The federal government's eight-year-long pursuit of Steve S. Jabar ended Wednesday with a judge who refused to send the Iraq native to prison and suggested the prosecution against him was punishment enough.
The long-awaited sentence, delivered in a federal courtroom downtown, means the former U.S. military adviser will avoid prison time or probation in connection with his conviction for making a false statement.
The sentence, which amounted to a $500 fine, will allow Jabar to put behind him the unproven allegations that he stole United Nations funds intended for a radio station for women in Iraq.
Outside the courtroom, he blasted federal prosecutors, the FBI and the IRS, saying the case should never have been brought.
"The damage, the pain, the losses, the disappointment is already deep," said Jabar, a Town of Tonawanda resident who lost his house and business during the legal ordeal. "Yet the hope and desire to fight for true justice is still in me."
Jabar's sentence is the result of two related but very different legal developments in a case that began with a 14-count grand jury indictment in 2009 and over the years cast a spotlight on the FBI's and IRS' role in the investigation.
In September 2016, after a three-week trial, a jury found Jabar and Deborah C. Bowers guilty of diverting $65,000 in UN funds to pay off personal loans, credit cards and property taxes.
From Day One, Jabar and Bowers, a former refugee aid worker and wife of a Clarence minister, argued they were innocent and that the core allegation against them – that they stole money intended for a radio station in war-torn Iraq – remained unproven.
"I am an innocent man who has been hunted down for nearly 15 years at the taxpayers' expense by a few FBI agents and, sadly, one IRS agent who convinced themselves, and no one else, that I was either a terrorist, spy, foreign intel officer or a thief," he said Wednesday. "To them, my innocence was not an option."
In a decision last year, U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. Vilardo agreed with many of Jabar's claims and set aside the defendants' fraud convictions. In the same decision, he found that Jabar and Bowers did make false statements to investigators.
Setting aside the fraud convictions meant Jabar faced a much shorter potential prison sentence and opened the door to the judge's decision Wednesday to not even place him on probation.
"Mr. Jabar has already been punished by eight years of prosecution," Vilardo said at the sentencing, adding that his work in Iraq "did a lot of good over there. He saved lives."
During the government's prosecution of Jabar, several high-ranking U.S. military officials came to his defense, calling his work in Iraq invaluable and suggesting the government's criminal allegations were misplaced.
At the core of the government's prosecution was U.N. money intended 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.
U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy Jr. defended his office's prosecution of Jabar and Bowers and and dismissed Jabar's suggestion that he was unfairly targeted by the feds.
"Despite the defendant’s criticism of the government, his anger is misplaced," Kennedy said in a statement. "The only person he has to be mad at is himself. The job of the prosecutors in my office and the job of our law enforcement partners is impartially to enforce the law. That is precisely what happened here—nothing more and nothing less."
In setting aside the fraud convictions, Vilardo said the government never proved that Jabar and Bowers intended to harm the U.N.
"As is so often the case, the cover-up here was worse than the acts that were covered up," the judge said in his decision.
The government's case against Jabar and Bowers centered around a $350,000 U.N. grant intended for Opportunities for Kids International, a nonprofit group formed by Jabar and Bowers, and with the ultimate goal of financing the radio station.
The rub, according to prosecutors, came when $20,000 in grant money was withdrawn from the Opportunities for Kids International account on the day after the grant arrived and was subsequently spent on personal expenses. Prosecutors claim Jabar owed money to friends and was experiencing serious financial problems.
"The UN granted money to build a radio station," Patrick J. Brown, Jabar's defense lawyer, said Wednesday. "The radio station was built and more money was put in than what the UN granted."
Shortly after the jury verdict, Jabar and Bowers filed a motion to dismiss their convictions or grant them a new trial.
They claim the jury didn’t hear enough about their “good faith defense.” They also claim the U.N. money they are accused of stealing was reimbursement for money they had personally invested in the radio station.
In their motion to dismiss the convictions, Jabar and Bowers also raised questions about the roots of the government’s investigation and suggested that a hidden agenda - Jabar was a vocal opponent of the U.S. invasion in Iraq - led to their criminal prosecution.
"This trial never should have happened," Jabar said Wednesday. "At least it should've been dropped long before it ruined the lives of two good Americans."
Jabar and Bowers also point to an FBI memo in 2006 linking OKI, the nonprofit group, with al-Qaida, 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.
"The defendant is trying to say there's a big conspiracy with the FBI and IRS," Assistant U.S. Attorney Marie Grisanti said of the allegations Wednesday. "It's an absurd argument."
Bowers will be sentenced June 4.