Brazil Church Leaders Plead Not Guilty

Associated Press, carried in New York Times [Miami FL]
February 6, 2007

A Brazilian couple accused of plundering millions of dollars from their evangelical church pleaded not guilty Tuesday to federal charges that they illegally smuggled $56,000 in cash into the United States.

Estavam Hernandes-Filho, 52, and his 48-year-old wife, Sonia Haddad Moraes Hernandes, each stood silently in the courtroom while their lawyers entered not guilty pleas to charges of bulk cash smuggling, conspiracy and making false statements. Each charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

The couple was then hustled out of the downtown courthouse by supporters. They refused any comment, as did their attorneys.

The two were arrested Jan. 8 at Miami International Airport after arriving on a flight from Sao Paulo, Brazil, carrying $56,467, authorities said.

They filled out U.S. customs forms indicating they had only $21,000 in cash. And Hernandes told a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer she had only about $10,000, according to the indictment.

Hernandes had $17,679 in her purse, according to an arrest affidavit. Just over $9,000 was found in a Bible in her suitcase, $10,000 in a jacket in Hernandes-Filho's luggage, $10,000 in their son's carryon backpack and $9,700 inside a CD case.

The couple leads Brazil's Reborn in Christ Church, which they founded in 1986 and which now claims hundreds of thousands of followers and about 1,200 temples in the world's largest Roman Catholic country. The church also has temples in Orlando, Deerfield Beach and Boston.

Brazilian authorities are seeking the couple's extradition on charges of fraud, larceny, tax evasion and money laundering for allegedly taking church members' donations to buy things for themselves, including large homes and horse farms in Brazil.

U.S. court documents say the Brazilian charges accuse the church of operating "a complex web of shell companies" whose main purpose is to commit fraud and launder ill-gotten gains. If convicted in the United States, the couple could then be deported to face the case in Brazil.

The couple is free on $100,000 bail but they are also under home confinement orders.


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