|US court seizes Iran-funded office tower
An office tower in the US is subject to forfeiture because revenues from it were secretly funneled to a state-owned Iranian bank in violation of a trade embargo, a judge ruled Monday.
US District Judge Katherine Forrest made the forfeiture finding in Manhattan, ruling in a case brought by the US government in 2008.
The government had said the Alavi Foundation's sole partner in the ownership of the 36-story Fifth Avenue building was a shell company fronting for a secret interest held by the state-owned bank of Iran, Bank Melli, AP reports.
The judge agreed that monetary transfers by the shell company, Assa Co., to Bank Melli violated money laundering statutes.
“There is substantial, un-contradicted evidence that Assa is owned and controlled by Bank Melli, and that Bank Melli is wholly owned and controlled by Iran,'' Forrest said.
She rejected Alavi's “core defense:'' that a jury should decide whether the foundation knew that Assa was controlled by Iran between 1995 _ when providing services to Iran became illegal _ and the date of the lawsuit.
“Its premise is implausible: that, sometime after the conception and birth of Assa as the direct descendant of Bank Melli, and in a procedure in which Alavi was midwife, Alavi lost track of Bank Melli's previously clear control of Assa,'' Forrest said.
She added that many of the same Alavi board members who were indisputably involved in the creation of Assa as a front for Bank Melli in 1989 remained with or returned to positions with Alavi after 1995.
“The Government argues that Alavi asserts a sort of collective amnesia. The court finds the analogy apt and its reality implausible. No rational juror could believe in such extraordinary amnesia,'' she said.
Lawyers for the building and the Alavi Foundation did not immediately return messages for comment.
In her 82-page opinion, Forrest recounted the history of the building, saying it was built in the 1970s on property acquired in 1974 by a not-for-profit corporation formed in New York by then Iranian leader Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was overthrown in 1979. She said it was valued at US$83 million in 1989, when a partnership called the 650 Fifth Avenue Co. was formed, with Assa contributing US$44 million in a deal the government maintained was designed to avoid US taxes.
Forrest said the building was subject to forfeiture on the money laundering accusations described by the U.S. government.
“The alleged money laundering occurred when the partnership, Alavi, and Assa Corp. distributed the rent with the intent to conceal that it was meant for the benefit of the Iranian government and caused partnership funds to be transferred abroad,'' she wrote.
“Having engaged in a money laundering violation, the entirety of the 650 Fifth Avenue Building [the business premises] and all of the associated bank accounts are subject to forfeiture _ even if they were not used in the money laundering offense itself,'' she continued.