McALLEN — Mexican investors seeking a path to the United States found themselves the victims of a multi-million-dollar Ponzi scheme tied to an EB-5 regional center.
Instead of secured Visas for those investments, federal prosecutors allege that the now-defunct USA Now Regional Center’s owner and director, Marco Antonio Ramirez, 47, and Bebe Ann Ramirez, 43, of McAllen, took millions from foreign investors and redirected it to pay other investors.
The Ramirezes have also been accused of using investors’ money to pay off expenses and debts.
Marco A. Ramirez, Bebe Ann Ramirez’s partner, remains in custody in Nigeria after he was arrested for allegedly defrauding investors.
On Tuesday, a federal district judge set a sentencing date for Bebe Ann Ramirez and one of the couple’s employees, David Perez Jr. — all accused of swindling foreign investors out of millions of dollars as part of a Ponzi scheme.
This development takes place now more than four years after FBI agents raided the Ramirezes’ home and businesses. The raid was part of an investigation into their dealings as owner and director of USA Now Regional Center, a McAllen-based foreign investment firm that took money from foreign investors interested in securing green cards for themselves and their families in exchange for investing in local economic development projects.
Federal investigators said the center bilked at least $5 million in securities sold to foreign investors pursuing U.S. green cards.
FBI agents raided USA Now’s McAllen offices in mid-July 2013. During the raids of Ramirezes’ home and USA Now’s offices at North 10th Street and Kerria Avenue, the government seized documents and some property, including vehicles purported to have been purchased using investor funds.
Bebe Ann Ramirez and Perez stood before U.S. District Judge Randy Crane on Tuesday, a day before jury selection was to commence in their cases, and pleaded guilty to the first count of the 13-count indictment. In exchange for their pleas, both will have the remaining 12 counts dismissed against them at the time of their sentencing, which is currently set for March 20, court records show.
Perez’s attorney, Rio Grande City-based Gocha Allen Ramirez, declined to comment on the plea agreement until after the case’s conclusion. Bebe Ann Ramirez’s attorney, San Antonio-based Jason Murray Davis, did not return a call for comment as of press time.
Furthermore, the two are obligated to pay back full restitution of no less than $9.5 million, which is part of the plea deal, according to court records.
THE EB-5 PROGRAM
The program, set up in 1990 to stimulate foreign investment in the United States, was designed for people seeking a fast track to permanent residency here.
They can skip past others seeking immigration status by making a $500,000 investment in high-unemployment regions, like the McAllen metro area. Qualifying projects must create 10 jobs in the United States within two years.
In 2013, USA Now was one of more than 300 regional centers nationwide that were designed to guide foreign investors to economic development projects that qualify under the EB-5 visa program. As of early December 2017, there were nearly 900 regional centers in the country, according to the USCIS website.
As a result of the allegations contained within the indictment against USA Now, officials with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services terminated USA Now’s participation in the Immigrant Investor Program (EB-5) on March 28, 2014 — effectively shuttering the business.
The FBI began investigating USA Now since April 2012, when an agent interviewed an unnamed investor from Mexico’s Nuevo León state, according to an FBI affidavit attached to the warrant.
That investor signed on with USA Now in August 2010, putting forward the $500,000 required under the EB-5 visa program to gain immigration status in the United States.
Agents believe Bebe Ann Ramirez moved the money into a separate account operated by Now Co. Loan Services — another company under her direction.
That same day, she wrote checks for a $6,500 down payment at Barrett Auto Gallery in McAllen, where Perez had obtained a Mercedes-Benz C330 Sedan days before, the affidavit says.
The investor was repaid $433,305 from another investor’s account in June 2011 — the definition of a Ponzi scheme, according to the warrant.
Other investors’ money went to other areas not covered by the EB-5 program, the affidavit states.
In April 2011, agents say a $500,000 payment went from the investor’s escrow account to the Bayou Grill — a North McAllen restaurant owned by Bebe Ann Ramirez. This left just $45 in the other bank account, the affidavit says.
The same day, agents say Bebe Ann Ramirez wrote a $485,000 check to Now Co. Loan Services, which then went to her lawyers to cover a civil lawsuit settlement.
Also in April 2011, agents say Bebe took money from a Tamaulipas-based investor who had been told they were putting funds toward an oil and energy development project to pay $54,000 for a Mercedes-Benz GL550 sport utility vehicle in her name. Another $55,000 of the money went to Page Southerland Page, an engineering and consulting firm tasked with a project not approved by the investor, the affidavit states.
And a McAllen-based lawyer who is a U.S. citizen told the FBI that Marco Antonio Ramirez offered to help him buy back real estate previously lost to foreclosure only to have $50,000 of his $470,000 investment go toward a 2011 Dodge Ram 3500 pickup truck rather than real estate, the affidavit says.