EUROPE'S BIGGEST money launderer was jailed for 14 years yesterday after being caught "cleaning" pounds 70m of criminals' cash through a small bureau de change in London.
Ussama El-Kurd, 50, was also fined pounds 1m for laundering the money, which is believed to have come from gangs based in Liverpool. Investigators believe much of the cash was used to buy drugs in the Netherlands, which were then resold in Merseyside. He was convicted on four money laundering conspiracy charges.
Peter McGuinness, 45, was jailed for 10 years for acting as a courier - he was filmed taking suitcases filled with up to pounds 500,000 in pounds 5, pounds 10 and pounds 20 notes to the bureau in Notting Hill, west London. This was changed for untraceable high-value foreign currency, which was then spent abroad.
McGuinness was convicted in his absence, having gone on the run two weeks ago during his trial.
The bureau is believed to have housed the largest single money laundering operation to have been uncovered in Europe. Customs officers called for new regulations to clamp down on dishonest money exchange shops.
The man behind the operation, who is believed to have earned about 5 per cent of the takings - equivalent to pounds 3.5m - lived modestly in a semi- detached house in Greenford, Middlesex.
But in a secret counting house in the basement of the bureau, an estimated pounds 70m passed through his shop in just under two-and-a-half-years, Knightsbridge Crown Court in west London was told. El-Kurd's wish to promote an unostentatious lifestyle, combined with meanness, forced staff to take buses to banks and travel agents whenever they wanted to change the cash.
After El-Kurd was arrested investigators found the bureau de change owner had pounds 1.2m in 51 bank accounts across Europe, in addition to a pounds 50,000 jewellery collection and pounds 750,000 in two safety deposit boxes. A "float" of pounds 250,000 was recovered from his office safe.
El-Kurd, the first person in England to be prosecuted and convicted solely as a money launderer, stood with his arms folded and showed no emotion as sentence was passed. If he fails to pay the pounds 1m fine he will face a further three years in jail.
Judge John Samuels QC told the father of five that from April 1994 to November 1996 his bureau was "open house" to criminals' cash.
"You not only willingly assisted one and all, but seized the opportunity avariciously to enrich yourself to a fabulous extent as a result," the judge said.
In just over a year McGuinness ferried at least pounds 10m from Merseyside's crime gangs to El-Kurd's high street base, said Judge Samuels.
The scam involved exchanging low-value sterling notes for high value foreign bills - principally Dutch guilders, Deutschmarks, Spanish pesetas and Swiss francs from a Thomas Cook bureau de change at Marble Arch in central London, as well as branches of Barclays Bank and the Arab Bank.
The two men were cleared of laundering drug-trafficking proceeds.
El-Kurd, who was born in Jerusalem, ran a car rental service in Notting Hill eight years ago, but as the business fell into debt he set up shop as a money changer.
As his turnover and profits increased rapidly the National Investigation Service of Customs and Excise set up a surveillance operation.
Daren Nicholls, a Customs officer involved in the case, said: "We believe this is the biggest launder in Europe. At the moment anyone can set up a bureau de change - the industry should be regulated."
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