US couple sentenced after violating Iran embargo
PORTLAND, Oregon (AP) — A federal judge has sentenced a Texas-based urologist and his attorney wife to a year and a day in prison after they were convicted of defrauding the government in a scheme prosecutors said also violated the U.S. trade embargo with Iran.
In addition, U.S. District Court Judge Garr King ordered the couple to pay $1.1 million, including $200,000 in restitution. They also were told to surrender $600,000 that authorities said was involved in money laundering.
Dr. Hossein Lahiji and his wife, Najmeh Vahid, were convicted by a jury in June of conspiracy to defraud the IRS and conspiracy to transfer funds overseas in violation of the Iranian embargo.
The McAllen, Texas, couple gave more than $1.8 million to the Oregon branch of an Iranian children’s charity that sent the money to Iran. The donations were used to make investments in Iran that the couple controlled, according to an indictment.
The couple’s attorneys argued that the donations had no commercial purpose.
The indictment described a scheme in which the Texas couple got tax exemptions for their donations to the Portland-based Child Foundation charity, including backdating some of their donations to reduce their tax burden for years in which they didn’t contribute money.
The Child Foundation did not immediately return a call seeking comment on Wednesday afternoon. The charity was reorganized after the allegations surfaced and now operates under the supervision of U.S. probation officers.
Authorities said some of the funds were used to purchase a building in Tehran in the name of Lahiji’s sister and invested in an Iranian bank account. They said other money was given as religious tax to Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi and as salary for Vahid’s mother, both in Iran.
Prosecutors originally sought a sentence of two years and six months in prison, citing the scope of the fraud.
“The defendants’ motivation in engaging in this conduct was economic greed,” prosecutors wrote, noting that the defendants had built up $20 million in savings. “And yet $20 million was not enough.”
Prosecutors said the defendants transferred money to Iran to be invested for their own benefit and to claim charitable donations while doing so. “In effect, they crafted what amounts to illegal 401(k) retirement accounts,” court documents state.
Lahiji and Vahid said in their sentencing memoranda that they deserved a lesser sentence.
“Obviously and ironically, the very nature of the financial giving ... were borne from Dr. Lahiji’s intensive desire to give of himself and property he owns to help people who are not in a position to help themselves,” according to Lahiji’s attorney, Michael McCrum.
They also argued that a prison term further punished them unnecessarily. Lahiji has already lost his medical practice and Vahid will likely be deported, forcing him to join her in Iran.
“All that he and his wife have built here in the United States,” Lahiji’s attorney wrote, “has been lost.”
Reach reporter Nigel Duara on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/nigelduara