Manhattan US Attorney Announces Settlement Relating to Iranian-Owned Manhattan Office Tower That Will Provide Recovery to Terrorism Victims
By Long Island News & PR Published: April 18 2014
An office building in Manhattan used to transfer funds to Iran has been seized and forfeited.
New York, NY - April 17, 2014 - Preet Bharara, United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced today that the United States entered into a settlement agreement with the holders of terrorism-related judgments against the government of Iran (the judgment creditors) concerning properties (the defendant properties) found to have been forfeited by the entities that served as fronts for the government of Iran, in violation of federal law. The defendant properties include a 36-story office building located at 650 Fifth Avenue (the building), several other properties in California, Virginia, Texas, Maryland, and Queens, New York, and the contents of several bank accounts formerly in the name of entities that served as fronts for the government of Iran. Under the settlement, which was approved by U.S. District Judge Katherine B. Forrest today, the real estate defendant properties will be sold by the United States Marshals Service, with the net sale proceeds, along with the contents of the bank accounts, distributed to the signatory judgment creditors according to an agreed-upon distribution. Of the 20 judgment creditors who were parties to the litigation, this settlement resolves the case as to all but one of them. The settling judgment creditors include the families and estates of victims of the 1983 terrorist bombings of U.S. Marine Barracks in Beirut, the 1996 terrorist bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, and terrorist attacks in Israel and elsewhere.
This settlement follows Judge Forrest’s September 11, 2013, order, in which she found that the building is forfeitable to the United States, and Judge Forrest’s order of March 28, 2014, in which she found that the remaining defendant properties are forfeitable to the United States and that the judgment creditors should also prevail in their claims against the entities that served as fronts for Iran.
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Bharara said, “From the very beginning of this case, this office sought to dismantle Iran’s slice of Manhattan—an office tower on Fifth Avenue—both to end Iran’s illegal sanctions violation and money laundering schemes and to provide a means of compensating victims of Iranian-sponsored terrorism. With this settlement, we have taken an important step toward completing what will be the largest ever terrorism-related forfeiture and providing a substantial recovery for victims of terrorism.”
According to the settlement papers, the amended civil forfeiture complaint, and the opinions issued by Judge Forrest in this case:
The Alavi Foundation has been providing numerous services to the Iranian Government, including managing the building for the Iranian Government, running a charitable organization for the Iranian Government, and transferring funds from 650 Fifth Avenue Company to Bank Melli Iran (Bank Melli), a bank wholly owned and controlled by the government of Iran. Likewise, Assa Corporation and Assa Company Limited (Assa Co. Ltd.) have been providing numerous services to Bank Melli in contravention of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) and the Iranian Transactions Regulations, including transferring rental income generated from 650 Fifth Avenue Company to Bank Melli, following Bank Melli’s instructions with regard to Assa Corporation’s affairs, reporting back to Bank Melli on Assa Corporation’s financial situation and business dealings and managing the affairs of Assa Corporation for the benefit of Bank Melli.
The building was constructed in the 1970s by the Pahlavi Foundation, a non-profit organization operated by the Shah of Iran to pursue Iran’s charitable interests in the United States, and was financed by a substantial loan from Bank Melli.
After the 1979 Iranian revolution, the Islamic Republic of Iran established the Bonyad Mostazafan, also known as the Bonyad Mostazafan va Janbazan (Bonyad Mostazafan), to centralize, take possession of, and manage property expropriated by the revolutionary government. The Bonyad Mostazafan is controlled by the government of Iran and reports directly to the Ayatollah. The Bonyad Mostazafan sought to take control of the Shah’s property, including the assets of the Pahlavi Foundation. Between approximately October 1978 and approximately October 1979, all five previous directors of the Pahlavi Foundation resigned, and four new directors took their places. On February 25, 1980, an amended Certificate of Incorporation for the Pahlavi Foundation was filed renaming the foundation The Mostazafan Foundation of New York. The Mostazafan Foundation of New York later renamed itself the Alavi Foundation.
The Government of Iran’s Involvement in the Management of the building
In 1989, the Alavi Foundation and Bank Melli formed a partnership, 650 Fifth Avenue Company, in order to avoid paying federal taxes on rental income from the building. Bank Melli’s ownership interest in 650 Fifth Avenue Company, however, was disguised through the creation of two shell companies. The Alavi Foundation transferred 35 percent of 650 Fifth Avenue Company to Assa Corporation, an entity wholly owned by Assa Co. Ltd. Assa Co. Ltd. is a Jersey, Channel Islands, United Kingdom entity owned by Iranian citizens who represent the interests of Bank Melli. In conjunction with the transfer of the 35 percent interest in 650 Fifth Avenue Company to Assa Corp., Bank Melli cancelled its loan on the building. Today, the Alavi Foundation owns 60 percent of 650 Fifth Avenue Company, and Bank Melli owns 40 percent of 650 Fifth Avenue Company, through Assa Corp. and Assa Co. Ltd.
The decision to convert Bank Melli’s mortgage on the building into a partnership interest in 650 Fifth Avenue Company was discussed and approved by high-level Iranian Government officials. Among others, the head of the Bonyad Mostazafan (also the Deputy Prime Minister of Iran), the Office of the Prime Minister of Iran, the director of the Central Bank of Iran, and the general director of Bank Melli, as well as other Bonyad Mostazafan and Bank Melli officials, discussed and approved the partnership between the Alavi Foundation and Bank Melli. After the Alavi Foundation and Assa Corporation entered into the 650 Fifth Avenue Company partnership agreement, a Bonyad Mostazafan official forwarded the agreement to a Bank Melli official, noting that “the partnership is based on prior agreements between the Ministry of Finance, Bank Melli, and the Bonyad Mostazafan, with the only change being the building will be valued at two million dollars less than as previously agreed.”
The Iranian Government’s control of the Alavi Foundation has continued. In 1989, Kamal Kharrazi was named as the new Iranian ambassador to the United Nations. As a result of tension between the new ambassador and the Alavi Foundation president, the ambassador eventually demanded the president’s resignation. In July 1991, the president resigned his position, and he was replaced that August by an individual who served as president until the summer of 2007. In 1992, the Alavi Foundation’s new president met in New York and in Tehran with Bank Melli officials concerning $1.7 million in real estate taxes owed by 650 Fifth Avenue Company and $2.2 million in unpaid distributions owed by the partnership to Assa Corp. The Tehran meeting was attended by a Bank Melli board member, the head of Bank Melli’s Overseas Network Supervisory Department, the head of Bank Melli’s New York branch, and the head of Bank Melli’s Foreign Affairs. The head of the board of directors and managing director of Bank Melli forwarded the minutes of the Tehran meeting to the head of the Bonyad Mostazafan along with a cover letter stating that “it is hoped that your firm instructions and the extra attention of the brothers from that esteemed Foundation, who are responsible for the Alavi Foundation of New York, will resolve the partnership’s mutual problems quickly.”
Iranian ambassadors to the U.N. continued to direct the affairs of the Alavi Foundation and to attend meetings of the Alavi Foundation board. In the late 1990s, two Bank Melli employees sought Ambassador Kharrazi’s permission for Assa Corp. to sell its interest in 650 Fifth Avenue Company. The ambassador informed Bank Melli that the building would be sold when the real estate market improved. Ambassador Seyed Mohammad Hadi Nejad Hosseinian, Kharrazi’s successor, originated the Alavi Foundation’s project funding formula. In 2004, Hosseinian’s successor told the Alavi Foundation to settle a lawsuit with a company controlled by a former Alavi Foundation president for $4 million.
In October 2007, Alavi Foundation board members met with the ambassador and another former Iranian Government official to address issues relating to the building’s management and Alavi’s charitable services. At that meeting, the ambassador stated that it was necessary to increase the building’s profit, that the ambassador was worried about Assa Corporation’s 40 percent share, that the foundation should only allocate to Shiites, and that the ambassador would determine the composition of the board. The ambassador ordered a study about the possibility of increasing the foundation’s revenue and profit, stating that a business plan and comparative analysis had to be done. The ambassador instructed, “I have to definitely see the proposed allocations before a final decision is reached. I have to be kept informed, and I have to be able to state my opinion in order for you to make a decision.” The ambassador told the board members that “[i]f there is an issue that needs to be conveyed to Tehran, let me know, I will convey it.”
The Forfeiture Complaints, the Summary Judgment Decisions, and the Settlement
On December 17, 2008, this office filed a civil complaint seeking forfeiture of the 40 percent interest held by Assa Corporation in 650 Fifth Avenue Company. In an amended complaint filed in 2009, the United States sought to forfeit all right, title, and interest in 650 Fifth Avenue Company, including the Alavi Foundation’s 60 percent interest in the company. The United States also sought to forfeit the contents of bank accounts held by 650 Fifth Avenue Company, the Alavi Foundation, and Assa Corporation, as well as other real properties owned by the Alavi Foundation in Virginia, California, Maryland, Texas, and Queens. The judgment creditors filed claims against the defendant properties pursuant to the Terrorism Risk Reinsurance Act (TRIA), under which they asserted valid terrorism-related judgments against the government of Iran.
On September 11, 2013, days before the commencement of what would have been the largest forfeiture trial in history, Judge Forrest granted summary judgment in favor of the United States’ claims for forfeiture of the building as the result of violations of the Iranian Transactions Regulations promulgated under the IEEPA, and the federal money laundering statutes. The court found that the Alavi Foundation and Assa Corp. committed the IEEPA violations and money laundering offenses. Subsequently, on March 28, 2014, the court granted summary judgment in favor of the United States’ claims for forfeiture of the remaining defendant properties and in favor of the judgment creditors’ claims under TRIA. As part of this decision, Judge Forrest ruled that the Alavi Foundation and Assa Corporation effectively “are” Iran for purposes of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act and TRIA and thus subject to the jurisdiction of the court. The combined effect of these decisions was to ensure that the building would no longer be in the control of the Alavi Foundation and Assa Corporation.
Under the terms of the settlement entered today, the building and other forfeited assets will be sold by the United States Marshals Service. The government will recover its litigation expenses and any sales costs from the sales proceeds, and the remaining net proceeds of the sales will be distributed to the judgment creditors that are party to the settlement according to an agreed-upon distribution. The full amount of the claim made by the lone judgment creditor that filed a claim but did not join the settlement will be retained by the settling judgment creditors pending the resolution of the non-settling creditor’s claims.
Mr. Bharara praised the investigative work of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation Division, the Joint Terrorism Task Force, and the Police Department of the City of New York. He also thanked the Counterterrorism Section of the Department of Justice National Security Division, the Office of Foreign Assets Control, and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office for their initiation and assistance in this case.
Assistant United States Attorneys Sharon Cohen Levin, Michael D. Lockard, Martin S. Bell, and Carolina A. Fornos are in charge of the civil forfeiture action.