent Vincent Iglio began the complex investigation in 1989 when he and other agents noticed couriers hauling duffel bags stuffed with cash from a Mexican exchange house to a bank in McAllen, Tex.
A Customs-led task force followed the money to accounts for Aguirre in Switzerland, then to Aguirre-controlled holding companies in the Cayman Islands.
The investigators then found the money reinvested in apparently legitimate businesses in the United States and Mexico.