DrugNet, Chapter 6: Family Feuds

Father and son squabble over streamlining drug sales, while federal agents fight over turf.

THE STORY SO FAR

drugnetakhilindia
An Indian shipper for the Bansals stored pills in a basement on this Delhi Street.

As the feds wiretap Temple grad student Akhil Bansal's e-mail, Akhil wiretaps his employees and feuds with his father. Today's installment begins as a Philly DEA agent dashes to India, hoping to listen to secret phone wiretaps of calls between Akhil and his father. It is February 2005.

NEW DELHI

As a military policeman in Vietnam, and as a Philly cop for 24 years, Carlos Aquino had seen plenty of poverty.

But here in chaotic central New Delhi, where the DEA investigator had come hoping to listen to Indian phone wiretaps, he felt overwhelmed. Climbing the open-air stairs of the Indian drug agency's regional headquarters, Carlos did a double take. Atop the building next door, he saw a family sitting on a tattered couch watching TV on the roof.

He scanned the teeming skyline. Dotted across the horizon, residents had raised ragtag tents, grabbing space wherever they could. People cooked, washed laundry. Kids played up there. It hit Carlos: too many people, too little room.

No wonder Indians worried about corruption.

Carlos moved on. He carried his laptop past an empty jail cell, beyond a darkened room where servants squatted sipping coffee, and into a cream-colored conference room.

There Carlos began his pitch for the wiretaps with a PowerPoint presentation. He shared e-mail, surveillance and bank records of the primary targets - Brij Bansal in Agra and son Akhil in Philadelphia.

How This Series Was Produced


This series is based on multiple interviews with more than 50 sources; U.S. and Indian judicial, e-mail and bank records; and secret U.S. grand jury transcripts, Indian wiretaps, and DEA and Homeland Security and investigative reports obtained by The Inquirer.

Quotes, details, interpretations, thoughts, conversations, even facial expressions, have been substantiated by firsthand observation, documents or multiple sources.

Interviews were conducted in New Delhi and Agra, India; Washington; and Philadelphia. Those interviewed include Akhil Bansal, Foram Mankodi and Bansal relatives; six Indian drug agents; 22 American federal agents, including DEA's Carlos Aquino, Eric Russ and Gerard Gobin; FBI agent Jason Huff; and eight prosecutors, including Barbara Cohan.

People who bought drugs online are identified by first name only because they have not been charged with a crime.

For an exhaustive list of sources, click here.

 

Shankar Rao, the Narcotic Control Bureau's zonal director for Delhi, talked about customs regulations, dealers and the Bansals' background, but refrained from mentioning the wiretaps, the most sensitive part of the case.

The Indians had begun tapping Brij's cell phone in November. They had scores of calls between father and son about their business - fulfilling 1,000 orders a day, one million tablets a month, to people buying online, no prescription required.

The Indians were reluctant to share the wiretaps. In India, taps were permitted only as an investigative tool and could not be used in court. They had to be burned 60 days after an arrest. NCB wanted to show it was serious, but feared losing control of the recordings.

Finally, the senior Indian agent glanced down the row of officials. He stared at Rao and then nodded. He said something in Hindi.

Rao translated, "We'll make the arrangements."

AGRA, INDIA

Brij answered his cell phone.

"Hello, Papaji." It was Akhil, the Temple MBA student, who ran the family's U.S. operations and oversaw its offshore bank accounts.

"You cannot go on like this," the son said.

"OK, OK, OK."

Once again, the son was chastising the father about sloppy business practices. Web site clients weren't paying on time. The Bansals were owed $954,262.

Brij, frightened he might sour future sales, refused to do anything about it.

The growing deficit gnawed at Akhil's business soul. He said, "It's like chopping your own foot with an ax."

"OK, OK, OK."

Brij thought he'd done all right for himself. He owned several businesses and an expansive home he'd bought new, back in the early 1970s, before Akhil was born. The home, surrounded by 10-foot-high walls and an iron gate, stood two blocks from the congested, dusty National Highway No. 2, the main route to New Delhi.

Brij ran storefront medical clinics in India and Nepal, including one in Agra, where tourists often succumbed to the searing heat or blistering cuisine on visits to the Taj Mahal.

Former patients appreciated Brij's willingness to refill prescriptions overseas, and he leveraged this demand into a multimillion-dollar business. Brij focused on the $4.6 million he had earned, not the million he was owed.

Akhil saw it differently. Sure, the enterprise was successful, but now it needed sophisticated management.

He offered a radical plan: Cut the number of online pharmacies served from 25 to six. Deal only with the biggest - and only with those who paid on time. Let Julie, Akhil's sister, who lived in Jaipur and handled marketing, including spam, have the little clients.

"I'm telling you," Akhil continued. "The problem with you is that you are too old-fashioned."

"OK, OK, OK."

The son sensed that Brij was patronizing him.

"You're an ass," Akhil said. "You'll remain an ass."

"It's my money," Brij said. "I'll burn it if I like."

Akhil tried a different tack: A smaller client base, he said, might help his father's health. A former smoker, the 57-year-old had diabetes and hypertension. A terrible patient, Brij had to be scolded to keep doctor appointments. In January, he had suffered a minor heart attack.

"Take your medicine," Akhil urged. "Take your rest."

"OK, OK, OK."

CENTER CITY

The Bansals weren't the only ones engaged in a family squabble. FBI and DEA agents in Philadelphia were feuding, too. In early February, things boiled over, and everyone was called to the U.S. Attorney's Office for a come-to-Jesus meeting.

"Look," senior prosecutor Timothy Rice said sternly. "There's plenty of work for everybody, and everybody will get credit and some of the money."

None of the two dozen agents crowded into the 12th-floor conference room spoke. They avoided eye contact. But the grudges remained. DEA supervisors believed FBI was trying to bigfoot the case, using its technical and homeland security expertise as a wedge to grab control.

Meantime, FBI bosses were sure DEA wanted to hog the glory and the cash. Why else were FBI agents left with menial tasks, such as Googling names? Why wasn't FBI getting copies of routine DEA reports?

Rival agencies bickered all the time. But here it was starting to affect the investigation. This case, with its global, Internet and public-health components, needed speed and coordination, not backbiting. Prosecutors Barbara Cohan and Wendy Kelly couldn't believe professional men indulged in such juvenile, testosterone-laden crap.

Rice laid down the law.

DEA would continue to lead the case, he said, but not alone. They had 60 days until indictment and takedown.

"We have a lot of work to do," Rice said, "and a short time to do it. We need to spend our time on that and not waste time on who's going to get credit."

Rice took no questions.

AGRA

To: matthewm@ourpresecriptionsforless.com

From: Stunkee

Subject: Dexocol pill reaction.

Hi. I recently received an order that myself and a colleague split to save cost... . Dexocol 60 mg., 110 tablets... . I received the order in 10 days, which is nice. However, I and my friend have been on many different pain treatments over the years... . Never have either of us had a reaction... .

The pills I received from your Web site came blank... . I cannot verify the contents by looking up the imprint code... . After the first day we both had excessive itching and rashes and swollen fingers. Please let me know as I am too concerned to take any more of these and did spend $198. Thanks.

The e-mail was forwarded to Brij. He responded:

Dear sir,

This seems to be an isolated case. There are possibilities that these two persons may have taken some other drugs... which caused an allergic reaction. Until now, from 2 million tabs sold, none of the other clients have reported this.

Thanks, Brij.

NEW DELHI

Narcotics Control Bureau agents who listened to the phone taps found the case odd.

Dr. Brij Bansal was an educated, respected member of the Baniya business caste. He held a license to dispense medicine in India as well as an export license. But the way Indian drug officials read the law, those documents didn't allow Brij to ship pills to America.

The agents listening in NCB's high-tech, air-conditioned wiretap room were convinced Brij knew he was breaking the law. Why else would he caution shippers to use phony manifests? Why else pay six times the going price for shipping? Why stockpile the pills in the humid basement of someone's home?

The wiretaps showed that Brij prided himself on performance. Sloppy service and poor products made him angry. He never gloated about the money.

So why break the law so brazenly? Why put his son and daughter, the spammer, in such peril? Brij was already worth tens of millions of rupees.

And why hadn't he tried to hide the money? Many drug dealers cloaked ill-gotten gains through hawalas, the ancient, informal money-transfer system.

Not Brij. He bought real estate and opened routine bank accounts.

How about the phone? To avoid detection, most dealers switched cell phones monthly.

Not Brij.

The wiretaps offered a few explanations. First and foremost, father and son doubted they would ever get caught. And if they did, they figured they could simply claim that they thought their license was valid for export, or that they had never authorized shipments under false names.

Besides, the Bansals figured, what was the worst that could happen? A warning? A fine? A few seized packages? Please.

ROXBOROUGH

IRS agent Aaron Carp, young, eager, was relaxing inside his Wissahickon apartment, fiddling with his new TiVo gadget shortly before midnight, when it hit him.

He dialed James Pavlock, the prosecutor for money-laundering.

"Jim, I've got this really cool idea."

For a month, Carp and Pavlock had struggled to trace and verify Akhil's overseas accounts, which could prove what the Bansal e-mails seemed to show - drug dealing on a global scale. Normally, U.S. authorities would use international treaties to subpoena the accounts, but because the arrests were only 60 days away, they didn't have enough time.

Carp's shortcut was devilishly simple: He exploited a cog in the global banking system. Unbeknownst to Akhil, virtually every overseas wire transfer was routed through one of a handful of large American "correspondent banks," including J.P. Morgan Chase, all under U.S legal jurisdiction.

Why not subpoena these correspondent banks for all wires related to Akhil Bansal?

CHANTILLY, VA.

An investigation this significant, this cutting-edge, needed branding, a new name.

DEA couldn't keep calling it Operation Carlito's Way, the eponymous name Carlos Aquino had picked, half in jest, months ago.

Carlito's Way was an Al Pacino movie, for heaven's sake. People would be confused.

Renaming the case fell to DEA's Special Operations Division, which coordinated international cases from an unmarked suburban office building near Dulles International Airport.

To make a splash, the new name needed to pop. The agency hoped the case would scare other dealers, make consumers think twice about buying knockoff drugs online.

The task fell to DEA's Terence Reilly, who began to brainstorm. He sent three dozen possible names to his boss, Mary Irene Cooper:

Firewall, Cyber Force, Cyborg, Cyber Sleuth, E-Force, Pill Matrix... Cyber Pharm, Cyber Chase, Cyber Narc, Net Narc... Mouse Click, Web Sentinel, Web Sentry, Web Reaper, Net Death...

Cooper chose Cyber Chase.

That evening at Reilly's home, a title in his video library caught his eye - a movie called The Cyber Chase. He flinched.

The star was Scooby-Doo.

AGRA

Brij didn't cut off deadbeat clients, but he did harden his tone. In an e-mail to the Florida-based operator of myemeds.com, he wrote:

The government of India has imposed restrictions on many medicines and declared them Narcotic Substance. There are huge penalties and even imprisonment as a punishment if someone is found selling them without a prescription. Till now we were supplying you with the stock we maintain as a buffer but it is now coming to a near end...

We have no choice but to pay bribes and premiums to get our medicines. This is possible (and in our benefit) only because of some helpful corrupt people in India.

ROXBOROUGH

Snug in his three-bedroom apartment, with its familiar curry, cardamom and garam masala aromas, Akhil startled his roommate with the news:

In three months, he planned to quit his father's business.

What began as an easy chore now threatened to ruin his plan to run hospitals in India.

His family's pharmacy clients called at all hours from Australia and Europe. He was falling behind at Temple, and doubted his professors would understand. It might even jeopardize his summer job at Mercy Hospital.

Each week brought new hassles.

The list of deadbeat clients continued to grow, and his father refused to cut them off.

A favored offshore bank now demanded to know the source of Akhil's large deposits.

Governments, under pressure from global drug companies, were cracking down on Internet pharmacies. Recent Canadian raids had cost the Bansals $200,000.

Then there was David Armstrong's betrayal.

Armstrong ran the Bansals' depot in Queens, N.Y., the place where shipments arrived from India. Armstrong supervised the immigrant women there who fulfilled customer orders.

Acting on a tip, Akhil had hacked into Armstrong's computer and discovered that he had been stealing pills and customer data. Armstrong was using the data to spam customers, directing them to his own Web site, ontimeviagra.com.

Akhil planned to fire Armstrong as soon as he could find a new shipper and depot. He had his eye on rental homes in Bucks County.

Though discouraged, Akhil took time to devise a business innovation he hoped would increase efficiency. He introduced it to clients in an e-mail:

We would like to invite you to our Web site www.orderspanel.com. In our pursuit for continuous improvement of our services... you can now directly upload orders... . You can also see and download tracking sheets online... .

We also request you to zip your file with password protection (8 alphanumeric)...

With warm regards,

Dr. Akhil Bansal

This new system would be more professional and less haphazard than the current, cumbersome system, which relied on e-mail. It would give Akhil more control over the network.

If a client didn't pay, he could block access to orderspanel.com. If an employee couldn't be trusted, or became a problem, he wouldn't get a password.

Akhil's father did not get a password.

CENTER CITY

DEA agent Eric Russ, a no-nonsense former Marine, was not an excitable guy. But he rarely found evidence this good.

He rushed it across Market Street to the prosecutors' offices. Barb put the evidence - a PowerPoint presentation Russ had discovered in Akhil's e-mail - into her computer.

The file was amazing. The PowerPoint presented a detailed history of the Bansal pill distribution network, as written by Akhil. Apparently, it was something he had put together for his Costa Rican connection, back in July.

As Barb and Kelly scrolled down, they could not contain their outrage. After all, here was a doctor dispensing generic prescription pills without even talking to patients.

Barb had always figured Akhil's enterprise was all about money, not health care. Now the PowerPoint confirmed it.

The prosecutors began reading Akhil's presentation aloud, their booming voices carrying into the hallway. They scoffed at the way Akhil presented his rise to success - sections labeled Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Revolution.

"The arrogance of this guy," Kelly thought. "He's proud of what he's done."

The evidence prosecutors already had - bank records, e-mails, invoices - was incriminating, but dull. Here was something dramatic, visual, and in Akhil's broken English. A jury would eat it up.

The last slide posed a series of questions. "Can we process more orders?... Till how long we can get this going? What if anything bad happens?"

The prosecutors howled.

Barb mimicked Akhil. " 'What if anything bad happens?' "

She began to chant: "What if anything bad happens? What if anything bad happens?"

Barb kicked off her black pumps, dancing now. "What if anything bad happens? You're about to find out."


Contact staff writer John Shiffman at 215-854-2658 or jshiffman@phillynews.com.

THE REST OF THE STORY
Click here to read the other chapters in the serial.