The leadoff witness in a government bid to seize for terror victims a Manhattan skyscraper it claims is a secret Iranian asset described Tuesday how the head of the foundation controlling the building tore up documents and dumped them in a garbage can after getting a subpoena in 2008.
George Wineriter, a member of an FBI surveillance team, told jurors he watched then-president Farshid Jahedi, of the Alavi Foundation, sit in his car going through papers with the dome light on in an upstate Ardsley shopping center parking lot near his home, and then walk to a pair of garbage cans.
“He approached and stood there, looked left and right, and then reached into his pockets and threw in ripped up pieces of white and yellow paper,” Wineriter, who retrieved the bits and pieces after Jahedi left, testified in Manhattan federal court.
The government is trying to take over the 36-story midtown office tower at 650 Fifth Ave., with an estimated worth just under $1 billion, to compensate victims of Iran-linked terrorism, including the bombings of the Beirut Marine barracks in 1983 and the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996. If successful it would be the largest ever terrorism-related forfeiture.
The Alavi Foundation, founded by the Shah of Iran in the 1970s to support Iranian-American cultural and educational programs, holds a 60 percent stake in the building. The other 40 percent is owned by Assa Corp., which is now known to be controlled by Iran’s state-owned Bank Melli.
In opening arguments, prosecutor Martin Bell told a 9-person jury that the suspicious response to the subpoena — Jahedi later pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice — was part of a pattern of evidence showing Alavi knew its partner was using building revenues to violate sanctions adopted in 1995.
“It looks like every other office building, but it’s not,” Bell said. “650 Fifth Ave. has a secret. . . . It has for years been used to perform services for, and launder money for, the government of Iran.”
But Alavi lawyer John Gleeson said it was a legitimate New York nonprofit with an Iranian-American board that spent millions to support Islamic education, Persian culture and medical services out of centers in Queens, Houston, Maryland, Virginia and California, as well as donating to universities and disaster aid.
“This misguided case is looking to wipe us off the face of the planet, the U.S., and put an end to all the good things we do,” said Gleeson, a former federal judge.
Gleeson said Alavi had borrowed construction money from Bank Melli and later converted the loan to an ownership stake, which was transferred to Assa Corp. years before sanctions were imposed. Despite suspicions, he said, Alavi’s leaders never knew Assa was government-backed and never took orders from Iranian mullahs.
The lawyer said Jahedi had panicked and tried to destroy papers that weren’t incriminating in the face of a furious FBI assault lasting more than a decade that led other Alavi employees to take the Fifth Amendment out of fear they would be targeted if they didn’t say what agents wanted to hear.
“The FBI agents were salivating at the prospect of bringing a prosecution,” Gleeson said. “The sole purpose of the blitz was to bully people.”
The trial is scheduled to resume on Wednesday, and could last a month.