In his native Iraq, Steve Jabar is remembered as a member of the resistance, the son of a freedom fighter who was tortured and killed by Saddam Hussein’s army.
Perhaps even more important, U.S. military officials have described Jabar – now living in the Town of Tonawanda – as a vital asset, an Iraqi leader with contacts and credibility.
Over the next several weeks, Jabar’s allies, including two retired U.S. Army generals, will travel to Buffalo to challenge federal allegations that their longtime friend is also a thief.
“To me, it seems totally out of character for a guy I know really well,” said retired Lt. Gen. John “Jack” Gardner. “He may have made a mistake, but I can’t believe he would knowingly do anything wrong.”
Jabar, in a case now seven years in the making, is accused of conspiring with Deborah Bowers, a refugee aid worker and wife of a Clarence minister, to steal $65,000 in United Nations funds intended for Iraq.
Their case goes to trial this week, and it has garnered headlines from Day One because of Jabar’s history in Iraq and ties to powerful people. Just last year, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge wrote to the court and said it would be difficult to overstate Jabar’s value as a political and cultural adviser, even now, years after he left Iraq.
Ridge is not alone.
“In combat, you don’t leave a fellow warrior behind,” retired Lt. Col. Wes Martin said. “He didn’t do what he’s accused of doing. There was never an attempt to defraud the government.”
From the start, Jabar’s prosecution has raised the question: Is he a criminal who conspired to embezzle money from the U.N. or is he a war hero turned sloppy bookkeeper?
Prosecutors say he and Bowers used tens of thousands of dollars from a U.N. grant earmarked for an Iraqi radio station to pay off personal loans, credit cards and property taxes.
Supporters claim they were simply reimbursing themselves for what they had personally invested in the radio station.
“The evidence will establish that in 2003 and 2004, defendant Jabar was having financial difficulties,” prosecutors said in recent court papers. “Jabar owned property on Niagara Falls Boulevard consisting of a motel and house and was delinquent in making property tax payments.”
Prosecutors say Jabar borrowed money from two friends to pay the overdue taxes but soon found himself unable to repay his debts.
When he applied for a bank loan but was turned down, prosecutors say he and Bowers looked for another source of cash and eventually approached the U.N. for money to start an Iraqi radio station for women.
“Immediately after receiving the grant money, the defendants began misusing it,” Assistant U.S. Attorneys Marie Grisanti and MaryEllen Kresse said in a pretrial memo to the court.
Lawyers on both sides, citing the proximity of this week’s trial, declined to comment. Jabar and Bowers are represented by defense attorneys Mark J. Mahoney and Patrick J. Brown.
A grand jury investigated Jabar and Bowers and, in 2009, handed up a 14-count indictment accusing them of using U.N. funds for their own benefit.
The allegations of fraud and money laundering are rooted in the funds that allegedly went from Opportunities for Kids International, a group formed by Jabar and Bowers, into their private accounts. Bowers was executive director of OKI, and Jabar was its treasurer.
Jabar’s friends are skeptical.
“Knowing him like I do, I can’t believe he would knowingly do anything wrong,” said Gardner.
Gardner, who took over command of American-run prisons in Iraq after the Abu Ghraib scandal, describes Jabar as honest, tireless and passionate about his homeland. For that reason, he joined a small group of retired officers, most of them former colonels and generals, who worked side by side with Jabar in Iraq and came to know and respect him.
They plan to testify on his behalf and, even before the trial, many contributed money to his legal defense. They question the government’s case against their friend and are convinced his only crime is poor bookkeeping.
“He’s lost everything and yet he insists on continuing the fight,” Martin said of Jabar.
In recent months, as the two sides prepared for an on-again, off-again trial, Jabar and Bowers have raised questions about the investigation that led to the charges against them. They believe the FBI and IRS targeted them after Jabar, in 2003, publicly denounced then-President George W. Bush and his plans to invade Iraq.
In court papers, Mahoney and Brown provide a list of alleged incidents involving Jabar and his family, including his placement on a terrorist watch list.
They also subpoenaed the FBI and IRS for internal documents, but a judge quashed the subpoenas and suggested at one point the defense may have been on a “fishing expedition.”
Born and raised in Iraq, Jabar came to Buffalo as a refugee in the 1990s, became an American citizen and for a time operated the Iraqi House, a center for transplanted Iraqis living in Buffalo.
He met Bowers while helping a local Kurdish family and persuaded her to join him in raising money for an Iraqi radio station for women. The station, known as “Voice of Women Radio,” or “Radio Al Mahaba,” remains on the air today, and Jabar continues to play a major role in its operation even while under indictment.
As recently as May of this year, he traveled back and forth to Iraq with the court’s permission. In fact, it was Ridge who intervened last year when Jabar found himself barred from returning to his homeland.
In a letter to the court, Ridge said Jabar was one of the first, if not the first, member of his Homeland Security team to deploy to Iraq at the start of the war, and that he brought with him, a “unique set of skills and experiences.”
“I don’t think we can underestimate the value of his knowledge of the country and region, his relationship with family and friends in the country and the value of his reconnecting with them,” he told the court.
Jury selection in Jabar’s case began Tuesday before U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. Vilardo.