From the American-Statesman:
Drug deals. Weapons purchases. Ties to a prison gang and a militant Islamic group and even a potential link to an unsolved homicide.
That was the list of allegations federal officials laid out against an Austin nightclub owner and nine of his associates in a dramatic hearing Tuesday.
Arrested last week on money laundering and drug charges, Yassine Enterprises owner Hussein Ali "Mike" Yassine, his brother, Mohammed Ali "Steve" Yassine, and eight others appeared in federal court and heard more details about the cases against them.
Mike Yassine, who owns eight Austin nightclubs, and the other suspects in the case face a variety of charges. Some are accused of cocaine distribution, purchases of guns to be used during drug deals and money laundering dating back to 2007.
Officials linked one suspect to the Texas Syndicate prison gang. They also said thousands of dollars were transferred to a Yassine relative in Lebanon who is reportedly connected to the militant group Hezbollah, considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.
Prosecutors for the first time also revealed that Mike Yassine is a "person of interest" in a case being investigated by the Austin Police Department's homicide cold case unit. Austin police declined to provide additional details Tuesday, including the name of the alleged victim.
Mike Yassine might have also threatened witnesses, officials said, and is being investigated as part of a sexual assault case.
Judge Dennis Green denied bail for Mike Yassine and Steve Yassine. Bail for four others — including a third Yassine brother, Hadi Ali Yassine — ranged from $10,000 to $25,000. Bail rulings for the other suspects will be made at a later date, officials said.
Outside the courtroom on Tuesday, their father, Ali Yassine, said his sons are not guilty of the charges against them. "My boys ... everybody's innocent," he said. "They're very good boys."
Also charged in the case are Marisse Marthe "Madi" Ruales, Karim Faiq, Alejandro "Cueta" Melendrez, Edgar Orsini, Nizar "Nino" Hakiki, Amar Thabet Araf and Sami Derder, all Central Texas residents who authorities say have various levels of involvement with the purported crimes.
During raids on the suspects' homes and businesses last week, investigators said they seized more than 400 boxes of evidence.
They also report finding $200,000 in cash in a safe at the Yassine Enterprises offices on West Fourth Street, as well as cashier's checks totaling $45,000 made out to a member of the Yassine family in Lebanon. That man is associated with Hezbollah, IRS agent James Neff testified.
The searches also turned up a bogus University of Texas diploma with Mike Yassine's name, prosecutors said.
The American-Statesman has learned that businesses linked to Mike Yassine currently owe almost $600,000 in state sales and mixed-beverage taxes. His bank accounts have been frozen by the state comptroller's office, his attorney said in court.
Yassine Enterprises, owns eight Austin bars: Pure, Spill, Kiss & Fly, Treasure Island, Hyde, Fuel, Malaia and Roial. They've remained closed since last week's arrests and, officials said, will likely remain that way for the foreseeable future after the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission obtained a court order that blocks all eight nightclubs from selling or serving alcohol.
Mike Yassine is also part owner of Stack Burger Bar, which is still open for business. Its liquor license remains intact, according to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.
Randel Gillette, an agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration, testified Tuesday that an informant who worked for the FBI became involved with the Yassines and their associates in 2007.
Investigators testified that Mike Yassine told the informant, who posed as a drug dealer — and whose accounts have driven much of the case — that he wanted to launder $200,000 to $1 million in narcotics money through his clubs. The informant's name was not released.
Initially, Mike Yassine and Steve Yassine cut the informant checks from Yassine Enterprises for the drugs, but Mike Yassine later wanted the informant to pose as a cleaning service instead to appear more legitimate, investigators said.
The government's evidence against the suspects, Gillette said, includes numerous recorded conversations, videos and surveillance of Steve Yassine and the informant arranging drug transactions, gun purchases and various other illegal activities.
"Steve was very interested in gaining profit from the drug trade," Gillette said. "He seemed very eager to get involved with that."
Steve Yassine first bought 30 grams of marijuana from the informant in late 2007, Gillette said.
The two also tried to buy cocaine from Orsini, a proposition that made the informant nervous because he did not know the man, Gillette said. He said the informant claimed he would disappear if anything went wrong during the deal.
"Steve responded, ‘If that happens, I'll make (Orsini) disappear,' " Gillette said.
Steve Yassine, a legal permanent U.S. resident originally from Lebanon, has not filed a tax return in four years, Gillette said. His income came from doing work for his brother Mike Yassine. He also falsified loan documents on which he said he was a citizen, Gillette said.
Steve Yassine's defense attorney Stephen Orr questioned the charges, saying his client was led on by the FBI informant.
"Every single act he is accused of was initiated by your source," Orr said.
He also asked why his client was not arrested sooner.
"If he's such a dangerous criminal, why not get him off the streets in 2008?" Orr said.
Attorneys for several other defendants, including Mike Yassine, made similar arguments, but Gillette said making the arrests earlier would have jeopardized the investigation.
Neff, the IRS agent, testified that middle brother Hadi Yassine was present during conversations between the informant and his brothers. Hadi Yassine was starting a beverage company called Famous Vodka for which Mike Yassine gave him $100,000 in drug money, Neff said. Hadi Yassine is not a U.S. citizen, Neff said.
Neff testified that Ruales was employed in Yassine Enterprises' corporate office. She had an on-again, off-again romantic relationship with Mike Yassine, Neff said.
Neff said Ruales would cut checks from the company to the informant as payment for drug purchases.
"The cash brought in by the confidential source was being laundered through Yassine Enterprises," Neff said.
When arrested, she said that "all she did was take orders from Mike Yassine," Neff said, although investigators reportedly have video evidence that shows Ruales knew what was going on. She hasn't reported any income from Yassine Enterprises in at least a decade, according to the IRS.
Neff said that when the company's "do-everything guy," Rommel Gomez, faced domestic violence charges, Ruales, on behalf of Mike Yassine, offered Gomez's wife as much as $250,000 to drop the charges — an act that investigators called witness tampering.
Gomez is in custody in Williamson County on unrelated charges, officials said.
Recordings show that the informant, Hakiki and Steve Yassine were involved in purchasing large amounts of narcotics, Gillette said. Steve Yassine introduced the informant to Hakiki because the informant said he wanted to buy a gun to protect himself. He told the informant that Hakiki previously sold him some hashish and would also sell guns, Gillette said.
The informant purchased a .22-caliber pistol and later a 9 mm Taurus handgun from Hakiki, and transactions were made at Steve Yassine's office and home, Gillette said.
Gillette testified that the informant met Melendrez, who goes by "Alex" or "Cueta," at a Yassine nightclub. The informant purchased cocaine from Melendrez there, and during the transaction, Melendrez put some of the drug on his finger, shoved it in the informant's mouth and said, "If you snitch on me, I'll kill you and your family," Gillette said.
Gillette said Melendrez "has history" with the Texas Syndicate prison gang. During the hearing, Melendrez stood up and told the judge he was not a member of the gang, which has been linked to murders and drug trafficking.