BELIZE CITY, Wed. Jan. 13, 2016–August “Gus” Tabony, 65, a popular US national who lives in Belize, was released by Honduran authorities on Monday evening, after 4 hours of closed-door hearings in which he had to prove that the US$16,490 with which he had been nabbed at the airport was not dirty money but money that he had gotten from legitimate sources.
Tabony’s ordeal began at about 6:30 a.m. on Tuesday, January 5, when he was about to board a Tropic Air flight from Roatan to Belize with US$16,490 cash bundled inside his backpack and briefcase.
Tabony told us that the money was seen when he walked through the body scanner, and that was when he was pulled aside, and then he was detained and taken to the police station, where he was kept for 6 days in detention.
The businessman told us, though, that he was not placed in a cell but allowed to stay inside a room that was equipped with a bed and air conditioning. He said that the cops, with whom he became friends treated him well.
Multiple news sources in Honduras reported last week that Tabony had been detained at the Juan Manuel Gálvez International Airport, of Roatán, Islas de la Bahía on Tuesday, carrying sixty-nine $100 bills, seventeen $10 bills, thirty-four $50 bills and three hundred eighty-six $20 bills, with a total value of US$16,490.
Tabony, who told us that he had never taken that much money out of Honduras before, admitted that he was wrong to not declare it.
“I made a mistake,” Tabony told journalists on his return to Belize on Tuesday.
He said that the matter could have been cleared up in 30 minutes but “prosecutors tried to make a much bigger thing about it.”
Tabony claimed that there was no place at the airport to declare the cash, and no forms had been provided.
When Honduran authorities detained him at the airport, on allegation of money laundering, the burden was on him to prove that this was not the case—that the cash he had was from legitimate sources.
Tabony told Amandala that under Honduras law, anyone found with more than US$10,000 cash—whether in a house, car or at the airport—could face money laundering allegations and would be required to prove that the funds have been legitimately obtained.
Tabony said that managers from his businesses in Belize and Roatan, Honduras, appeared before a special judge on Monday who had been flown in from Tegucigalpa, but he told us that he did not remember her name.
Tabony’s attorney in Belize, Chris Coye, helped to provide the supporting documents needed to prove that the businessman had been running legitimate businesses in Belize. He said that evidence was also provided that his businesses are up-to-date with taxes. The closed-door hearing took 4 hours on Monday morning and at around 4:00 in the afternoon, the judge handed down a decision, Tabony told us.
According to Tabony, they had left Belize on December 31, 2015, with some of the cash, but it did not have to be declared since it was transported by him and his business associates, and the amount that they had did not exceed the US$5,000 limit above which funds have to be declared.
He told us that in Honduras, banks will not accept large quantities of $20 bills, because they claim that the denomination is the one preferred by narco-traffickers. They will accept only up to $500 in $20 bills from one depositor on a given day, he said.
The businessman told us that while he was in Roatan, it was the high season, and that was when they collected roughly $7,000 in 20-dollar bills which, he said, he could not deposit at the bank, and so he intended to bring the cash to be deposited directly in Belize, to help meet pressing commitments here.
However, although Tabony had been released after he convinced the judge that his cash did come from a legitimate source, Honduran authorities will keep a third of the cash—in excess of US$5,000—as a penalty for him not having declared the funds before he attempted to leave the country. He said that he did not get any of the cash back, and the funds are still being held by the “fiscalia” or public prosecutor.
This notwithstanding, Tabony said that the matter was eventually resolved to his satisfaction and he was freed to return to Belize, which he did on Tuesday.
He told us that the infraction won’t be on his record as a criminal conviction and he would not be listed by Interpol.
Tabony said that with the help of his attorneys, he was able to prove that he is not operating “a business in a suitcase.”
He told us that he has 6 stores and 2 restaurants in Roatan, where he has been in business for 15 years, and several enterprises, including Tabony Industries, in Belize, where he has been doing business for over 30 years.
Tabony told journalists yesterday that he had such a negative feeling about his ordeal that he was considering withdrawing his investment in Roatan. When we asked him about that today, he said that he was only speaking of new investments he was in the process of making – not the existing ones. He said he does not want to punish others because of the “bad treatment,” he received from the “fiscalia” or public prosecutor.