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Copyright © 1994-98, by the Middle East DataProject, Inc. All rights reserved.
An Iranian opposition group that has been identified by the StateDepartment as a terrorist organization has been directing politicalcampaign contributions toward a select group of Congressmen and tothe Democratic Senatorial Campaign, in a coordinated effort to winpolitical favors, an investigation by The Iran Brief hasrevealed.
The contributions total more than $204,000 and span a three and ahalf year period, from April 1993 through November 1996, an analysisof public data bases maintained by the Federal Election Commissionrecords show. The money was given to a small number of Congressmenwho have been avid supporters of the Mujahidin-e Khalq (MEK), alsoknown as the People's Mujahidin Organization of Iran (PMOI). Duringthe time-frame of the contributions, the recipients sponsorednumerous Congressional resolutions and "Dear Colleague" letters andletters to the President, the Secretary of State, and other topofficials, urging U.S. government recognition and support for theMujahidin as well as its political front organization, the NationalCouncil of Resistance (NCR), and its Iraq-based military wing, knownas the National Liberation Army (NLA). All of the groups are led byMujahidin leader Massoud Rajavi, and his third wife, Maryam. TheState Department accuses the group of having "fully supported the[U.S.] Embassy takeover and opposed releasing our diplomats,"(See box, page 3), and of operating "like a cult," not a democraticorganization. The MEK vigorously denies both accusations.
By far the top recipient of the MEK largesse was CongressmanRobert Torricelli (D,NJ), who successfully ran for Senate in 1996.One of the first contributions to Torricelli's Congressional campaignby a Mujahidin supporter was a $1,000 check from Ramesh Sepehrrad, ofSpringfield, Va., dated Oct. 26, 1993. Ms. Sepehrrad is active withinthe MEK's women's organization and has appeared at numerous publicpro-MEK rallies, according to other Iranian exiles and MEKsympathizers interviewed by The Iran Brief. She contributed a totalof $5,000 to different campaigns targeted for support by the NCR'sWashington office over a two year period.
As a Congressional candidate, Torricelli received $49,000 from MEKofficers, supporters, and sympathizers, FEC records show. But thefavors really started coming in once Torricelli threw his hat intothe Senate race. The New Jersey Democrat received 82 separate $1,000checks and two more $500 checks from MEK sources between August 1995through November 4, 1996, bringing total MEK contributions toTorricelli during the past three years to $132,000 - a very sizablepiece of change, even for a high-rolling campaigner likeTorricelli.
Torricelli's campaign also appears to have benefited from fourchecks totaling $23,000 sent in to the Democratic Senatorial campaignby Shahriar Kiamanesh between May 1994 and October 1996, whointelligence sources said was a high-level MEK operative "who hasspent many years in Baghdad" with the organization. In May 1994, Mr.Kiamanesh listed his employer as American Leading Technologies, ofAlexandria, Virginia - a company believed to be associated with theMEK - and which was used extensively for the campaign contributionscheme. His three 1996 contributions were registered in the name ofthe Iranian Community-USA, of Falls Church, Virginia. This wouldappear to be affiliated with another known MEK front, the IranianCommunity of Virginia, which was used extensively to lobbyCongressmen in 1995. If these amounts are added to the otherTorricelli donations, they bring the total of MEK contributions toTorricelli to $155,000.
Bundled checks: As in other campaign dollars-for-favorsschemes, the checks arrived at Torricelli's Senate campaignheadquarters in bundles, so there could be no mistake as to thepolitical message they were intended to carry. All but three of thechecks were grouped with other MEK contributions. On Aug. 1, 1995,the campaign received fourteen MEK-related checks, worth $14,000.(Four of the persons writing checks to Torricelli's new-foundedSenate fund also wrote $1,000 checks the same day to his Housecampaign fund). On Dec. 22, $17,000 came into the Senate fund, and onDec. 29 another $19,000. On Jan. 11, 1996, there was $9,000; on March25, another $14,000; on May 13, $8,000 more. In a final push, $3,000more came in on Nov. 4, 1996, the eve of the election. Of thatamount, $1,000 came from a high-level Mujahidin operative, FazelehRassouli, and another $2,000 from the Mehre Iran Farsi School inBurke, Virginia, which is operated by the Mujahidin as part of itssocial services network, to offer young Iranians an alternative tothe regime-run Farsi school at the Islamic Center in Potomac,Maryland. It was contributed in the name of the Mehre schoolprincipal, Mansoureh Zamani.
Other Iranian-Americans have contributed to Torricelli's campaignsat various times, since in addition to his outspoken support for theMEK the New Jersey Democrat has also been a sharp critic of theTehran regime's abysmal human rights record, a stance which has wonsupport from Iranian-Americans of various political backgrounds.Among the most prominent of these supporters is former IranianAmbassador Hushang Ansary, who runs a series of investment firms andhas also contributed to the campaign of New York Republican, AlfonseD'Amato. Along with his wife, Ambassador Ansary contributed $4,000 toTorricelli, while contributing more than $50,000 to variousRepublican candidates and to the RNC. Another prominentIranian-American who contributed to Torricelli's Senate campaign wasHassan Nemazee, who runs an investment firm in New York. KhosrowSemnani, an industrialist in Salt Lake City, Utah, earlier wrote a$500 check to Torricelli's House campaign.
But Nemazee, Semnani, and Ansary's contributions were madeseparately, without any apparent coordination with other donors; inaddition, in no instance did they coincide with contributions fromindividuals tied to the MEK. And all three individuals are well-knownin the business community and respected in Washington. Whatdistinguishes the Mujahidin-related contributions is that they camegrouped together, from obscure individuals, and with only rareexceptions they were all for the same amount, $1,000. Another oddity:in most cases, the persons who signed the checks do not have listedtelephone numbers, nor, in many cases, do the companies they listedas their employers. Some of these companies have been publiclyidentified by the FBI as Mujahidin fronts. Others are known to U.S.law enforcement as MEK front companies, well-informed Iranian andU.S. government sources said. (See below).
Other recipients: After Torricelli, the recipients ofMEK-related funds were Congressmen Dan Burton (R,Ind), who received$19,000, Gary Ackerman (D,NY), who took in $18,250, Bob Ney (R,OH),who received $4,000, and Edolphus Towns (D,NY), who received a scant$1,000. The $7,000 Rep. James Traficant (D,OH), received fromMujahidin sources weighed the heaviest percentage-wise in hiscampaign, accounting for 17.5% of all contributions he received fromindividuals in the 1995-1996 election cycle.
All five Congressmen, and Senator Torricelli, have been outspokenlobbyists on behalf of the Mujahidin, often sponsoring letterscalling on Congress to support the National Council of Resistance andits leaders, Massoud and Maryam Rajavi, and urging the StateDepartment to hold a dialogue with the organization. Indeed, it isprecisely this type of political support that appears to haveprompted the Mujahidin contributions, since the money only reallybegan flowing once the organization realized in 1993 that it washeaded for big trouble in Congress as a result of a counter-lobbyingcampaign spearheaded by Senator John McCain and Congressman LeeHamilton, who was then chairman of the House Foreign AffairsCommittee. Both Hamilton and McCain wrote the State Department in1993 asking for a clarification of U.S. policy toward contacts withthe group. The reply Hamilton received from the State Department,dated Sept. 20, 1993, was devastating (See box).
Quid pro quos: Given the dramatically worsening climate onCapitol Hill and the openly hostility of the State Department towardthe group, it may have been that the NCR's Washington, DC office washoping to use contributions by Iranian-Americans to firm up thesupport of Congressmen it considered key to its lobbying campaign inthe United States. The chronology of events suggests a series ofclear quid pro quos in this regard.
The day after the State Department letter was received, foursuspected MEK supporters each wrote $1,000 checks to the campaign ofRepublican congressman Dan Burton. Between October 1993 and April1994, MEK supporters and suspected sympathizers would contributeanother $13,000 to Congressman Torricelli. This first spate ofcontributions appears to have had a specific purpose: countering theefforts of Hamilton and McCain.
In early 1994, Senator McCain sponsored legislation thatofficially branded the Mujahidin and the NCR as "terroristorganizations," and called on the State Department to issue a publicreport on the organization's activities. At Torricelli and Burton'sprompting, House members in conference deleted the McCain languagefrom the State Department Authorization Bill on April 4. At the sametime, the NCR's Washington office publicly accused McCain ofcow-towing to the Tehran regime, and revealed that a lobbyist paid bythe Islamic Republic government, Bijan Sepassy, had warmly welcomedMcCain's anti-Mujahedin efforts. According to declarations on filewith the Justice Department, Sepassy's organization, the Forum onAmerican-Iranian Relations (FAIR), was established with a $120,000"loan" from the Tehran government. The ongoing concern of the Tehranregime with the MEK's activities can be seen from a Aug. 30, 1997speech by Iranian president Khatami, in which he called on the Westto stop providing support and safe haven for the group and suggestedthat he would take such a move as a "good will gesture" to which Iranwould respond favorably.
When queried about the campaign contributions, a spokesman for theNCR's Washington, DC office expressed surprise. "How did you get thatinformation?" he asked. When informed that campaign contributions areconsidered public information in the United States, he promised toget back to us later to discuss the issue of NCR and MEK campaigncontributions. By the time we went to press, he had not replied,although we fully expect the NCR to come out with a statement in themeantime. The spokesman, Abdolnaser Rashidi, who works full time inthe NCR office, was not a major contributor, although he is listedwith the FEC as having made a $500 contribution to the campaign ofNew York Democratic Edolphus Towns on May 24, 1996.
On the terrorism list: In mid-1994, the situation deterioratedeven further when the State Department released its annual report oninternational terrorism, which for the first time listed the MEK andthe NCR in its appendix describing "terrorist organizations." (Infact, a spokesman for the State Department's counter-terrorism officetold The Iran Brief last week that the State Department has "alwaysreferred to the Mujahidin as a terrorist group, even if they were notmentioned in the appendix to our annual report until 1994."Furthermore, he said that the State Department was in the process ofresponding to a Congressional requirement to issue an official U.S.government list of international terrorist organizations, but had notmade any final determination whether to include the Mujahidin).
On June 21, Torricelli wrote to Asst. Secretary of State RobertPelletreau, requesting that the State Department "consult" with theMujahedin. Two weeks later, top Mujahidin members Shahriar Kiamanesh,Fazeleh Rassouli, and Mansoureh Zamani spearheaded another spate ofcontributions to Torricelli's campaign that resulted in 11 checks -each for $1,000 - which arrived on July 5, 1994. On August 5, RepsTorricelli, Traficant, Towns, Ros-Lehtinen, Dellums, Burton, andCrane released a "Dear Colleague" letter, calling for "fair treatmentfor [the] Iranian Resistance," a term they used to describethe NCR and the Mujahidin.
The State Department report: By mid-September 1994, wordwas circulating on Capitol Hill that the State Department was in thefinal stages of reviewing its report on the Mujahidin, and that itwould be unsparing in exposing the group's terrorist actions, pastand present. In an effort to pre-empt the report, Reps. Torricelli,Ackerman, and Burton held a press conference at the Capitolcriticizing the State Department effort and once again calling for a"dialogue with the Iranian Resistance." A separate statement to thesame effect is issued by Rep. Ed Towns.
Two days later, Mujahidin supporters, spearheaded by the head ofthe group's Women's Organization, Behjat Dehghan, sent $5,000 to theBurton campaign. On Oct. 19, Dehghan organized another $3,000 thatwent to Ackerman; and on Oct. 24, Hedayat Mostowfi - who works out ofthe NCR office in Washington, DC - assembled 8 other donors tocontribute $9,000 to the Torricelli campaign. From Oct. 1994 throughDec. 1995, Mostowfi personally contributed another $1,000 toTorricelli and $3,000 to Dan Burton, although Burton's campaignrecords indicate that $1,000 was returned (perhaps because he hadexceeded the annual contribution limits of $1,000 per campaign).
In 1995, the Mujahidin paid $40,000 for a single "Dear Colleague" letter of support, with contributions to Reps. Torricelli, Burton, and Ackerman
Letter to Clinton: The next big burst of funding surroundsa "Dear Colleague" letter organized by Congressmen Torricelli,Ackerman, Traficant, and Burton in the spring and early summer of1995. On June 8, the Congressmen held a press conference to announcethat a letter in support of the NCR had been signed by 194 members ofCongress and had been sent to President Clinton on May 30. On July 5,they released the text of the letter, which they claimed had obtained202 signatures. The letter urged the president to "support theIranian people's cry for democracy" and stated that the NationalCouncil of Resistance of Iran, led by Massoud Rajavi, "willcontribute to the realization of political pluralism and democracy inIran." It was this latter statement that prompted the retraction ofseveral members of Congress, including Virginia Democrat James Moran,who stated they had signed the letter "under false pretenses." Acounter-lobbying effort by rival Iranian opposition groups, and bythe Iranian-American Republican Committee of California, prompted adozen more Congressmen to publicly withdraw their signature. Manywere admonished into doing so by personal letters from the Chairmanof the California Republican Party, John Herrington. [See IB8/1/95].
Congressman Moran's retraction is of particular interest, since hehad been lobbied to address an MEK rally in Washington, DC by HosseinPanah, who introduced himself not as a Mujahidin member, but as therepresentative of a non-profit group, the "Iranian Community ofVirginia." Dr. Panah, who is known within the Iranian community as askilled heart surgeon, showed up at Moran's office on July 24 toprotest his retraction. He was accompanied by 9 other Mujahidinsympathizers, who threatened Moran staff members for theCongressman's change of heart.
MEK supporters backed up their commitment to the Congressionalletter to Clinton letter with hefty campaign contributions. On July11, 1995, they contributed $9,000 to the Burton campaign (led byKiamanesh, Mostowfi, and Mansoureh Zamani), and on Aug. 1 theyfollowed up with another $14,000 to Torricelli, split between hisHouse and newly-inaugurated Senate campaigns. On October 27, $7,000arrived from the same sources to Gary Ackerman's campaign. Added tothe $7,000 for Torricelli on April 4, another $3,000 in between, thatcomes to $40,000 for a single "Dear Colleague" letter.
Traficant fund-raiser: Ackerman aides responded to queriesfrom The Iran Brief concerning NCR/MEK contributions by acknowledgingthat the New York Democrat had openly solicited funds from MEKsympathizers "because we have a lot of Iranian-Americans it ourdistrict, so it's a natural to go to them for contributions."Although the aides made no bones about the Congressman's support forthe MEK - and Ackerman defended the group vigorously against chargesof being a terrorist organization at a July 1997 press conference -they pleaded ignorance of any specific quid pro quos generated by thecampaign donations, or whether Ackerman had attended specificfund-raising events on Oct. 27, 1995 or Dec. 26, 1995, when most ofthe money came in.
A senior aide to Ohio Congressman James Traficant had a bettermemory. Asked about the $6,000 contributed to Rep. Traficant on Nov.28, 1995 by Ramesh Sepehrrad, Shahriar Kiamanesh, Diana Arani, JalalArani, and Hossein Panah, the aide said these contributions hadresulted from a fund-raising breakfast hosted by the NCR at aWashington, DC hotel. "We made it very clear that the Congressmanwould only take contributions from U.S. citizens," the aide said.Later that same day, Traficant entered an "Extension of Remarks" intothe Congressional Record, in which he praised the Mujahidin andcalled the NCR "the only alternative to the present regime." Whenchallenged this past summer about his support for the Mujahidin,Traficant told reporters he felt the group had "evolvedsignificantly" from the 1970s, and was no longer anti-American oranti-democratic. (See "New Pro-Mujahidin letter sent to Clinton,"below). Neither Torricelli nor Burton's office were able to respondto questions by press time. However, Burton's campaign appears tohave woken up to Mujahidin tactics, since the Congressman stoppedpublicly supporting the group in late 1995; and indeed, MEKcontributions to Burton dried up in December 1995.
Methodology: In putting together our analysis ofMEK-related campaign contributions, we first identified a handful ofknown MEK members and supporters, then checked an Internet data baseof FEC records containing campaign contributions for the 93-94 and95-96 campaign cycles. By entering this information into our own database, we were able to identify key dates, when groups ofcontributions were made by those individuals together with otherpersons. In the end, more than 20 MEK activists directly accountedfor more than half of the $204,250 we identified as originating fromMEK-related sources.
The other $97,250 came from Iranian-Americans spread all over theUnited States, who had the distinction of repeatedly contributing tocampaigns targeted by the NCR's Washington, DC office forfund-raising support, and uniquely contributing on dates when knownMEK activists were contributing. If an individual's campaigncontributions did not meet this pattern, or were spread more widely(for instance, to other candidates), then we excluded them from ourcalculations. Reviewing our records, a federal law enforcementofficial familiar with the group and with campaign finance issuescommented: "This certainly has all the bells and whistles of acoordinated campaign to influence Congress."
There were other similarities, which in other circumstances, mightappear merely coincidental. Of 94 individuals who had made politicalcontributions, a public records data base search only found telephonelistings for ten of them. And of these, one number had beendisconnected, another one changed, and a third was busy for two days.We found this odd since many of the individuals listed theiremployers as innocuous-sounding U.S. corporations - such as BankersLife & Casualty, in Indianapolis, Indiana; Calcopy, in ElSobriante, CA; Village Cleaners, Inc., in Cary, NC; Tore-Air, inIrvine, CA; Fluor-Daniel, also in Irvine; or Alpha Merics Corp, inWoodland Hills, CA. One person we did manage to contact in Miami,Florida, refused to discuss his campaign contributions and asked tocall us back (he never did). Another one contacted in Virginiareacted in a similar fashion - as did the NCR office. The othersnever returned repeated messages.
Of the three MEK companies operating in the Virginia suburbs ofWashington, DC with listed phone numbers, two had just answeringmachines operating during working hours, while the third - PhoenixTour and Travel, in Annandale - was just a pager.
The NCR has demonstrated repeatedly its ability to mobilize up to2,000 persons in both Washington, DC and in Los Angeles, for publicdemonstrations against the Tehran regime. Our investigation showsthat the group has a well-organized network of supporters in otherparts of the United States as well. That individuals from suchfar-flung places as Bensalem, Pennsylvania, Minneapolis, Minnesota,New City, New York, Ballwin, Missouri, or Smyrna, Georgia, would sendin personal checks to specific candidates on the same dates as knownMEK supporters in the Washington, DC area clearly demonstrates awell-orchestrated, and centrally planned campaign. It also shows thatthe group has been successful in mobilizing support against theTehran regime.
Is it legal? Campaign contributions from foreign citizensare illegal, unless they are green card holders. We showed a list ofcampaign contributors to a U.S. counter-intelligence official, withaccess to INS records, to inquire whether these individuals had greencards. While he could not comment on particular individuals becauseof Privacy Act restrictions, the official noted that some of thepersons identified in the FEC data base as campaign contributors didnot have green cards - making their contributions clearly illegal.
Contributions from foreign organizations are also illegal underU.S. law. Only on one occasion did an MEK member contribute in thename of the NCR - a $1,000 check sent in by Soheila AlighoiMayelzadeh on May 19, 1995 to the campaign of Jim Traficant - makingthat contribution clearly improper, if not illegal, in so far as theNCR is registered as a foreign agent with the Justice Department.Contributions by NCR employees in Washington should also fall underthis category, including the $5,000 contributed by Hedayat Mostowfito the Torricelli and Burton campaigns, and the $500 sent byAbdolnaser Rashidi to Edolphus towns. The $3,500 contributed byBurke, Va. medical doctor Hossein Panah may also qualify as acontribution by the group, in so far as Dr. Panah personally lobbiedCongress on behalf of the organization.
U.S. election law also specifically prohibits contributions madein the name of another. The fact that several individuals from thesame MEK companies - AXS Computer, American Leading Technologies, andPhoenix Tour and Travel - were used to funnel contributions topro-MEK Congressmen could trigger an FEC investigation, to determinewhether campaign laws were violated. Similarly, U.S. election lawrequires that individuals who "act together as a group to conductFederal election activity" should register as a "politicalcommittee," commonly known as a PAC.