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US files suit to seize Mexican official's cash

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MARK STEVENSON | September 26, 2013 11:18 PM EST | AP

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MEXICO CITY — U.S. federal prosecutors have filed suit in a district court in Texas seeking to seize almost $2.8 million in a Bermuda bank account allegedly controlled by a former acting governor of the Mexican border state of Coahuila.

The suit alleges the money appears to have come from embezzlement or theft of government funds by Jorge Juan Torres Lopez, who served as interim governor of the scandal-wracked Mexican state for much of 2011.

Torres Lopez denied wrongdoing in an email to The Associated Press sent Thursday from an address that he has used to contact local media in the past. The email did not include a telephone number and could not be independently verified.

"I categorically deny having committed any crime of this type," he wrote. "I will defend myself legally against this accusation and I will demonstrate the legality of these funds, which are my personal wealth and that of my family, obtained over a lifetime of work."

The lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas says Torres Lopez tried to move the money out of the account at the Old Mutual of Bermuda bank to an account in Germany two weeks after U.S. federal prosecutors announced a similar seizure suit against another former Coahuila official. That official, Hector Javier Villarreal, is a former state treasurer who is wanted on charges of money laundering and other crimes.

As acting governor, Torres Lopez served out the final year of the term of former Gov. Humberto Moreira. Moreira himself resigned as national head of the Institutional Revolutionary Party after revelations surfaced about the state's ballooning debt.

The scandal widened to involve apparent embezzlement of government funds by state officials who allegedly obtained fraudulent loans under the state's name.

The lawsuit details how Torres Lopez gave odd answers to bankers at JP Morgan Chase when he set up an account in Texas in 2008, allegedly to wire money from Mexico and then channel it into the offshore account in Bermuda. Around that time, Torres Lopez was leaving his post as Coahuila's finance secretary and was about to take over as mayor of the Coahuila city of Saltillo.

"Torres specifically asked one of the JP Morgan Chase bankers if wire transfers could be deleted from the system so that no transfer would be seen going from Mexico to Bermuda through the United States," according to the suit.

The suit also said that "during the opening procedures of the above-mentioned accounts, Torres gave bankers at JP Morgan Chase several different explanations regarding the source of his income."

For example, Torres Lopez claimed to be the "owner of Cemex," the multinational, publicly traded building materials company based in Mexico. "Torres never produced any documentation to JP Morgan Chase showing Cemex as a source of funds," the suit said.

Torres Lopez began wiring huge amounts of money, such as receiving three wire transfers in Mexican pesos totaling over $2.5 million in a few days in early 2008, the suit said. It said he became "extremely angry" when statements for a transaction were sent to his address in Mexico. "Torres told the banker that Torres was a public official and could not have details on Defendant (Bermuda) property disclosed in Mexico or to the public."

Soon after, JP Morgan Chase became so concerned about the large transfers that it closed Torres Lopez's bank account.

In an interview with a U.S. federal agent in August 2012, Torres Lopez denied having any money outside of two small accounts in the United States and accounts in Mexico. "Torres explained that his `entrepreneur' business was involved in manufacturing," but "Torres could not explain the nature of the manufacturing business," according to the complaint.

JP Morgan Chase did not respond to queries about why the bank did not detect the inconsistencies from the outset. The suit says the bank tried to contact Torres Lopez, but he did not answer mail and the phone number he had given was a non-working number.