Federal prosecutors are settling court cases against automobile exporters who initially were suspected of financial crimes and falsifying documents, bringing a swift and anti-climactic end to what one lawyer calls the government’s misguided and expensive intrusion into a private business feud.
“They got dragged into the car-sales business,” said Ely Goldin, a Blue Bell, Pa., lawyer who represented some of the exporters in South Carolina cases. “The last thing the government should be doing is being a referee in a dispute between car exporters and manufacturers.”
Stan Ragsdale, the assistant U.S. Attorney in charge of prosecuting the South Carolina cases, declined to comment on the recent settlements because some of the civil seizures still are pending.
The agreements, however, appear to address some of the government’s biggest concerns, including making sure accurate information is included on car registration and export documents and informing dealerships up front when a purchase is being made for export.
In exchange, the government is returning the exporters’ cars and money.
“They (prosecutors) basically put my clients through two years of hell for something they didn’t even need to be involved in,” Goldin said.
On Thursday, a federal judge in Charleston gave Ragsdale and Goldin 60 days to finalize a settlement in a case where a pair of customized BMWs and nearly $125,000 were seized from Florida resident Wayne Wainwright, who exported cars purchased from Charleston area dealerships.
That settlement will follow full settlements in two other cases and partial settlements in two more. All of the civil seizures are expected to be settled in coming weeks. All told, more than 70 cars and $3 million have been seized in five investigations in South Carolina, a popular state for luxury cars destined for overseas markets because of a $300 cap on the vehicle sales tax.
The South Carolina cases involve individuals who bought luxury cars from dealerships in Charleston and elsewhere and then exported them for resale in China and other foreign countries, where the vehicles command much higher prices. Car manufacturers don’t like the practice because it cuts into their own overseas sales, and manufacturers can fine dealerships that sell cars to individuals for that purpose.
It’s not entirely clear how the government got involved — Goldin said he believes it was an overzealous agent with South Carolina’s division of the Secret Service, which investigates export-related crimes — but exporters nationwide started having their cars and bank accounts seized about two years ago as crimes such as wire fraud and money laundering were investigated.
The investigations have led to just a pair of criminal convictions. Early on, two men agreed to plead guilty to mail-fraud charges in exchange for probation in a New Hampshire case. While investigators have said the exports usually involve counterfeit car titling and falsified registration and export documents, no criminal charges have been filed in any of the South Carolina cases.
Goldin concedes that export regulations weren’t clear when the investigations began. It is illegal for an individual to export a new car for sale in a foreign country, but there was disagreement over whether a car is still new if someone buys it and drives it off the dealer’s lost.
Goldin said the Wainwright case was particularly egregious because it involved a pair of cars that had been sent to Texas to be customized with armor plating before being exported to the Netherlands for a “high value” client. When agents seized the automobiles, Goldin said, “the cars were in 19 different pieces.” The government spent $20,000 to put the cars back together so they could be seized, he said.
The settlement agreements should help area car dealers, who say they “often felt they had to act as the police because nobody seemed to be trying to stop the practice,” according to court documents. The agreements call for individuals to let dealerships know in advance if a car is being purchased for export, something that effectively could stop the practice altogether.
Wainwright, for example, was on a “black list” shared by many area dealers, so he hired individuals — the government called them “straw buyers” — to make the purchases for him, often paying full list price with a cashier’s check. Charleston’s Baker Motor Co., which sold one of the cars Wainwright exported, said if the dealership “had been aware of Wainwright’s involvement in the purchase, it would not have sold the vehicle.”
Goldin, however, said the dealerships’ stated opposition to car exporters is a charade they play to stay in manufacturers’ good graces. After all, he said, what dealership wouldn’t want someone willing to buy multiple cars at full list price without the need for financing?
“There’s not a single significant-volume dealer that can’t tell an export buyer from a regular buyer,” Goldin said.
Reach David Wren at 937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_