US arrests Iranian over alleged US$115m sanctions evasion scheme

MANHATTAN (REUTERS) - An Iranian who chairs a Maltese bank has been arrested on US charges he participated in a scheme to evade US sanctions and funnel more than US$115 million (S$151 million) paid under a Venezuelan construction contract through the US financial system, prosecutors said on Tuesday (March 21).

Ali Sadr Hashemi Nejad, 38, was charged in a six-count indictment filed in federal court in Manhattan for his role in a scheme to evade US economic sanctions against Iran, prosecutors said.

Sadr, the 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.

That project stemmed from agreements that Iran and Venezuela entered into in 2004 and 2005 that called for cooperation between to two governments in constructing housing units in the South American nation.

The indictment said an Iranian company that Stratus incorporated, Iranian International Housing Corporation (IIHC), entered into a US$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 that 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 US sanctions," Manhattan US Attorney Geoffrey Berman said in a statement.

The Venezuelan energy company made US$115 million in payments to IIHC 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.