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Man convicted of U.N. fund misuse gets OK to visit Iraq

On a recent winter morning, prosecutors sparred with a federal judge in a downtown courtroom over the wisdom of allowing a Tonawanda man convicted of fraud and awaiting sentencing to leave the country for his native Iraq.

They reminded the judge that this was a man who "thought in his heart of hearts he would be acquitted" and, given the possible prison sentence that awaits him, most certainly would flee if given the opportunity.

The judge listened, pointed to Steve Jabar's track record of traveling to and from Iraq and told prosecutors, to the contrary, he thought Jabar would return to face his punishment.

And then he gave the Iraqi native permission to travel.

In a case that every step of the way paints two Steve Jabars - one, a high-level ally and asset to U.S. military leaders in Iraq and the other, a con man and conspirator - U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. Vilardo's ruling is the latest chapter.

Iraqi radio station for women at center of trial in Buffalo

It is also a case that has cast a spotlight on Jabar, an Iraqi refugee turned U.S. citizen, because of his reputation as an advocate for democracy in Iraq and his prominent role as a civilian adviser during the Iraq war.

Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, citing Jabar's contacts and credibility in his homeland, is among those who have written the court on his behalf.  In addition, two retired U.S. generals testified at his trial.

'They've accused me of being a spy and of being a member of al Qaeda," Jabar said during a recent interview. "How many times do I have to prove I'm a patriot, a loyal American?"

After a three-week trial last year, a jury found Jabar and Deborah Bowers, a refugee aid worker and wife of a Clarence minister, guilty of diverting $65,000 in United Nations funds to pay off personal loans, credit cards and property taxes.

The money was earmarked for Radio Al Mahaba, the self-described "voice of women" in Iraq. More than a decade later, the radio station, a forum for women eager to talk about divorce, careers and religion, is still broadcasting.

Iraq War vets stand up for one of their own

Even more important than Jabar's travel is what lies ahead. Despite their convictions last year, Jabar and Bowers continue their high-profile fight against the FBI and IRS and what they claim is the hidden agenda that led to their prosecution.

In a case chock full of plots and subplots, legal and political intrigue, they added a new twist when they asked Vilardo to dismiss their convictions or grant them a new trial.

It's a common defense strategy and rarely successful. But, during a recent 3-hour hearing, Vilardo made it clear he has questions about the government's case. Some of those questions center on intent and whether Jabar and Bowers knowingly planned to harm the United Nations.

Bowers said she always believed a jury would find them innocent once it heard their side of the story. But the jurors  in her trial never heard the whole truth, she said.

"They didn't hear the good we've done for the past 25 years," she said.

To hear Jabar and Bowers talk, the jury also didn't hear enough about their "good faith defense." They claim the UN money they are accused of stealing was reimbursement for money they personally invested in the radio station.

In short, they suggest, they are guilty of only one thing - poor bookkeeping.

Prosecutors tell a far different story, and noted during the hearing that the UN's $350,000 grant was intended for Opportunities for Kids International, a non-profit group formed by Jabar and Bowers, with the ultimate goal of financing the radio station.

"They intended instead to pocket some of the money," Assistant U.S. Attorney Marie P. Grisanti told Vilardo.

Grisanti also reminded the judge that, on the day after the grant arrived in OKI's account, $20,0000 was withdrawn and spent on personal expenses. Prosecutors claim Jabar owed money to friends and was experiencing serious financial problems.

Vilardo acknowledged the two payments may be evidence of intent.

In asking Vilardo to overturn their clients' convictions, defense attorneys Mark J. Mahoney and Patrick J. Brown claim the government never investigated their "good faith defense" and, to this day, has failed to prove Jabar and Bowers intended to harm the UN.

"The UN got the radio station and more," Mahoney told Vilardo.

The motion to dismiss the convictions also raises questions about the roots of the government's investigation into Jabar and Bowers, and suggests a hidden agenda led to their criminal prosecution.

They point to an FBI memo in 2006 linking OKI, the non-profit group, with al Qaeda, and a separate series of emails that same year indicating agents were preparing to "pick up Jabar, blindfold him, and take him" to an FBI site for questioning.

Three years later, according to another document, investigators pointed to a likely grand jury indictment of Jabar to suggest that the new charges would allow them "to neutralize Jabar and possibly assist in gaining his cooperation."

Defense lawyers say the effort to "get" Jabar also included placing him on the Terrorist Watch List.

"Why did this case start?" Bowers is fond of asking. "They just wanted a reason to get to Steve. This was just another opportunity."

Retired U.S. Army Col. Wes Martin, one of the military officials who has publicly backed Jabar, said he remembers being at a meeting in Baghdad in December of 2005, four years before the fraud indictment, when two federal agents claimed Jabar was a spy for Saddam Hussein.

Martin said Col. William Ivey, who knew Jabar well and later testified on his behalf, dismissed the allegation out of hand and told the agents, "I have have only one Iraqi working for me and his father was tortured by Saddam."

"He was no agent of Saddam's," Martin said of Jabar.

Prosecutors say Jabar's claims of a "hidden agenda" ignores the fact that a jury, in the end, found him guilty of a crime - defrauding the UN.

They also believe the fraud conviction is proof that the jury considered the good faith defense and found Jabar and Bowers did indeed intend to harm the organization.

"They didn't use the UN funds for what they were intended," Assistant  U.S. Attorney MaryEllen Kresse told Vilardo.

Early on in the case, prosecutors argued that Jabar's claims of a hidden agenda would create a circus-like environment during the trial and, to some extent, Vilardo agreed, excluding some of the evidence.

What he did allow was testimony and evidence of Jabar's long history with the U.S. military, one of the reasons his case has attracted such a spotlight.

During a recent hearing on Jabar's travel request, prosecutors pointed to Jabar's support among the military, his interviews with the media and his recent appeal to former President Obama to suggest that, "He likes to be the big man on campus."

"This is a defendant who's trying to avoid a sentence," Grisanti told Vilardo.

"What rational person wouldn't want to avoid a sentence?" Vilardo responded.

In the end, the judge allowed Jabar to travel but gave him a deadline of March 1 to return. Jabar is traveling to Iraq to sign legal papers protecting his family's interests in land and property owned by his late father.

Jabar's father was a freedom fighter who was tortured and killed by Saddam.

For Jabar and Bowers, the effort to overturn their convictions, is  the latest chapter in an eight-year battle with the federal government.

Even if they're successful, the damage is done, they say.

Jabar says he has lost his home, business and, now, the radio station is feeling the negative impact of both his prosecution and the war in Iraq.

"We wanted to give women a forum to fight Islamic extremism," he said. "We trusted the government. We trusted the system."

For Bowers, the damage is more personal.

"Our reputations," she said, "and the friends who have walked away."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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