WASHINGTON -- The Cuban government has arrested Robert L. Vesco and has approached Washington about returning the fugitive financier who fled the country 22 years ago, Clinton administration officials said yesterday.
The United States has sought the financier's extradition for years on an indictment charging him with swindling mutual fund investors of $224 million.
American officials said they did not know what crimes Mr. Vesco had been charged with in Cuba, but they said they suspected he was arrested partly to cultivate good will with the United States as Havana seeks to improve ties and persuade the Clinton administration to ease the economic embargo.
"He was arrested in connection to things he did in Cuba, not to things he did in the United States," said one administration official, who confirmed Mr. Vesco's arrest, which was reported by ABC News.
Mr. Vesco has been living in Cuba since the early 1980s, and federal prosecutors have said they suspected that he was involved in the drug trade since about that time. In 1989, he was added as a defendant in a narcotics conspiracy in Jacksonville, Fla., accused of persuading Cuba to allow planes carrying cocaine to pass over Cuba on the way to the Bahamas.
When Mr. Vesco fled the United States in 1973, he began a great fugitive saga, which was marked by continuous guessing as to his whereabouts. Not only was he charged with skimming huge sums from a Geneva-based mutual fund, Investors Overseas Services, but he was also under indictment for making an illegal $200,000 campaign contribution to President Richard M. Nixon.
Justice Department officials said last night that the U.S. government had recently received an inquiry about the possible transfer of Mr. Vesco to the United States.
A law enforcement official said the government was still gathering information about the overtures. At the moment, he said, "no negotiations are under way" for the return of Mr. Vesco to the United States.
U.S. officials said that over the years there had been many reports that Mr. Vesco might soon be sent back to the United States, but the reports did not pan out.
One U.S. official said the administration was certainly happy about Mr. Vesco's arrest, but said he was reluctant to discuss details of the case for fear of spoiling talks with Cuba about the possible return of the fugitive.
Two administration officials denied that Washington engaged in any secret negotiations with Havana that led to the arrest.
Although the swindling charges go back more than 20 years, the statute of limitations does not apply to Mr. Vesco because he has been indicted and has not been tried because he fled.