TAKOMA PARK -- The First African Forex Bureau blends in well with the lawyers' and dentists' offices in this bustling, suburban business district.
But First African's modest office on New Hampshire Avenue was the seat of the largest West African drug-money laundering operation ever prosecuted in this country, say federal prosecutors who will wrap up a case today against the company's president.
The company was a drug smuggler's dream -- confidential, efficient and trustworthy, rare characteristics in the nether world of narcotics trafficking, prosecutors say.
From its Prince George's County office and from branches in New Jersey, Illinois and Massachusetts, First African wired drug money around the globe, concealing large cash transactions to avoid government reporting requirements. Of the $22 million that passed through the company in three years, federal investigators suspect that as much as $6.5 million in cash came from Ghanaian and Nigerian heroin wholesalers.
The scheme unraveled after a three-year investigation by U.S. Customs Service.
Today, First African's president Joseph A. Dadzie, 42, of Silver Spring is scheduled to be sentenced in U.S. District Court in Baltimore for his role in the money laundering conspiracy. He could be sentenced to a maximum of 20 years in prison.
Dadzie and his New Jersey associate Jacob E. Rockson, 48, were convicted Nov. 30 of conspiracy to launder money and other charges after a six-week trial.
Rockson was sentenced yesterday to seven years and three months in prison followed by three years of supervised release. Two other First African employees pleaded guilty in Baltimore last year to charges related to the laundering; another employee was convicted of laundering charges in New York.
The investigation also has resulted in the convictions of several hero in traffickers.
First African's founder, Kwesi T. Dadzie is a fugitive believed to be in Ghana, where the company has a branch office, federal prosecutors say. It is not known if Kwesi Dadzie is related to Joseph Dadzie.
At least 42 convicted heroin traffickers brought funds to First African's branches, according to U.S. Customs Special Agent David Fisher. First African concealed some transactions so well, Mr. Fisher said, that investigators may never know all the drug dealers linked to the company.
"It became known that you could take cash to this organization without using your name, without questions being asked, without forms being filed," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio. Federal regulations require financial institutions to report cash transactions of $10,000 or more.
Joseph Dadzie and branch managers wired cash overseas, dividing the transactions into increments of less than $10,000, spacing them out over several days and concealing the identity of depositors.
Prosecutors say the scheme also involved using cash from heroin sales to make "legitimate" purchases of appliances, auto parts and medical supplies that could be shipped to Ghana and Nigeria and sold there for additional profit.
The laundering service was invaluable to heroin traffickers, who needed to convert hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash from wholesale drug transactions in the United States into "legitimate" money in their home countries.
"Without the First American Forex Bureau, these drug dealers would have been forced to smuggle their cash out in boxes [and] containers," Mr. DiBiagio said.
First African, which also had some legitimate clients, dealt almost exclusively with heroin traffickers based in Ghana and Nigeria, Mr. DiBiagio.
First African's office in Takoma Park is still open for business, under the management of Joseph Dadzie's brother, J. Bassah Dadzie, but its laundering capabilities have been crippled.