CRIME

'Worth killing over': How a plane mogul dodged US scrutiny

When a Kansas strip-mall bank with possible mob ties folded in the mid-1980s, federal authorities investigated whether a shareholder, Iranian-born aviation magnate Farhad Azima, should face criminal charges.

The probe hit a dead end. Azima, a U.S. citizen, essentially had a get-out-of-jail-free card because of secretive work he had performed for the U.S. government, a former federal prosecutor involved in the case said. Azima, a gunrunner later tied to the CIA, was never prosecuted.

If he's enjoyed a loose, informal immunity for years, it is now being tested as authorities in the U.S. and abroad probe Azima as part of a global corruption case.

Investigators are examining whether Azima, now 75, paid a kickback to a former United Arab Emirates official to reap the profits from a hotel sale in Tbilisi, Georgia. U.S. law enforcement began looking into the deal because Iranians involved were later blacklisted by the Treasury Department, accused of helping Iran avoid sanctions over its nuclear program

More recently, Azima was involved in a plan envisioning mass protests in Kuwait forcing out its government, apparently on behalf of a disgruntled member of the ruling family.

An Associated Press examination into his past, drawing upon interviews, court filings and a recently obtained trove of his hacked emails, reveals a man whose web of international business interests helped him make millions from federal contracts. A former comptroller for one of his firms also described his company's work with the CIA.

Through a spokesman, Azima declined to answer written questions from the AP or to be interviewed. He acknowledged his secretive work to his local newspaper last year, while sidestepping questions about his ties to the CIA.

"I've never been employed by the CIA," he told The Kansas City Star, though he acknowledged he may have been indirectly contracted. "I've done classified work. . It's not working for the KGB or the enemy. I'm proud of it."

Jeffrey Fegley, the former comptroller of Global Airways, described the airline as a "seat-of-your-pants operation" run by brave pilots who flew cargo into hotspots worldwide.

"I was simply the bookkeeper, the guy who filled up the briefcases with $100,000 worth of small bills so you could bribe the ground crew to get your cargo unloaded in a foreign land," Fegley told the AP. "Other than that," he said dryly, "it was just business as usual."

Asked who the airline's main clients were, Fegley said a "reputable agency."

Asked again, he was more direct: "CIA."

These ventures continued as federal investigators in the 1980s began looking into the collapse of a small bank in Kansas City, Kansas, part of a nationwide investigation into financial institutions during the savings and loan crisis. The collapse drew questions because a lawyer suspected of Mafia connections was among its directors.

Azima was a director, too, and owed the bank hundreds of thousands of dollars for outstanding loans to his airline.

But the investigation of Azima was stymied by higher-ups, who offered no clear reason why.

"It became apparent that we were not able to pursue prosecution of Azima," Lloyd Monroe, a retired prosecutor with the Justice Department's organized-crime task force in Kansas City, told the AP. "It was a source of real tension."

Now Azima is under scrutiny again by both Emirati and U.S. authorities over a planned hotel deal in Tbilisi in 2011.

When the hotel's owner — the UAE sheikhdom of Ras al-Khaimah — was looking to sell, Azima stepped in to mediate a deal for three would-be Iranian buyers. Ras al-Khaimah, like Dubai, is one of the seven emirates that make up the UAE, a staunch U.S. ally on the Arabian Peninsula.

Now Ras al-Khaimah accuses him of improperly trying to profit from the deal by secretly arranging a 10-percent stake in the hotel for himself with the Iranians. Azima denies the allegations, saying Ras al-Khaimah knew details of the hotel deal.

Meanwhile, investigators this year considered whether Azima's activities in Georgia violated the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which makes it illegal to bribe foreign governments. Discussions about Azima focused partly on the hotel deal and numerous accounts he has at a Midwest bank, according to a person familiar with the discussions who spoke on condition of anonymity because the conversations were not to be made public.

It is not known what the investigators decided about Azima's activities. The Justice Department declined to comment.

Azima also filed his own lawsuit against Ras al-Khaimah in federal court in Washington, accusing it of taking advantage of, or orchestrating, the hack of his emails.

The email cache, which was leaked on the internet last year, brought to light other Azima ventures.

One was a business partnership, Denx LLC, that he appears to have owned along with two former CIA officers, Gary Berntsen and Scott Modell. Their names appear in the leaked documents along with the amounts of their initial capital contributions.

The firm devised a scheme, apparently on behalf of a Kuwaiti ruling family member, to install "new, bolder, more energetic leadership" in the Gulf nation.

"The stakes are very, very high ($30+ billion) and are easily worth killing over," it reads.

It was unclear whether Denx's plans were ever put into action. Both Modell and Berntsen told the AP that they knew nothing of the Kuwait plan, though an email address identified as Berntsen's in other correspondence sent Azima the PowerPoint slide deck outlining it.

"We wrote proposals up and we didn't execute any of this," said Bernsten, who told the AP that he was in charge of the overall Denx venture, which is now defunct. He said that Modell and another participant in Denx dropped out shortly after its creation. He also said that he would not have taken part in an effort to undermine a U.S. ally.

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Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writer Raphael Satter in Paris and news researcher Monika Mathur in Washington contributed to this report.

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Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jongambrellAP. His work can be found at http://apne.ws/2galNpz.