Texas couple accused of funneling money to Iran

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A Texas couple and the head of an Oregon charity secretly sent millions of dollars to an Iranian bank and to a contact in Iran for nine years, violating the U.S. embargo on the Middle East country, according to a federal indictment.

The indictment describes an alleged scheme in which the Texas couple got tax exemptions for their donations to the Portland-based Child Foundation charity. The head of the charity, Mehrdad Yasrebi, allegedly funneled money that was meant for food and other assistance to his cousin and to a bank controlled by the Iranian government.

Working through Iranian corporations and banks in Switzerland and Dubai, the Texas couple and Yasrebi's cousin masked their transfers by using food shipments and other commodities to cover financial donations intended for a sister charity in Iran run by the cousin, federal prosecutors say.

"These defendants are charged with going to extraordinary lengths to conceal the transfer of large sums of money in violation of the Iranian embargo," Dwight Holton, the U.S. Attorney for Oregon, said in a statement Thursday.

A 26-page indictment alleges the Texas couple, Najmeh Vahid and Dr. Hossein Lahiji, conspired to defraud the government and laundered money by purporting to transfer charitable donations to Iran while actually keeping control of the money.

Also named in the indictment as a defendant is Ahmad Iranshahi, cousin of Yasrebi and the head of the sister charity started in Iran by the two men and other family members in 1999.

Yasrebi was identified as a coconspirator in the indictment but was not charged.

Federal officials allege that since Child Foundation's creation in 1999, it has "funneled the overwhelming majority of its revenue" to the sister charity in Iran, Refah Kudak.

They also allege that as Yasrebi was sending money to Iran he was in contact with Iranshahi, 53, who lives in Iran and is considered a fugitive.

According to the indictment, Yasrebi and the Child Foundation transferred a total of $5.4 million between April 2001 and April 2005 to Refah Kudak through a bank account in Switzerland. Some of that money came from Lahiji and Vahid. The money eventually landed in Bank Melli, an arm of the Iranian government, federal prosecutors alleged.

The indictment alleges that Yasrebi organized the charity "to attract charitable donations in the United States and thereafter transfer virtually all of its revenues from the United States to Iran" through the sister charity there.

Prosecutors charge that Yasrebi sought the approval and financial support for the founding of the charity from members of Hezbollah, as well as Iranian diplomats, ayatollahs and other representatives of the Iranian government.

The indictment never explicitly states any link between the money donated and invested by Vahid and Lahiji and the terrorist group Hezbollah.

Vahid answered the phone at her home Thursday but referred all questions to the couple's attorney, Jimmy Parks of San Antonio. Parks did not return a call seeking comment Thursday.

Calls to the Child Foundation also were not returned.

According to its most recent filings seeking to maintain charitable status, the foundation employs seven full-time employees and raised $2 million between June 1, 2009, and May 31. The foundation's goal is to sponsor children "in the form of food, medicine, clothing and educational materials, and in some countries, housing and emergency assistance."

The foundation serves children in Iran, Indonesia and Afghanistan.

Lahiji and Vahid are scheduled to appear in federal court in San Antonio during the week of Dec. 20. The charity is not named in the indictment, and none of its officers has been indicted.

The U.S. has had a trade embargo against Iran since 1995, the same year the Child Foundation achieved charitable nonprofit status.