Central Texas lawyer sentenced for swindling Colombian drug trafficking clients
Published 7:34 am Tuesday, May 4, 2021
SHERMAN, Texas – A Central Texas criminal defense lawyer was sentenced to federal prison today for an international fraud scheme involving his Colombian cocaine trafficking clients, announced Acting U.S. Attorney Nicholas J. Ganjei.
James Morris Balagia, 65, of Manor, Texas was found guilty by a jury on Oct. 29, 2019, of five federal charges and was sentenced to 188 months in federal prison today by U.S. District Judge Amos Mazzant. Balagia was also ordered to forfeit his law office building in Manor, Texas, and a money judgment of $1.5 million.
According to information presented in court, Balagia, also known as Jamie Balagia, also known as “The DWI Dude,” had a law practice with offices in San Antonio and Manor, specializing in defending clients charged with violations such as driving while intoxicated and drug possession. In 2014, Balagia conspired with Florida private investigator Chuck Morgan, and Colombian attorney, Bibiana Correa Perea to swindle Colombian drug traffickers under the guise of bribing officials in the United Sates. During meetings in Colombia and in Collin County, Texas, the group represented that in exchange for inflated “attorney fees,” they were in contact with government officials in the United States who would accept bribes resulting in either the dismissal of their criminal charges or significant reductions in their U.S. federal prison sentences. In reality, there were no bribes or government officials.
The Office of Foreign Assets and Control (OFAC) had previously designated Balagia’s Colombian clients as “Specially Designated Narcotics Traffickers.” These individuals were considered some of the biggest drug traffickers in the world. As such, they were on an OFAC list, essentially freezing their assets and prohibiting U.S. persons from engaging in any financial transactions or dealings with them unless they had received an OFAC license. In order to comply with federal requirements under the “Kingpin Act,” Balagia was advised to obtain an OFAC license on multiple occasions but failed to do so.
As part of the scheme, Balagia provided Colombian co-conspirators with his personal bank account number and routing number. Evidence at trial showed multiple deposits over several months into the account in amounts intended to avoid federal cash transaction reporting requirements. The cash deposits were made at bank counters across the United States by anonymous individuals with daily deposits totaling just under the $10,000 reporting threshold. Additionally, at least four bulk cash payments were made to Balagia in amounts ranging from approximately $70,000 to $120,000. Balagia admitted to driving from his San Antonio office to a mall parking lot in Katy, Texas, where he was given a shopping bag filled with bundles of cash from either an unknown individual, or an individual who identified himself only as “Coco.” In an attempt to conceal these payments, Balagia failed to report the payments as required by federal law.
Balagia was indicted by a federal grand jury on Dec. 15, 2016. Bibiana Correa Perea pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 84 months in federal prison on June 29, 2018. Chuck Morgan pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 72 months in federal prison on Mar. 8, 2018.
Balagia was found guilty following a two-week trial of conspiracy to commit money laundering; obstruction of justice, violation of the Kingpin Act; conspiracy to commit wire fraud; and conspiracy to obstruct justice.
“We live in a country with the greatest system of justice in the world,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Nicholas Ganjei. “That system, however, cannot function when officers of the court are corrupt. The evidence in this case demonstrated that Balagia had been shaking down his clients for years by claiming that he was able to purchase favorable deals from prosecutors and judges alike. The Department of Justice will defend our Justice system vigorously and will prosecute predatory lawyers like Balagia every single time they are discovered.”
“The FBI combats public corruption at all levels and will protect and defend the U.S. justice system from those who attempt to diminish its integrity,” said FBI Dallas Special Agent in Charge Matthew J. DeSarno. “Today’s sentence demonstrates that officials who misuse their influence for personal financial benefit will be held accountable.”
This case is part of an Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF) investigation. OCDETF identifies, disrupts, and dismantles the highest-level drug traffickers, money launderers, gangs, and transnational criminal organizations that threaten the United States by using a prosecutor-led, intelligence-driven, multi-agency approach that leverages the strengths of federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies against criminal networks.
This case was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Dallas Field Office – Frisco Resident Agency and prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Heather H. Rattan and Jay Combs.