Raids across the state of North Rhine-Westphalia have broken up an organized crime network involved in illegal employment at construction sites. Hundreds of construction companies are believed to be involved.
Hundreds of German police and agents with a special customs task force took part in early-morning raids on Tuesday to bust the organizers and backers of a massive network of illegal, off-the-books construction jobs.
Authorities searched 140 properties in 31 cities in the populous, western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), officials said at an afternoon press conference.
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They detained a total of eight people — six men and two women — who are believed to be the main suspects in the illegal work ring.
"The suspects are accused of using a network of sham companies to create bogus invoices for several hundred construction firms in North Rhine-Westphalia," said Armin Rolfink, president of Germany's central customs authority.
The eight people who were detained range in age from 31 to 72 years old and include two Germans, two Serbians, one Israeli man, a man from Bosnia-Herzegovina and one person whose nationality could not be immediately determined.
Around 450 construction companies allegedly took part in the tax-evading services offered by the crime network
Hundreds of construction companies involved
Prosecutors said the suspects used the network of companies to help construction companies evade paying taxes and social security contributions on a massive scale.
Around 450 construction companies are believed to have used the network's services.
Using their sham firms, the crime network would issue bills to the construction companies for work that never took place. The construction companies would pay the bills and then receive their money back in cash from the crime network — after the suspects took out a 10 percent cut from the money, said Heinz Michael Horst, a spokesman for the investigating team.
The network is believed to have helped companies evade some €35 million ($43.5 million) in taxes and social security payments.
During the raids, assorted weapons were also uncovered, including two automatic crossbows, axes, knives and a pistol. Several vehicles were also seized along with €230,000 in cash.
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The construction companies were allegedly paid back in cash for bogus invoices by the crime ring, enabling them to avoid millions in taxes
Wuppertal public prosecutor Wolf-Tilman Baumert told reporters that the scale of the illegal work supported by the network was staggering, since under-the-table employment tends to bring up images of smaller businesses and small-scale tax evasion.
"What we have here is nothing like that," Baumert said.
"These are highly professional criminals who can expect punishment if they are convicted. The legal penalty is a minimum six months custodial sentence per crime totaling up to 10 years," he added.
Tuesday's raids against illegal work in the construction branch were the largest of their kind to take place in the history of the state.
rs/jm (AFP, dpa, Reuters)