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California and the West

Man Gets 3 Years for Iraq Trade Scheme

Courts: Liquor store operator says money woes fueled his attempt to sell night vision goggles to Baghdad in violation of U.S. law.

April 30, 1999|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — A San Diego area liquor store operator who wanted to be an international munitions trafficker was sentenced Thursday to more than three years in prison for trying to sell military night vision goggles to his native Iraq in violation of U.S. arms and export laws.

The sentencing in federal court in Connecticut culminated a three-year undercover investigation by the U.S. Customs Service into the activities of 37-year-old Fadi Boutros, an Iraqi immigrant who settled in La Mesa. Boutros pleaded guilty earlier this year, acknowledging that a quest for money drove him to arms smuggling.

Authorities said Boutros first approached a manufacturing company in Connecticut in 1995. He wanted to buy equipment for steam boilers and then secretly sell it to Iraq as replacement parts for a petrochemical plant that was bombed during the Persian Gulf War.

The company, concerned that the parts might end up in Iraq in violation of the 1990 U.S. ban on exports to that country, notified the Customs Service, which launched its undercover operation in mid-1995.

That led to dozens of hours of taped phone conversations between Boutros and an undercover agent posing as a munitions middleman.

Discussions centered initially on purchases of industrial supplies for Iraq, but later turned to military equipment, including parts for military helicopters and advanced mathematical software for missile guidance systems, said Steven Arruda, senior special agent for the Customs Service's Connecticut office of investigations. Boutros apparently had access to lists of military equipment that Iraq needed.

None of these sales was finalized--until last November, when Boutros wired $45,000 from La Mesa to Connecticut as payment on five sets of night vision goggles designed to aid military aviators. Boutros also agreed to buy 15 more sets for a total of about $180,000.

The undercover agent delivered the goggles to Boutros during a meeting in the New Haven area. The agent, who asked not to be identified, said in an interview that from that meeting, "it was pretty clear that [the goggles] were going to the Iraqi military," although the precise mechanism for delivery was not determined.

After the meeting, Boutros went to an air delivery service to send the goggles to a Jordanian intermediary, identifying the package as ophthalmology equipment, authorities said. Customs agents then moved in to arrest Boutros and intercept the goggles, which had been borrowed from the Defense Department to carry out the undercover assignment.

Boutros, a naturalized U.S. citizen also known as Fadi Sitto, told authorities that he was driven not by nationalistic loyalty but by financial strains.

In fact, Boutros told authorities he opposed Saddam Hussein's regime. His own family felt persecuted in Iraq for its Catholicism and left in 1981 after his father was pressured by the government to spy on his employer, Boutros' lawyer said.

Boutros' family history made his crime even more perplexing, said Assistant U.S. Atty. James Finnerty, the prosecutor in the case.

"It's just difficult to comprehend when you leave a repressive political regime . . and you then turn around and provide military materiel to that regime that would allow it to maintain its power," he said.

New Haven defense attorney William Bloss said his client felt particularly strapped in supporting his wife and two children because a friend failed to pay back a $30,000 loan. Boutros, the operator of a liquor store that his family owned, would have made a profit of only $6,000 or so on the first shipment of goggles, Bloss said.

"Not a lot of money. Bad risk for the return," he said. "People make all sorts of bad decisions for awfully small amounts of money."

The La Mesa man was sentenced to 37 months in federal prison for arms and export violations, the maximum allowed under federal guidelines.

It is unclear whether Boutros succeeded in smuggling munitions to Iraq through other means. Officials at the Pentagon and the State Department declined to comment on the case.

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