PORTLAND, Oregon (Reuters) - Three people were charged on Thursday with conspiring to defraud the United States and launder money in a scheme that prosecutors said sent $1.8 million to Iran.
Married couple Hossein Lahiji, 47 of McAllen, Texas and Najmeh Vahid, 35 of San Antonio Texas, along with Ahmad Iranshahi, 53, of Tehran, Iran were charged in the two count indictment, according to an announcement.
“These defendants are charged with going to extraordinary lengths to conceal the transfer of large sums of money in violation of the trade restrictions with Iran that have been in place for well over a decade,” Dwight Holton, U.S. Attorney in Portland said in a statement.
The charge of conspiracy to commit money laundering could carry a 20-year prison term and a $500,000 fine. The charge of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. could bring five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
The indictment alleges that the defendants transferred $1.8 million in supposed donations to a Portland charity called The Child Foundation from 1995 to at least 2008. The funds were then invested in Iran in violation of the embargo of Iran.
The two “retained interest and control in Iran over a significant part of the transferred funds,” the statement says. But, the two claimed them as charitable deductions on their U.S. tax returns.
The Child Foundation, listed as a co-conspirator, allegedly worked with the Iranian government.
Founders of The Child Foundation “consulted with and sought approval, support and monetary assistance” from “the Hizballah brothers, Iranian diplomats, Iranian ayatollahs and other Iranian governmental representatives,” the indictment alleges.
The indictment also charges that Iranshahi and the Child Foundation “would split the proceeds of certain donations with Iran’s Grand Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi.”
The Child Foundation “helps children living in poverty to remain in school,” the Portland group’s web site says. Hengameh Kazemi, the charity’s accountant said no restrictions have been placed on the group as a result of the investigation.
“I cannot get into any detail. This is an ongoing investigation,” she said.
“It is imperative that the donating public have confidence that charities providing overseas services, are operating in compliance with all applicable U.S. laws,” Holton said.
The trio allegedly used Swiss bank accounts and claimed that some transactions were food commodities exempt from the embargo as part of their scheme. There were allegedly investments made in buildings, office equipment and vehicles in Iran.
The two Texas residents are scheduled to surrender and appear in court in San Antonio next week. Iranshahi, a resident of Iran, is a fugitive.
The United States has maintained a strict embargo on nearly all trade with Iran since 1995. The administration of President Barack Obama is trying to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Greg McCune