March 20, 2018 / 9:43 PM / 4 months ago

U.S. arrests Iranian over alleged $115 million sanctions evasion scheme

(Reuters) - An Iranian who chairs a Maltese bank has been arrested on U.S. charges that he participated in a scheme to evade U.S. sanctions and funnel more than $115 million paid under a Venezuelan construction contract through the U.S. financial system, federal prosecutors said on Tuesday.

Ali Sadr Hashemi Nejad, 38, was charged in a six-count indictment filed in federal court in Manhattan accusing him of a role in a scheme to evade U.S. economic sanctions against Iran, prosecutors said.

Sadr, chairman of Maltese-registered Pilatus Bank, was arrested on Monday in Dulles, Virginia, according to court papers. A lawyer for Sadr declined comment.

Prosecutors said Sadr’s family controlled an Iranian conglomerate called Stratus Group, which had international business operations and that led a project to construct thousands of housing units in Venezuela.

The project stemmed from agreements that Iran and Venezuela entered into in 2004 and 2005 calling for cooperation between the two governments in constructing housing units in the South American country.

The indictment said an Iranian company that Stratus incorporated called Iranian International Housing Corporation entered into a $476 million deal in 2006 with a Venezuelan state-owned energy company to build 7,000 housing units.

Sadr belonged to a committee overseeing the project’s execution, prosecutors said.

They said Sadr took steps as part of the project to evade U.S. economic sanctions by concealing the role of Iran and Iranian parties in payments sent through the U.S. banking system.

“As alleged, Ali Sadr Hashemi Nejad created a network of front companies and foreign bank accounts to mask Iranian business dealings in Venezuela and evade U.S. sanctions,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman said in a statement.

The Venezuelan energy company made $115 million in payments to Iranian International Housing Corporation using entities in Switzerland and Turkey to conceal the Iranian connection to the funds, prosecutors said.

Sadr faces six counts, including conspiracy to defraud the United States and conspiracy to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.

Pilatus Bank was in litigation with the Maltese journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was murdered last October, over several articles she wrote that accused the bank and Ali Sadr of facilitating corrupt political activities and money laundering.

The bank said the articles were false and defamatory. A former bank employee who was the main source for Caruana Galizia’s accusations was arrested on Monday night on a European arrest warrant issued by the Maltese government in response to a complaint of fraud by Pilatus Bank.

Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Tom Brown

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