Saturday, October 4, 2003

Empowerment official sought in theft-ring case


Terror link 'hard suspicion'

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

One of the 23 people indicted as part of a theft ring that police say fenced stolen goods through corner markets is the staff accountant for the Cincinnati Empowerment Corp.

Police were searching late Friday afternoon for Franco Wantsala, a 44-year-old native of Uganda and naturalized U.S. citizen. He was indicted on a charge of receiving stolen property - specifically, 18 cartons of cigarettes.

Since January 2001, Wantsala has been staff accountant for the agency, which awards federal funds to corporations in Cincinnati's federally designated "empowerment zone" of poor neighborhoods.

Wantsala, police say, was part of a theft ring that fenced stolen goods through markets in low-income neighborhoods, gouging customers and sending at least $37 million to bank accounts in the Middle East.

Police had no current address for Wantsala, who was indicted by a Hamilton County grand jury on one of the lesser charges in the 105-count information. Messages left on Wantsala's voice mail at the Cincinnati Empowerment Corp. were not returned Friday.

Greg Harrison, a lawyer for the agency, said Wantsala coordinates billing for the agency and has no access to financial accounts and has no check-writing authority

"They are conducting an internal investigation," said Harrison. "They are reviewing the situation.''

Thursday, Cincinnati police, with the help of federal and state agencies, served 47 warrants simultaneously at the markets, and banks and residences from Over-the-Rhine to Mason.

Among the 19 arrested was the alleged ringleader, Omran Saleh, a man of Palestinian descent who has homes in Green Township and Canton, Ohio.

Police say that Saleh and other market owners made large profits by paying people 5 to 10 cents on the dollar for stolen goods that they would sell at marked-up prices. Professional thieves also worked for the market owners, police said, hijacking trucks of merchandise.

The charges in the 105-count information ranged from receiving stolen property to money laundering and engaging in corrupt activity.

While police looked for Wantsala and three others, the FBI continued its investigation into whether any of the money shipped to banks in the Middle East ended up funding terrorist activities. Local authorities believe that is a possibility.

Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro, whose Organized Crime Investigations Commission launched the probe nearly two years ago, said it was not at all clear that Saleh and his alleged co-conspirators were funneling money to Middle East terrorists.

"There is no hard evidence of that; there is just hard suspicion,'' said Petro. "That's something for the feds to investigate. We were investigating an organized criminal activity."

Friday afternoon, Cincinnati City Council members David Crowley and Laketa Cole stood in front of Glossinger's, an Over-the-Rhine market shut down in Thursday's sweep. They called on the city manager to step up the attack on markets that take advantage of residents in low-income neighborhoods.

While they praised Cincinnati police for Thursday's action, the council members said the city should do more to crack down on problem shops.

"It's not fair for the people already exploited by poverty and other hardships to have this visited upon them," Crowley said. "This was 20 months of police work to uncover this. We shouldn't let anyone be exploited for 20 minutes.''

Jim Moll, an Over-the-Rhine developer and property manager, said the notorious shops contribute nothing to the community.

"Look at this place; there's nothing desirable about it being here; they're fenced off, barred up," said Moll, pointing out at the same time the groups of drug dealers waiting on the opposite street corner.

Gregory Korte contributed to this report. E-mail hwilkinson@enquirer.com




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