Did Steve S. Jabar and Deborah C. Bowers intend to defraud the United Nations by paying off their own debts and bills with $65,000 in grant money that was slated for an Iraqi radio station?
Or did Jabar and Bowers simply not keep good records in their haste to get the station up and running as quickly as possible?
Those are the central questions that a 12-member jury is being asked to decide, following closing arguments Wednesday in the federal trial of Jabar and Bowers on charges of fraud, money laundering and conspiracy in connection with the alleged misuse of a U.N. grant dating from 2004.
To federal prosecutors, the case against the two Western New York residents is as easy as examining a series of bank transactions that show money from the U.N. coming into accounts controlled by Bowers and Jabar, and then being used to pay property taxes, credit card bills and mortgage payments.
“The U.N. did not say it was OK to spend the grant money anyway you want or on your personal expenses or bills,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Marie P. Grisanti . “The U.N. is not in the business of giving money to support individuals.”
But defense attorneys argued that overzealous government investigators refused to recognize that Jabar and Bowers were only able to get the radio station off the ground in war-torn Iraq by relying on loans from individuals prior to the U.N. grant coming through, and then using the grant to pay back the loans and to reimburse themselves.
The grant agreement didn’t stipulate such reimbursements were not allowed, said Mark J. Mahoney, Bowers’ lawyer. The U.N., he added, was interested only in whether Opportunity for Kids International, the organization run by Jabar and Bowers, was building the radio station.
“They still today refuse to look at the big picture, the whole picture,” said Mahoney. “It sounds plausible, if you only listen to half the story. The government still has blinders on. The government still is stuck in this fanciful idea of what the rules are.”
The idea that reimbursement was unacceptable and illegal “is a complete fiction,” he added. “It is not a law. It is not a rule. And it’s not in the agreement.”
Not only did Radio Al Mahaba launch in Baghdad in 2005, OKI ended up spending in excess of the $350,000 U.N. grant on the project.
The station was created as a forum for Arab women to talk freely about religion, relationships and careers, part of a broader effort to bring liberalizing reforms to people who had suffered for decades under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.
“How do you get fraud out of that?” Mahoney said.
Jabar, a refugee who once was a resistance fighter in Iraq, and Bowers, who formerly assisted refugee families resettling in Western New York, are accused in a 14-count indictment of misusing about $65,000 of the $350,000 they received to start up the radio station. In her closing statement, Grisanti used an elaborate chart to help explain how the defendants used the U.N. money for various personal expenses.
On March 3, 2005, for example, Bowers paid off a $7,362 Visa card bill, and during an interview with a federal investigator admitted that “those expenses were unlikely related to OKI and were likely personal,” said Grisanti.
Another “pot” of $5,600 in U.N. money, she said, was diverted in 17 separate transactions to pay for utilities, medical expenses and insurance bills, among other items.
“They were checks written by Debbie Bowers to pay Steve Jabar’s bills,” Grisanti said. “This is not just one doing. This is ongoing. They’re stealing money a little at a time.”
Mahoney and Jabar defense attorney Patrick J. Brown acknowledged that their clients did not do a great job keeping records of their transactions.
The situation in Iraq was chaotic, and the defendants struggled to get money to the station, Brown said. Jabar and Bowers got it done by finding people to loan money with the expectation of the U.N. grant, he said.
“It’s being twisted to look like something it isn’t, like somehow there’s something nefarious about it,” Brown said.
Both Brown and Mahoney pointed to their clients’ sterling reputations prior to the indictment.
Bowers, a Clarence Center wife of a minister, worked for many years assisting refugees in Western New York.
“She has spent her life trying to help other people, with the best of intentions, with no design to benefit herself,” Mahoney said.
Jabar, of the Town of Tonawanda, was praised by some of U.S. military’s most distinguished leaders for his honesty and courage in assisting U.S. troops in Iraq, Brown said, citing the testimony of two retired generals and a colonel.
“To a man they each said I’d trust him with my life and with the life of my men,” Brown said. “They all trusted Steve. They didn’t have any misgivings.”
But Grisanti told jurors that those good deeds don’t cover up their crimes.
“None of that matters,” she said. “You don’t get a pass because you do good works before.”
Jurors who have been listening to testimony in the case for about five weeks finally will begin deliberating the fates of Jabar and Bowers on Thursday, following instructions from U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. Vilardo.