Owners of Miguel's Pizza acquitted of charges they broke federal banking law

bestep@herald-leader.comAugust 29, 2013 

The owners of a pizza shop popular with rock climbers in the Red River Gorge have been acquitted of more than 50 counts each of breaking federal banking law.

Defense attorneys are now asking a judge to make the government return $300,000 that IRS agents seized from Miguel and Susan Ventura, who run Miguel's Pizza and Climb Shop at Slade in Powell County.

"The legally earned money ... has been unavailable to Miguel and Susan Ventura, which has interfered with their right to use the funds to operate their business, which is an asset to the community where they live," Lexington attorney Mark A. Wohlander, who represents Miguel Ventura, said in a motion made public Wednesday. Federal prosecutors have not yet responded to the motion in court.

Miguel and Susan Ventura were charged this year with dozens of counts alleging that they deposited money into banks in a way designed to evade currency-reporting rules. However, at the end of a four-day trial last Friday, a jury in federal court in Lexington found the couple not guilty on all counts.

Wohlander said the two were overjoyed with the verdict.

"They were in tears," he said.

Miguel's Pizza and Climb Shop is well-known in climbing circles around the country. The nearby Red River Gorge has some of the best sport rock climbing in the Eastern United States, with routes that attract climbers nationally and internationally.

A Boston climber described the modest shop as "legendary" in a 2004 story published by the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Miguel Ventura's family came to the United States from Portugal when he was a boy.

He and his wife started their business in 1984 and gained a loyal following among climbers, selling them gear and allowing them to camp on the grounds for a small fee.

The couple built the business, and it had 55,000 customers last year, Wohlander said.

The business also generated a good deal of cash, drawing attention from federal regulators.

Federal law requires banks to report to the IRS when someone deposits more than $10,000. It is against the law to break deposits into smaller amounts to try to avoid triggering a report to regulators — an activity called "structuring."

Authorities alleged that the couple put money into accounts at three banks between March 2009 and September 2010 in a way that was calculated to avoid having the banks report the deposits.

IRS agents searched the couple's home in April 2011, seizing $259,714 from their house and $41,185 from a bank account, according to court records.

A federal grand jury ultimately charged that the couple had illegally structured deposits dozens of times, totaling $422,424.

On Oct. 15, 2009, for instance, they put $5,000 in an account at one bank, $2,000 into a separate account at that bank, and $4,000 into an account at another bank, the grand jury charged.

In addition to trying to put the couple in prison, the government wanted to take $422,000 and a piece of property from them.

Defense attorneys William E. Johnson and Ryan Newcomb, who represented Susan Ventura, and Wohlander and his daughter Caitlin Wohlander, who represented Miguel Ventura, argued the couple had not violated the law.

Wohlander said the Venturas did not know there was a potential problem with the way they deposited money in their business and personal accounts. "They weren't hiding any of that," he said.

Defense attorneys charged in one motion that the government was acting vindictively, and that the real motive for the charges was to seize cash for federal coffers. That was not true, federal prosecutors said in court motions.

Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1.

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