Fugitive again eludes U.S. grasp Columbia man wanted in fraud sits tight in Liechtenstein jail


VADUZ, Liechtenstein -- With the snow-capped Alps as the backdrop and the misty Rhine River as the stage, Swiss police waited in vain yesterday afternoon at the next scheduled stop on the long, gilded trail of Martin Bramson.

With the help of the Swiss, the U.S. government had hoped to finally get its hands on Bramson, 51, who is believed to have stolen up to $20 million by selling bogus malpractice insurance to doctors via a family-run scheme in Columbia, Md.

Bramson's father and brother are in jail for their roles in the scheme, and yesterday Bramson was to have been arrested by the Swiss as he crossed into the country from Liechtenstein. He then could have been extradited home to face prosecution.

But he never showed up, choosing instead the novel strategy of avoiding arrest by claiming he could not walk and remaining in a Liechtenstein jail.

"This guy's an international fugitive, and we can never seem to bring him to justice," said one U.S. Justice Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"What's going to happen next, is he going to get travel papers to go to Casablanca?"

For 21 months, Bramson has waited in a cell in Vaduz, the capital city of Liechtenstein, while attorneys and judges deliberated a U.S. request for extradition.

He had been arrested in January 1995 as he crossed into the country from Austria, his luggage loaded down with more than $3 million in Swiss francs and $225,000 in gold bullion.

That was the first time U.S. authorities had caught up with him since October 1991, when he slipped away from a house arrest in his Columbia home, leaving behind another small fortune in cash and gold coins, as well as three loaded handguns beneath his water bed and a submachine gun in a bedroom closet, authorities say.

He'd made the money by masterminding a simple but lucrative scheme, authorities say, in which he and his brother, Leonard, and father, Norman, sold bargain-rate medical practice insurance to thousands of doctors while hardly ever paying out any claims.

By the time Leonard and Norman Bramson went to prison and Martin went into his pre-trial house arrest, prosecutors had seized about 6 million, but they figured that up to $20 million more was hidden around the world.

Once Bramson fled Columbia, he spent the next three years and three months traveling abroad under assumed names, flashing wads of cash and at one point buying and operating a saloon in Mexico, outside Tijuana, according to court documents.

Along the way, authorities suspect that he dipped into several of the 600 bank accounts that his family had set up in such countries as Luxembourg, Switzerland, Anguilla, Panama, Saipan and Israel.

But if prosecutors thought Bramson's arrest in Liechtenstein was the end of the road, they were mistaken. The effort to extradite him quickly ran into problems.

One was the country's extradition treaty with the United States. It was written before World War II, and Liechtenstein judges said it had no provisions for white-collar crime.

But some people involved with the effort suspect that other motives may have lengthened the process.

Liechtenstein, a 160-square-mile country so small that on holidays the ruling prince invites the whole population over for drinks, has built its prosperity on vast holdings in secret bank accounts and by becoming the "home" to offshore corporations.

Once one of the poorest countries in Europe, it now has a per-capita gross national product nearly 50 percent larger than that of the United States and has more offshore holding companies (50,000) than residents (28,000).

The Bramsons, like many others, took advantage of the banking laws by setting up several accounts there, authorities say. Such customers have helped make the country one of the world's wealthiest.

"It would seem to me that Liechtenstein is not so much concerned with Martin Bramson, but with their reputation with the Martin Bramsons of the world," said James A. Gordon, of Maryland First Financial Services Corporation.

Gordon is a court-appointed receiver processing more than 900 claims by doctors swindled in the insurance scheme. "A lot of secret bank accounts are in that country," he said.

U.S. authorities were close to arranging the extradition. But in the end, according to Helmut Neudorfer, an administrative judge with the Liechtenstein Court of Justice, the country decided against extradition out of concern that the U.S. punishment for the alleged crimes of money laundering and fraud would be too severe, thus violating European human rights strictures.

Also, Neudorfer said, "There were other considerations that I can't go into any detail about. It was more of a decision by the government than by the court."

So Liechtenstein decided on another tack. The country would release Bramson but expel him into Switzerland, in the meantime notifying authorities there, who would arrest Bramson after he crossed the River Rhine.

Neudorfer affirmed that he signed the orders for Bramson's release and expulsion.

But, according to U.S. Justice Department officials, when the time came to leave his jail cell Bramson refused, saying he was unable to walk.

That left the Swiss authorities waiting, gave police who had been posted near the border time to try and elude journalists by driving 80 mph through the Alps, and left U.S. officials pondering their next move.

U.S. authorities worry now that, with further time for his attorney to maneuver, Bramson may wring more concessions out of Liechtenstein authorities.

Those might include greater freedom of movement that could allow him to choose his own means and time of departure, which in turn might allow him to elude authorities in Switzerland or elsewhere.

U.S. officials hope to learn the next move Monday.

But for now, no one is sure where Bramson's trail might lead.

Pub Date: 10/26/96

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