Federal authorities yesterday indicted 39 people, including several Pakistani operators of convenience stores on Maryland's Eastern Shore, on charges that they tried to bribe public officials and operated unlicensed money-transferring businesses that dispatched cash for illegal activities around the world.
One of the defendants, Saifullah Ranjha, who lives in Laurel, was also charged with attempting to finance a terrorist organization, al-Qaida.
The indictments were the result of a sting operation called Operation Cash-Out that began four years ago in Maryland and spread its tentacles to several countries, including Canada, Spain, Belgium, Britain and Australia, as well as to Wisconsin, New York and New Jersey.
As part of the sting, investigators set up a bogus import-export company and posed as public officials who they said could help some of the defendants become legal residents of the United States in exchange for large amounts of money.
In all, the indictment says, the suspects illegally used more than $5 million provided by undercover agents.
During a news conference yesterday in Baltimore, Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said most of the defendants were in custody, at least 16 of them in Maryland. Another two were arrested yesterday in Spain, he said, while another half-dozen -- including one in Canada and another in Belgium -- are still being sought.
On Wednesday night, six suspects who are not named in the indictment were arrested in a sting operation. He said the trials for all the defendants will take place in Maryland.
"These are carefully choreographed investigations," said Rosenstein, flanked by officials from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service, all of which worked in concert with law enforcement agencies in the other countries involved. "Our goal is to send a pretty strong message, that we'll disrupt these operations and that these money pipelines are being monitored," Rosenstein said
In most cases, the alleged money-laundering schemes involved using hawala, a system under which funds are transferred from one place to another -- often to different countries -- through an informal network of people using codes.
Although the system is not in itself illegal, U.S. law demands that large money transfers to overseas locations be reported to federal officials and that such businesses have commercial licenses. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the hawala system has been suspected of playing a role in financing some terrorist activities.
In Ranjha's case, his D.C.-based money-transferring business, Hamza Inc., was licensed, but only for business within the District of Columbia. His brother, Imdad Ranjha, the company's corporate vice president, lived in Glen Burnie. They and others named in the indictment were approached by a so-called cooperating witness, acting undercover, who told them that he was involved in numerous illegal activities, including smuggling drugs, weapons and cigarettes, and "providing assistance and financing to members of Al-Qaeda and its affiliated organizations," the indictment reads.
Ranjha took the bait, prosecutors said. He and his associates received money -- it would eventually total more than $2.2 million -- from the undercover operative, funds they believed had come from drug trafficking and other nefarious activities, according to the indictment.
In return for a commission, prosecutors said, they arranged for the money to be provided to others in Canada, England, Spain and elsewhere. There, the indictment says, the funds were ostensibly intended for further criminal acts, including terrorism.
"He transmitted money that he believed was going to al-Qaida," Rosenstein said of Ranjha. "That was his crime."
Ranjha was also charged with failing to file currency transaction reports that would have reflected receipt of the $2.2 million, according to the indictment, which seeks forfeiture of the money. Ranjha faces 10 years in prison on the charges of concealing terrorist financing and 10 years for each of 14 counts of failing to report money transfers. Both Ranjha brothers could face a maximum of five years in prison if convicted of operating an unlicensed money-transmitting business in Maryland.
In another of the indictments, several Maryland-based men are accused of trying to bribe a public official to provide them with "green cards" that would have made them legal U.S. residents. They include Pakistan-born Mohammad Riaz Gujjar and his brother, Mohammad Ijaz, who operated convenience stores and gas stations in Snow Hill -- the Your Stop Food Market at 426 W. Market St. and the Chicken Man Food Store three doors down at 429 W. Market St. Another indicted Pakistani man, Muhammad Ashraf, ran Your Store, at 11404 Beckford Ave. in Princess Anne.
The indictment alleges that Gujjar conspired with 24 other defendants to pay a man they believed was an official with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services $495,000, which was handed over in smaller amounts during meetings in Baltimore, Snow Hill, Ocean City and Salisbury, as well as in Wisconsin, New Jersey and New York.
Several of the same men, including Gujjar and his brother, are also accused of paying $450,000 to a man they believed was a corrupt official with the Maryland comptroller's office -- he was in fact an undercover agent -- to induce him to release $1.8 million in sales and use tax assessments levied against their convenience stores.
The indictment seeks forfeiture of $945,000 and the defendants' ownership in the two Snow Hill convenience stores. Gujjar, his brother and four other men could face 20 years in prison if convicted of racketeering, while the larger group of defendants could face a maximum of five years if convicted of conspiracy to bribe public officials.