The Miami Herald
May 11, 2000

Prison ends Mariel success

Couple sentenced for tax violations


 The Mariel success story of Milton and Nilda Serret, whose Cuba Paquetes
 business was for nearly a generation a key conduit between Miami exiles and
 their families in Cuba, came to an end Wednesday in federal court.

 Handcuffed after hastily handing off his car keys to his accountant, Milton Serret,
 48, was led away to a 20-month federal prison sentence for tax fraud.

 His wife, Nilda, 43, was given eight months to organize the family's affairs --
 notably, care for the couple's 12- and 6-year-old daughters -- before herself
 surrendering for a one-year prison sentence.

 ``America has been very good to the Serrets,'' said U.S. District Judge Federico

 Indeed, it had. Arriving during the Mariel boatlift, the Serrets opened a string of
 storefront package delivery services from Little Havana to Hialeah that for a time
 dominated the so-called envios market, delivering money and merchandise to
 families in Cuba from their relatives in Miami.

 They built a huge fortune from the business that thousands of Cuban exiles used
 for years to ferry cash, medicine, clothes, canned hams and other goods to family
 still on the
 island. They bought and sold six- and seven-figure homes, including one in Miami
 Beach that sold for $1.4 million in 1999.

 Because they were one of the few visible connections to Cuba, the shops were
 occasionally the scene of protest. Just last week, in the wake of the federal raid
 to return Elian Gonzalez to his father, organizers called a protest at the branch on
 Southwest Eighth Street to advocate withholding remittances to Cuba.

 The Serrets' downfall began in 1995, when U.S. tax agents visited their home to
 interview them. In February, the couple pleaded guilty to fraudulently using their
 business to pay for hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal expenses,
 including expensive cars and luxurious condominiums.

 ``I don't want to be separated from the girls,'' said Nilda Serret, weeping in her
 pre-sentencing plea after offering a spirited argument for recently buying a
 $435,000 house:

 Nilda Serret said she will be able to refinance it to pay off tax liabilities to the
 Internal Revenue Service, which her attorney said could reach $1 million.

 The couple's case provided a glimpse into a world of wheeling and dealing in a
 business across the Florida Straits that apparently began before the Serrets
 arrived in the United States from Cuba in 1980.

 In one memorandum to the government, the couple said not all of their wealth was
 earned here. Milton Serret had ``available cash resources in excess of $250,000''
 when he left Communist Cuba in 1980 -- a time when dollars and pesos were
 officially trading at 1 to 1.

 In an interview with agents of the Internal Revenue Service, according to a report
 by Special Agent Olga Acevedo, the Serrets said they built their business in part
 by operating a dollar exchange and by selling $20 American blue jeans for $150
 apiece in Cuba.

 Defense lawyer William Tunkey told the judge Wednesday that there had been a
 misunderstanding in the interview -- that those profits were made in black
 marketeering in Cuba before the couple came to the United States, not after.

 Cuba Paquetes opened in 1985 and got Treasury Department licensing in 1988.

 Wednesday, Treasury spokeswoman Maria Ibañez refused to say whether the
 Serrets had surrendered that license or had a revocation because of the February
 admission of guilt. She cited privacy protections.

 Ibañez also refused to say whether the Department was aware that an agency
 other than Cuba Paquetes had assumed its business.

 But Wednesday, the former Cuba Paquetes storefronts on Calle Ocho and NW
 7th Street in Little Havana had new signs proclaiming the businesses' new name
 -- Caribbean Travel, Visajes (sic) y Envios A Cuba. And a manager at the Hialeah
 headquarters identified the new owner as John Cabañas, another well known
 cross-Straits entrepreneur.

 A woman answering the phone at Cabañas' office said he was out of the country
 and unavailable for comment.

 Tunkey told the judge Wednesday that the Serrets no longer owned and operated
 the firm.

 Just days ago, he told the court, the Serrets sold the business to ``a going
 concern with identical licensing.'' On direct questioning by the judge, Milton Serret
 said the sale price was $750,000 although he would be paid out over time --
 $4,375 a month plus $4,400 a month as a consultant.

 Serret said it was not yet negotiated whether he would receive the consulting fee
 while sitting in jail.

 Wednesday, Nilda Serret also revealed that she and her husband of 21 years
 were now legally separated and that she had filed for divorce. By agreement, she
 said, she was keeping the couple's $435,000 home and getting from her husband
 $2,000 a month in child support, $500 a month in alimony and $3,000 a month
 ``from what he owed me in the property we divided.''

 Attorneys Tunkey and Philip Weinstein, who represented both Serrets, sought a
 delay in Milton Serret's prison term to give him time to settle affairs. The judge
 refused, saying he had been given time since the February guilty plea.

 The couple barely interacted during the proceedings. When U.S. marshals, for
 example, told Serret he could leave behind his personal belongings, he did not
 look at his wife.

 Instead, he handed his cellular telephone, gold chain and other items, including
 his car keys, to his tax man, who was brought to court as a forensic certified
 public accountant.

 The government's original 1999 case alleged much wider fraud, covering nine
 counts over three years. Wednesday's sentence, agreed under a plea bargain,
 was on a single count each alleging that the Serrets cheated the government out
 of more than $350,000 in taxes in 1994.

 The maximum sentence could have been five years in prison and $100,000 fines.

 Moreno, for his part, said that although the couple was not charged with black
 market activity, allegations that the Serrets had engaged in such activities with
 Cuba ``troubled me.''

 He also did not agree to the couple's request to serve their sentences
 consecutively, to allow one parent freedom to raise their daughters.

 Moreno ordered Nilda Serret to surrender for her one-year term on Jan. 2, pay
 $30,000 in fines and work out with her husband how they would pay $315,000 in
 joint restitution.

 The judge said the delay in her sentence gave the mother time to make
 arrangements for the care of her children. ``Obviously, the innocent people in this
 mess are the children and perhaps the grandmother. But that's what family is all
 about,'' he said.