BUFFALO, N.Y. – An American woman and an Iraqi-born associate are charged with misusing some of the $350,000 the United Nations gave them to start a radio station to promote women's rights in Iraq.
The U.S. Attorney's Office has accused Deborah Bowers and Steve Jabar, who ran a not-for-profit group near Buffalo, of using about $65,000 meant for Radio Almahaba in Baghdad to pay off personal loans, credit cards and property taxes.
Bowers, 54, of Clarence Center, pleaded not guilty to a 14-count indictment Tuesday in U.S. District Court.
Jabar, who lives in Tonawanda but spent time in Iraq managing the station, was not in court and it was not known whether he has a lawyer. A telephone number listed for Steve Jabar was disconnected.
"Although the defendants did establish a radio station in Iraq, they undermined the goal of the radio station by diverting tens of thousands of dollars of the grant money to enrich themselves," acting U.S. Attorney Kathleen Mehltretter said.
Radio Almahaba, with its slogan "The Voice of Iraqi Women," was called the first station in the Middle East devoted to women's issues, broadcasting programs about marriage, careers, religion and dress codes from the perspective of women.
Mark Mahoney, Bowers' lawyer, called the indictment unfair and said money paid to Bowers and Jabar from U.N. funds reimbursed them for radio station-related expenses, such as computer equipment charged to Bowers' personal credit card. Dealing with banks was difficult in the war zone, he said, so Jabar would sometimes spend his own money while in Iraq and be reimbursed later.
Prosecutors, Mahoney said, "just look at the fact it didn't go directly to the radio station and they charge that as a crime."
"The problem was they weren't set up for the bookkeeping," he said. Bowers "was spending more time worrying about getting the job done and not enough time documenting what was happening, and so (the government is) relying on her inability to prove her innocence with detailed records as an excuse to charge her with a crime."
Bowers was executive director of Opportunity for Kids International when the agency obtained the grant through the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) in 2004. Jabar was the agency's treasurer and in charge of operations in Baghdad.
Both, Mahoney said, have spent years volunteering their time and services to help refugees and children in developing countries. Jabar, he said, worked as a translator for the U.S. Army.
"He has been tremendously involved in helping the U.S. effort in Iraq," he said.
The government's indictment said Bowers and Jabar participated in the fraud until about July 2006 and tried to cover it up by submitting a fraudulent quarterly report to UNIFEM claiming that all the grant money was spent on the radio station. They also are accused of lying to federal agents who were investigating.
A call to UNIFEM was not immediately returned, and it wasn't immediately known whether the station still is on the air.
Bowers and Jabar could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted on the charges of wire fraud, money laundering and lying in connection with a scheme to defraud.