(CBS/AP) U.S. authorities have charged 18 people in an alleged plot to smuggle grenade launchers, shoulder-fired missiles and other Russian military weapons into the country.
The arrests resulted from a year-long investigation in which an FBI informant posed as an arms buyer with ties to terrorists. As CBS News Correspondent Wyatt Andrews reports, only eight weapons, all machine guns, were actually sold to an FBI informant.
Still agents said they had stopped an organization fully prepared to sell to al Qaeda.
The case, which took U.S. investigators to South Africa, Armenia and the Georgian Republic, also included wiretaps on seven phones and interceptions of more than 15,000 calls, according to prosecutors, the FBI and police.
The informant, an explosives expert, contacted the FBI after he was approached by a man who said he had access to weapons from the former Soviet Union and believed the informant could find a willing buyer, federal prosecutors said.
Over the following year, the informant purchased eight assault weapons: three in New York, three in Los Angeles and two in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Using a digital camera, alleged ring members, which included Armenians and South Africans, provided pictures of the weapons they said they had available for sale, prosecutors said.
The pictures, apparently taken somewhere in Armenia, showed anti-tank missiles, a Russian missile launcher and an anti-tank rifle, among other weapons, officials said.
Seventeen of the 18 people charged were in custody on Tuesday — two arrested in Miami, five in Los Angeles and the remainder in New York. Prosecutors alleged that the defendants were preparing to import the weapons, including anti-tank missile systems, into the country from Eastern Europe.
A criminal complaint unsealed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan charged five men with conspiring to transport destructive devices in interstate and foreign commerce and 13 others with weapons trafficking for their roles in supplying machine-guns and other assault weapons destined to be sold to the informant.
According to the complaint, the informant met two of the defendants, Artur Solomonyan and Christiaan Dewet Spies, on several occasions in New York City to discuss the details of their weapons deals, including in-depth discussions about the specifications and prices of various weapons that the defendants could ship into the United States.
Three other defendants, Joseb Kharabadze, Joseph Colpani, and Michel Guy Demare aided in preparing to import the weapons from Eastern European countries, according to the complaint.
The court papers said that during a June 2004 meeting in New York City, Solomonyan provided the informant with a list of weapons for sale that included stinger missiles, AK-47s and claymore mines.
Solomonyan, 26, an Armenian citizen living in New York and Los Angeles, and Spies, a South African citizen living in New York, were arrested Monday night at a lower Manhattan hotel after meeting one last time with the informant to finalize their plans to travel to Eastern Europe to arrange the importation of the military weapons, prosecutors alleged.
If convicted, Solomonyan and Spies each face a maximum of 30 years in prison. It was not immediately clear who would represent them in court.
The FBI, which arrested them before they could leave the country to allegedly obtain the weapons, is working with Armenian and Russian authorities to secure the weapons and to arrest the responsible parties abroad, authorities said.
The defendants also are charged with conspiring to traffic in machine guns and other assault weapons, and with selling the eight weapons during the investigation.
(CBS/AP) Federal officials on Thursday announced they had cracked a Belarus-based international child pornography ring with arrests in France, Spain and the United States.
The cases stem from an Internet processor of Web site subscriptions in Minsk, Belarus, which collected fees for memberships to child pornography Web sites that brought in millions of dollars, the U.S. Attorney's Office said.
An executive with a Florida company has pleaded guilty in the case.
"When we followed the money, we ended up getting both the operators of this outfit ... and meanwhile back here at home we were doing search warrants on people's computers who had subscribed via credit card to these child pornographic Web sites," said Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office.
About two dozen people in New Jersey and 20 others around the United States have been charged with downloading child pornography, including a doctor, a minister and a teacher, the office said.
They were snared by tracking the fees from the companies to the consumers of child pornography, with the assistance of credit card companies, said Michael J. Garcia, assistant secretary of U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement.
At a New Jersey federal courthouse Thursday, prosecutors revealed that many of the 270,000 credit card transactions on the sites were from Americans, reports CBS News Correspondent Jim Stewart.
"This is the first time that this type of comprehensive investigation has been done in this country — to go after the child pornography industry from the top to the bottom," prosecutor Christopher Christie told CBS' Stewart.
Federal authorities in New Jersey can prosecute people for actions taken overseas because images were downloaded in the state by consumers, he said.
The Belarus company, Regpay Co. Ltd., and Connections USA, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, were indicted in a money-laundering scheme involving paid memberships to about 50 pornography Web sites.
Four of Regpay's leaders were indicted, and three were arrested over the summer in France and Spain.
The U.S. government is seeking the extradition of Regpay's president, Yahor Zalatarou, 25, and marketing director, Alexei Buchnev, 26, who are in Paris, and its technical administrator, Aliaksandr Boika, 29, who is in Madrid. All had lived in Minsk.
All three are accused of conspiracy to send child pornography by computer, conspiracy to commit money laundering and other charges. The most serious counts carry 15 to 30 years in prison.
U.S. authorities said they are working with Belarus to arrest Regpay's administrative and financial assistant, Tatsiana Sienko, 25, who is charged with conspiring to distribute child pornography and conspiracy to launder its proceeds. The charges can bring five to 20 years in prison.
Connections chief executive officer Eugene Valentine, 38, from Florida, pleaded guilty Wednesday to a conspiracy to launder money for Regpay and its principals.
On Tuesday, Connections employee Keith Czarnecki, 46, also from Florida, pleaded guilty for failing to report the offense to law enforcement.
Regpay was formerly known as Trustbill, while Connections did business as Iserve. Regpay allegedly operated at least four child pornography sites from Minsk, and it carried advertising for other pornographic Web sites. One Regpay site referred to itself as "underground pedo world," the indictment said.
"Today's indictment strikes at the heart of the commercial trade of child pornography by attacking the commercial profits derived from such a deplorable venture," Attorney General John Ashcroft said.
He said the ring was dismantled through efforts of law enforcement in Belarus, France and Spain, as well as agents from the Internal Revenue Service, Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the FBI.
"Regpay Co. Inc. allegedly processed nearly $3 million in subscription fees by persons seeking pornography — much of it being child pornography," Ashcroft said.
The investigation is part of Operation Falcon, aimed at severing commercial support of child pornography. As of Tuesday, $800,000 in sales proceeds has been seized and 160 cases initiated, the Justice Department said.
Federal authorities arrested 94 people in five states Friday for allegedly taking part in various scams to defraud Medicare. The arrests have been touted as "the largest Medicare fraud bust in history."
Authorities took down suspects in Miami, New York City, Detroit, Houston and Baton Rouge, who are accused of billing Medicare for unwarranted equipment, and for physical therapy and other treatments that patients never received.
How much did these alleged scams total?
But according to Federal authorities, the staggering $251 million is a mere fraction of an estimated $60 billion to $90 billion in Medicare fraud that gets added on to taxpayers' bill each year.
Authorities say that one scam alone racked up $72 million at Bay Medical in Brooklyn, where clinic owners allegedly submitted erroneous physical therapy claims for elderly Russian immigrants.
Patients, including undercover agents, were allegedly given $50 to $100 each visit in exchange for using their Medicare numbers - and bonuses were even allegedly given for enlisting new patients. According to authorities, wiretaps collected hundreds of "kickback payments" dispersed in a backroom by a man who reportedly did nothing all day but pay the "patients."
The so-called "kickback" room had a Soviet-era propaganda poster on the wall, showing a woman with a finger to her lips and two warnings in Russian: "Don't Gossip" and "Be on the lookout: In these days, the walls talk."
Medicare's long-time method involved paying providers before claims were investigated.
Under President Obama's Affordable Care Act, federal officials have the authority to cease payment of a provider if fraudulent activities are suspected.
In another case in Brooklyn, authorities indicted six patients who allegedly sold their Medicare numbers to various clinics. Records indicate that 3,744 claims were submitted on behalf of Valentina Mushinskaya, 82, over the past six years.
Thirty-three suspects were indicted and charged with swindling Medicare out of roughly $140 million in several scams in the Miami area. According to officials, Miami is a hub for Medicare fraud, accumulating approximately $3 billion each year.
In Miami, Daniel R. Levinson, the inspector general of HHS, which manages Medicare, said the arrests, "illustrate how health care fraud schemes can replicate virally and migrate rapidly across communities."
The HHS and the Department of Justice have created a joint effort that allows law enforcement officials to inspect Medicare claims in real time and identify suspicious patterns as they are happening.
The results seem to be paying off; in 2008 total claims in Miami declined by $1.6 billion.
Thousands of New York City taxi drivers overcharged passengers by more than $8.3 million over the past two years by setting their meters at a rate that was supposed to be used for trips to the suburbs, the Taxi and Limousine Commission said Friday.
At least 1.8 million trips were wrongly charged at the suburban rate, which is double the rate within city limits, the commission said.
The city has about 48,300 licensed cabbies, and data shows that 35,558 have illegally charged a rider at least once, the city said. A smaller group of drivers is responsible for the majority of overcharged trips - 3,000 cabbies were found to have doubled the meter rate more than 100 times.
The commission has referred its findings to the Department of Investigation.
"Some of these people could face serious charges," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said. "Now, how we would ever recoup the money and get it back to the individual payers, no, but we can stop the practice and we can make sure there's penalties."
The scammed passengers overpaid by an average of $4.45 per trip, the commission found.
Officials discovered the discrepancy by scouring data from global-positioning devices that are required in the city's yellow cabs. The data goes back 26 months because GPS was first required in 2007.
A passenger complaint last year led the commission to find one driver engaging in the scam hundreds of times in one month, they said.
The city said that while 1.8 million overcharged trips is a significant number, there were 361 million taxi trips in the past two years, so the illegal fare was charged in half of one percent of all rides.
A taxi driver advocacy group cautioned that the scam appears so widespread that it might actually be the fault of problems with the technology, not deliberately dishonest drivers.
"There should be a thorough investigation before judgment is cast on an entire work force," said Bhairavi Desai of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance.
In a few weeks, taxi riders will see an alert on the television screen in the back seat when the higher rate code has been activated.
At some point in the recent past, an estimated 10 billion daily spam emails, one-third of the world's total, originated at the fingertips of one Russian man, according to a Milwaukee FBI agent.
Oleg Nikolaenko, 23, was arrested last month during a visit to Las Vegas on one count of violating the 2003 federal CAN-SPAM Act, an offense punishable by up to five years in prison, reports the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The "king of spam" was one of the highest profile members of a ring of scammers in which international fraud artists rely on tech-savvy spammers to annoy and defraud consumers in an enterprise that generates enormous illegal profits, the Journal Sentinel reports.
Nikolaenko is scheduled to appear in federal court in Milwaukee on Friday.
His attorney, Christopher Van Wagner, told the Journal Sentinel that they are prepared to present "a rigorous defense." Van Wagner also said Nikolaenko has a wife and small child back in Moscow who are attempting to secure visas to come to Milwaukee and support him.