Romanian couple arrested in Yelm accused of laundering millions

Federal authorities believe a Romanian couple on the run from their government set up shop in Yelm and might have laundered millions of dollars in ill-gotten money through real estate and business investments in Thurston County and elsewhere in Western Washington.

FBI agents also think the couple might have buried a fortune in gold coins on their land, and they have deployed ground-penetrating radar to find it.

Agents raided the home of Radu and Diana Nemes last month, arresting the couple at gunpoint and taking their two young sons into protective custody. They found numerous firearms on property owned by the couple and also discovered a bunker stocked with enough food and other provisions to keep the family alive for months, court records show.

Romanian authorities allege Radu Nemes, who owned a fuel distribution business, bilked his government out of as much as $68 million in excise tax proceeds in an alleged scheme that made headlines across Europe and landed his wife and him on Interpol’s “wanted” list.

“The revenues generated from the sale of diesel fuel without payment of the appropriate excise taxes were laundered through a series of … shell companies controlled by the Nemeses and their co-conspirators,” the Romanian Ministry of Justice wrote to U.S. authorities last year as part of a request to have the couple arrested.

Radu and Diana Nemes now reside in the federal detention center in SeaTac, where they are awaiting extradition to Romania to face investigation of tax evasion and operating a criminal enterprise.

Diana Nemes, who reportedly is pregnant, has made a motion to be released on bail, pending a future extradition hearing. Her lawyer, Martha Boersch of San Francisco, wrote in court records that Diana Nemes is not a flight risk and has substantial ties to the Yelm area.

Furthermore, Boersch wrote, the case against the couple is nothing more than a “tax dispute” between them and the Romanian government.

“The undersigned counsel is attempting to obtain documentation that shows, 1) that a prior allegation of tax evasion based on similar facts resulted in a judgment in favor of Mr. Nemes and the companies he was part of, and 2) that accountants other than the one chosen by the Romanian prosecutor concluded that there was not any excise tax owing and even that the Romanian government owed monies to the companies,” Boersch wrote.

Assistant U.S. attorneys Norman Barbosa and Richard Cohen opposed Diana Nemes’s request to be released on bail.

“In sum, the Nemeses are a flight risk based on the severity of their crimes, their demonstrated efforts to flee from justice in their native Romania and access to substantial assets that have not been found,” the attorneys wrote in a pleading filed March 20 in U.S. District Court in Tacoma.

“Finally, Diana Nemes’s release on bail would have negative implications for U.S. foreign policy in cases where the United States seeks extradition of fugitives from Romania.”

The Nemeses moved to the United States in 2012, the same year a Romanian court issued warrants for the couple’s arrest. They began buying real estate holdings in Yelm the prior year, including a 53-acre parcel on Vail Road Southeast where they have hired a contractor to build a house estimated to be worth nearly $3 million, court records show.

They also invested in Seattle-area pizza restaurants and the Eagleview Hill winery in Thurston County.

Federal officials said it all was an attempt to launder money obtained in the excise tax scheme, specifically through a firm called Corralys Investments Limited and numerous accounts at Barclays Bank.

“The Corralys accounts and others at Barclays Bank in Dubai were subsequently utilized by Diana Nemes to transfer the proceeds of the illegal scheme to the United States to support the Nemeses’ lavish lifestyle and the accumulation of assets in this county,” Barbosa and Cohen wrote in court records.

The United States since has made a motion to seize the Nemeses’ U.S. assets under federal forfeiture laws.

Boersch, the Nemeses’ attorney, contends federal officials are over-reaching.

“Even the documents supplied in support of the Romanian request do not explain how any ‘proceeds’ of paying less taxes in Romania has any relation to the funds the Nemeses used to invest in business in this country,” she wrote. “Our country, in theory, should be welcoming foreign investment in wineries, restaurants and other enterprises.

“Instead, the government treats such open investments, set up with legal counsel, as if they were somehow the investments of drug lords.”

She also dismissed the legend of the buried gold: “… there is no credible basis to conclude that the gold is ‘missing’ and that it ever was buried in the ground,” Boersch wrote. “And even if it was, the ultimate issue is the lack of any connection between the gold and the tax dispute in Romania.”

In October, the Romanian Ministry of Justice requested the United States’ help in capturing the couple, court records show, sending along a renewed extradition request.

Court records indicate the FBI had been keeping an eye on the Nemeses for the preceding months.

“It is apparent that the FBI had been spying on Mr. and Ms. Nemes for almost a year, secretly looking at their garbage and email communications at least since May 2013,” Boersch wrote in her pleadings.

It all came to a head March 18, when federal agents raided the Nemeses’ property before dawn and discovered the guns and bunker.

The bunker is “fully equipped and furnished underground bunker, the entrance of which was controlled by steel doors which could be sealed from the inside,” Barbosa and Cohen wrote in pleadings. “That bunker could comfortably have housed the entire family for months if not years, given the supply of food found in storage in that structure.”

So what? Boersch responded.

It is not illegal to build a bunker, and the notion the Nemeses planned to barricade themselves inside and engage federal agents in an armed standoff is laughable, she said.

“In fact, the only display of deadly force was from the federal agents, who traumatized and scared the young children who were present,” Boersch wrote.

A court hearing on Diana Nemes’ request to be released on bail is scheduled for next month.

Adam Lynn: 253-597-8644