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Founders of Iraqi radio station convicted of misusing U.N. grant

More than a decade after they helped launch a groundbreaking radio station to promote democracy and women’s rights in Iraq, two Western New Yorkers were convicted of misusing a United Nations grant for the project.

A federal court jury on Friday found Steve S. Jabar and Deborah C. Bowers guilty of wire fraud, conspiracy and lying to a federal agent in connection with what prosecutors had described as a scheme to divert $65,000 in U.N. funds into their own pockets.

The jury of seven women and five men deliberated for 14 hours over two days and delivered a split verdict at about 6 p.m.

They cleared Jabar and Bowers of wrongdoing on eight felony counts in the government’s 14-count indictment. But on one count of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy, they found both defendants guilty. They also convicted Bowers on three separate counts of giving a false statement and Jabar on one count of giving a false statement.

Jabar, an Iraqi refugee who fought against dictator Saddam Hussein and assisted top U.S. military brass in the war in Iraq, showed little emotion in the courtroom, but acknowledged later he was stunned and angered by the verdict.

“I was 100 percent sure that the jury would come with a not guilty verdict. I don’t know what happened. I’m very disappointed,” he said. “I lost total trust there is justice.”

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Bowers declined to comment, as did her husband, Michael, pastor of a Clarence church. Jabar apologized to Bowers in the elevator on their way out of the courthouse. “That’s OK,” she responded. “Sharing life.”

In court, Bowers’ attorney Mark J. Mahoney objected to what he called a “compromise verdict,” telling U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. Vilardo “there’s simply no rational basis” for it and encouraging Vilardo either to set it aside or to instruct the jury to deliberate further.

But Vilardo said there was nothing “inherently inconsistent” in the verdict, and he let the jury go home. Bowers and Jabar were allowed to go free but ordered to surrender their passports to the court. A sentencing will be in December.

The jury decided that Jabar and Bowers committed wire fraud in a quarterly report they sent by email in May 2005 to the U.N. detailing how the nonprofit organization they were operating, Opportunities for Kids International, had disbursed $350,000 in U.N. grant funds. The report was false and fraudulent, prosecutors said, because it didn’t show that some of the funds had been diverted to Jabar and Bowers.

But on two other counts of wire fraud, the jury found the defendants not guilty. They also determined that neither Jabar nor Bowers was guilty of any of the five counts of money laundering with which they were charged.

The case dates back to 2004, when OKI first applied for a grant from the U.N. Development Fund for Women to create a new radio station in Baghdad devoted to women’s issues. Jabar, whose freedom-fighter father was killed by Saddam’s army, lived in the Town of Tonawanda as a refugee and returned regularly to Iraq to advise U.S. military leaders during the war.

Bowers, of Clarence Center, who once ran the church preschool, had worked for many years helping refugees resettle in Western New York.

The radio station was to be a forum where Arab women could speak freely on issues important to them, such as religion, relationships and careers, but long considered taboo under the Saddam regime.

It was part of a broader U.N. effort to bring liberalizing reforms to people who had suffered for decades under Saddam.

The station, called Radio al Mahaba, or Voice of the Women, got off the ground in 2005 and is still in operation today. At the time, it was believed to be the only station in the Arab world devoted to women’s issues.

But in 2009, Bowers and Jabar were indicted on the 14 felony charges in connection with how they handled the $350,000 U.N. grant.

Over the course of the trial, which began five weeks ago, prosecutors portrayed Jabar as a man struggling to pay his debts and desperate for cash as he approached the U.N. for money to start the station. In her closing statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Marie P. Grisanti used an elaborate chart to help explain how Jabar and Bowers used about $65,000 in U.N. money for various personal expenses, including property taxes, credit card debts and utility and insurance bills.

“The government traced the money for you, from the grant directly into the pockets of Steve Jabar and Debbie Bowers,” Grisanti told the jury. The day after OKI received the U.N. funds, bank transactions showed money going into personal accounts controlled by Jabar and Bowers. And over the course of a few months, the government found 31 separate transactions that diverted U.N. money for personal use.

“It’s not a piggybank for you to use as you want,” Grisanti argued.

Defense lawyers maintained that Jabar and Bowers were guilty of nothing more than inadequate bookkeeping. Overzealous and misguided government investigators refused to recognize that the two activists 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 government would like us to take the shortcut, saying there was money taken from this grant and not used for the radio station and therefore it’s fraud,” said Patrick J. Brown, Jabar’s attorney.

Brown said several Iraqis loaned substantial amounts of money to Jabar for the radio station months before the U.N. grant arrived, and those lenders testified that Jabar repaid them at least in part. The situation in Iraq was chaotic, and the defendants struggled to get money to the station. They also were in a rush to get the station launched prior to the first democratic elections in Iraq.

“They did the best they could,” said Brown.

Defense lawyers also argued that hundreds of thousands of dollars beyond the U.N. grant were spent on the radio station – much of it contributed by Jabar, who was not as cash-strapped as prosecutors portrayed and had a lucrative job as a contractor in Iraq.

Jabar had some high-powered character witnesses buttressing his defense, including former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who wrote a letter to the court on his behalf. Two retired generals and a retired colonel testified, praising Jabar’s courage and honesty in helping American troops in Iraq. Dozens of other witnesses also testified, although neither Jabar nor Bowers took the stand.

Mahoney portrayed his client as equally well-intentioned.

“Who of us would’ve thought, ‘I think I’ll build a radio station and help the world?’ It takes a special kind of person. Think about the effort that went into this,” said Mahoney.

Reimbursing themselves and private lenders was not a crime, even though Bowers and Jabar could have done a better job reporting their transactions, he added.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Debbie Bowers was a bookkeeper?” said Mahoney. “The reason you keep records is not because you’re honest. The reason you keep records is so that someone won’t mistake you for being dishonest.”

Jabar said he didn’t take a penny away from the radio station and instead contributed tens of thousands of his own money to the project. His ex-wife even cited his propensity for giving away his earnings as a factor in their divorce. “How can I be a thief stealing something and being in the hole?” he said.

Jabar said he had no interest in money and even rejected offers to serve as a minister in the Iraqi government, a position that likely would have made him wealthy.

Now, he said, “I lost my house, my motel, my job.” He worries about being a financial burden on his brother, who has helped support him over the past few years.

He also worries about bigger issues, like the country’s war on terrorism.

“I should be on the front line of fighting ISIS for the safety of America,” he said. “I would hope this would end. I would get my clearance back and I would go fight ISIS.”

email: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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