Why Did the U.S. Government Give Bahram Mechanic a Get-Out-of-Jail Free Card?
Daniel Kramer, Reuters
Bahram Mechanic sat in downtown Houston’s federal detention center, suffering from myriad ailments his attorneys felt were inadequately addressed by generic jail drugs: bladder cancer, Type II diabetes and a weak, frail heart. The 69-year old Iranian-American had been incarcerated while awaiting trial for nearly nine months. Over the course of a two-year investigation, federal agents surveilled Mechanic and monitored his emails, and in April 2015, they froze Mechanic’s multiple bank accounts, searched his electronics manufacturing business in northwest Houston, raided his $2 million penthouse apartment and arrested Mechanic for allegedly violating federal export regulations, accusing him of covertly shipping military-grade electrical equipment to Iranian government agencies, including a nuclear energy organization and the state police. Now, he faced the possibility of spending the next 20 years in prison.
This was not new territory for Mechanic. In April 1985, he was arrested on similar charges of breaking export laws. That arrest resulted in a criminal conviction, but Mechanic somehow managed to avoid jail time. In 1997, the federal government again sought to criminally prosecute Mechanic for his allegedly illegal exporting, but the investigation was dropped in favor of civil litigation. Mechanic settled and agreed to pay a fine. Later, the fine was significantly reduced.
Mechanic promptly pled not guilty to the 2015 charges. He hired a well-known local defense attorney, Joel Androphy. In the bond hearing before trial, federal prosecutors argued Mechanic was a threat to national security, and maintained they had a “very, very strong case.” The judge seemed to agree, denying bond for Mechanic, whose fortunate streak of avoiding harsh punishment for his shady business operations appeared to be nearing its end.
Then came the list.
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While Mechanic awaited trial, Iran was negotiating a nuclear deal with the United States. During these diplomatic discussions, the topic of prisoners frequently came up — Iran had in its jails some Americans the United States wanted back, and there were Iranians incarcerated in American prisons that Iran wanted released. If the two countries reached a nuclear agreement, they would almost certainly figure out some sort of prisoner exchange, too. In September, Iran reportedly sent the United States a list of 19 prisoners it wanted freed from American jails.
Androphy read about the list in the newspaper, and so did Mechanic and his wife, Tahereh. Mechanic desperately wanted to know: Was he on the list?
In an interview at his office in Houston’s midtown area, Androphy said he had already struck up a relationship with Fairborz Jahansoozan, the head of legal affairs in the Interests Section of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the de facto Iranian consulate housed under the Pakistani embassy in Washington, D.C. Androphy said he planned to take a fact-finding trip to Mechanic’s other electrical manufacturing company, in Tehran, so he reached out to Jahansoozan in August for guidance.
When Androphy later called Jahansoozan about the list, the Iranian official was noncommittal. Jahansoozan dangled the possibility that if there was a list, Mechanic could perhaps be on it — if, of course, he was interested. Mechanic was worried the exchange would force him to permanently leave this country (Androphy says Mechanic wasn’t against going back to Iran, but he just didn’t like the idea of being told what to do). Jahansoozan was unsure what the specifics of the exchange would be, which led Androphy to believe the deal might never happen.
On January 5, Androphy received a vague but urgent call from Jahansoozan. He was coming to Houston right away to meet with Androphy and Mechanic, and he wouldn’t say why. When they met two days later in the federal detention center’s law library, Jahansoozan told Androphy that what was before a possibility had become a probability: Iran wanted Mechanic released.
A week later, Androphy was in New Mexico working on a separate case when he got another urgent phone call — this time, from his office secretary, who relayed a message from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Houston: “Call immediately. The President of the United States wants to do something with your case.” When Androphy returned the call, he was told Mechanic would be offered a pardon.
The next morning, on Thursday, Androphy called Mechanic and told him the news. He quickly accepted the offer. “The Iranians were telling us to keep it a secret, and so was the Department of Justice,” Androphy said. “We told Mechanic and his wife, and they were getting prepared. But we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into.”
When Androphy returned from New Mexico on Friday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office told him to go to the jail early on Saturday. Androphy said he was told Mechanic would be released once the American prisoners in Iran left the country’s airspace. Androphy arrived at the detention center at 5:15 the next morning. He packed his golf clothes and clubs, and figured he would be on the green by 7 a.m. He never made it.
Androphy and Mechanic waited in the detention center’s conference room. Mechanic changed out of his prison clothes and into the warmup suit his wife brought him. He waved to her from the window of the second-floor room while she waited in her car, parked outside in the drizzling rain, alongside a few TV news trucks. Androphy shifted from the conference room to the couch in the warden’s office next door, where two NFL playoff games came and went. Mechanic was still no closer to being released. Meanwhile, the pardon sat within Androphy’s reach on the warden’s desk, signed, sealed but not yet delivered.
“We kept being told by the warden, ‘Just ten more minutes, ten more minutes,’” Androphy said. “They wouldn’t release him until they got approval from the State Department. We felt we were being jerked around.” The delay was caused by a mix-up 7,000 miles away in Tehran, where the wife and mother of one of the American prisoners, Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, were detained and could not leave with him on the plane.
By 8 p.m., Mechanic had still not received his pardon, so the warden walked him back to his cell and told Androphy to come back the next day. After some last-second negotiating by Secretary of State John Kerry, Rezaian’s family were allowed to leave, and the American prisoners finally boarded the plane and lifted off. At 12:30 a.m., the warden called Androphy at home and told him to hurry back to the detention center. Again, they were told to wait: ten more minutes, ten more minutes.
Finally, at 4:30 in the morning, the warden appeared in the conference room with the pardon. Mechanic signed it, and the warden wished him good luck. But Mechanic was already lucky — he was freed from the criminal justice system before a jury had a chance to determine his guilt or innocence.
The federal government’s evidence against Mechanic remains sealed. We may never know whether Mechanic is guilty of any charges. We may also never know why the U.S. government would agree to free a man it believed to be a threat to national security, or why a man who left Iran for good more than 30 years ago was on Iran’s prisoner exchange shortlist in the first place.
Attempts to find answers have only raised more questions.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the United States Attorney’s Office both declined to talk about Mechanic’s case and pardon, and the Department of Justice did not respond to requests for comment. The Iranian consulate’s Jahansoozan did talk briefly in a phone interview, but was of little help.
“I don’t know why he was on Iran’s list or why the U.S. selected him from that list,” Jahansoozan said. “He was indicted and in jail for allegedly violating so-called sanctions, and Iran did not see that it was a proper punishment for him and wanted him to be released. That’s the basic information I can share with you. I don’t know the details.” Jahansoozan also declined to provide a spokesperson or Iranian official who could fill in the details.
Androphy said he doesn’t know for sure exactly why Mechanic was pardoned, and he doesn’t really care to know, either. “It’s like winning the lottery. You don’t ask how you won it; you just won it,” Androphy said. He does, however, have a speculative theory that the federal government fabricated its case against Mechanic and kept him in jail as “trade bait” for a prisoner exchange.
The multimillionaire remains largely an enigma, and he apparently prefers to stay that way. Androphy said Mechanic told him he would decline all interview requests, and Mechanic did not respond to our multiple phone calls and electronic messages.
The basic, indisputable facts of Mechanic’s life are unremarkable, other than that he appears, on the surface, to embody the American dream. Mechanic had his own electrical manufacturing business in Tehran, called Faratel, and shortly after immigrating to America, he opened a second manufacturing company, in Houston in 1984, IEPS Electronics, which was later renamed Smart Power Systems.
Since then, according to Smart Power Systems’ website, the company has “manufactured and developed power protection products including uninterruptible power supplies, computer grade filters and automatic voltage regulators.” The website says the company has a 103,000-square-foot facility in Houston and a manufacturing plant in Taiwan. It does not, however, mention Faratel, of which Mechanic remained majority owner while in America.
Mechanic owns a handful of patents for various surge protectors and power filters — Androphy describes him as a “tinkerer” — and he apparently struck it rich in the electrical manufacturing industry, because he resides with his wife on the top floor of the 40-story Four Leaf Towers apartment complex in the Galleria area, where he owns two units worth a total of more than $2 million.
Federal prison was a stark drop from his normally lavish lifestyle. But Androphy said Mechanic never complained — except that he always talked about how badly he craved a crabmeat dinner. According to Androphy, Mechanic even gave away his commissary and all the personal items in his cell to “his friends in jail.” Although Mechanic is childless, Androphy describes his client as“grandfatherly.”
“He’s a very jovial, friendly guy,” Androphy said. “I sized him up from day one. He has a nice smile, a nice mannerism about him, an honest demeanor. Some people, they tell a story and you question them just from the way they tell it. They look dishonest or devious. It’s the opposite with Mechanic. Everything about his mannerisms portrayed that he was an honest, law-abiding individual that was trying to do the best he could to survive. He’s very loyal to his employees. He was very worried while in jail that his business may not make it and his employees would not be able to take care of their families. It was never ‘Woe is me’; it was always ‘Woe for my employees.’”
We reached out to more than 20 current and former employees of Mechanic, and those who chose to respond characterized Mechanic entirely differently from the way Androphy had.
“I’m surprised to hear him described that way,” said one former Smart Power Systems employee, who requested anonymity, saying he feared retribution. “Jovial? Hell no. He was a very hard person to work for. He was not someone I considered the kind of boss who really cares much about the people who work for him. You dreaded going to talk to him. His interaction with employees was mostly taken care of by a personal assistant. He was a mean guy. But he paid me well.”
The former employee said Mechanic was “known for his rants and raves,” and his angry yelling reverberated throughout the manufacturing facility. He also said Mechanic was prone to rash firings (the employee said he left the company on good terms). Another former employee, Howard Sandler, corroborated those claims.
“Mechanic was like a tyrant,” said Sandler, who said he worked as a sales representative for Mechanic’s company for 18 months before leaving in 2013. “He’d smile and be nice when he needed you for something, and if you did anything wrong, made any little mistake, he would chew you up one side and down the other like he was some kind of a god and you should bow to him.”
Sandler said he was unsurprised when he read Mechanic had been arrested. “He was finally where he belonged,” Sandler said. “Somewhere he can’t act like a god, where he was told what he could and could not do all the time. He was getting what he deserved because he treated people so bad for so many years. It was payback.”
During Mechanic’s bond hearing last spring, the defense brought forward seven witnesses to vouch for Mechanic’s character. They were plucked from Houston’s elite Persian community: wealthy entrepreneurs, oil and gas CEOs, doctors and lawyers. They spoke of playing tennis with Mechanic and socializing with him at dinner parties, and they testified that Mechanic was honorable and philanthropic.
One witness testified that he has known Mechanic since 1986, and vaguely asserted that Mechanic once paid for someone else’s funeral and started a college fund for a student. Another testified that Mechanic is “very charitable…has a good heart…helps a lot of needy people…” and is “well-respected in the community.”
Alex Forrest was the only character witness for Mechanic who agreed to talk to the Houston Press. Forrest, a personal injury attorney in Houston, said Mechanic is “easy to love.” Forrest remembered that about a decade ago, Mechanic came to visit Forrest after he had heart surgery, but he could not recall any other specific examples showing Mechanic’s good character.
“He has a big personality and a kind heart,” Forrest said. “He’s been good to a lot of people in our Persian community, so I’ve really grown to respect and like him. He’s very willing and ready to give his time and his emotional and financial support. Are there any specific examples? No. But I can just remember at parties, if someone had a heart attack or had passed away, he was there asking if anyone needed anything.”
According to court documents, when Mechanic applied for citizenship in 2006, some of the same character witnesses sent letters to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, acknowledging his “deep care for this country” and “outstanding moral character and trust.” The Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, UNICEF and MD Anderson Cancer Center also sent letters “exemplifying [Mechanic’s] various charitable contributions.” But immigration services denied his application.
Citing Mechanic’s prior run-ins with export violations, immigration services decided Mechanic was not “of good moral character,” and claimed that Mechanic’s letters of reference were “self-serving at best.” Mechanic reapplied and was later granted citizenship, although it’s unclear why. A Freedom of Information Act request seeking more documents from Mechanic’s citizenship application was rejected.
While the federal government’s evidence against Mechanic is also confidential, prosecutors were able to lay out much of their case at the bond hearing, which Mechanic’s original attorney said resembled a “mini-trial,” according to transcripts. The prosecutors quoted from intercepted emails and business documents, including invoices, that allegedly detailed Mechanic’s export scheme.
According to the federal government, Faratel employees would email Mechanic requesting certain parts. Then, Mechanic would allegedly contact a company in Taiwan and together they would attempt to source the parts. They allegedly created fake invoices from the Taiwanese company to make it look as though the shipment were destined for Turkey. However, a Turkish company would then create another invoice to ship the parts to Iran, where Faratel would assemble and sell the parts to the clients who had requested them.
According to the indictment, Mechanic wrote in an email to a Smart Power Systems colleague that shipping orders to Iran was “inappropriate in this side,” and allegedly decided to change the Faratel logo to “FA” on the shipments so as not to reveal that the Iranian company was the intended recipient. The indictment also quoted emails between Mechanic and the Taiwanese company, describing the need to act covertly in order to evade export regulations.
To receive payment, Mechanic allegedly laundered money through Asian banks and third-party food produce distributors — he got more than $1 million in wire transfers from China and Singapore, coming from “basically fake companies,” prosecutor Mark McIntyre said in court. Between 2010 and 2015, Mechanic allegedly made about 250 transactions to Iran worth a total of more than $20 million.
FBI agent Crosby Houpt testified during the bond hearing that some of the parts Mechanic exported could be used in missile guidance systems or as uninterruptible power supplies for “critical factories, command posts or headquarter buildings,” and he said he believed Mechanic would be a “risk for danger” if he were to be released on bond.
Prosecutors said they had a client list for Faratel that showed it sold parts to “26 Iranian entities… designated for some sort of national security reason or executive order,” including an Iranian energy company associated with nuclear procurement, and NAJA, Iran’s state police force, which has been cited by the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control for “grave human rights abuses.”
Another FBI agent, Brady Olson, testified that the bureau had intercepted an email from a Faratel employee requesting Mechanic’s approval of an invoice for a NAJA order of more than 600,000 U.S. dollars worth of “uninterruptible power supply-like systems.” In one email Olson cited, Mechanic’s communications with his Faratel business partners allegedly included an invoice detailing a $289,000 sale of about 3,000 batteries to Iran Electronics Industries, a state-owned subsidiary of Iran’s Ministry of Defense. Iran Electronics Industries was added to the U.S. Treasury Department’s list of blocked entities in 2008.
“Mr. Mechanic has been in business in Iran for years and years and years,” McIntyre said, according to court transcripts. “He sells to governmental agencies. He sells to military forces. He sells to police forces. The government has determined that they believe Iran is a supporter of international terrorism, and that they’re seeking to develop some sort of nuclear weapon. It’s a national security case, whether he’s selling blue jeans or oil field equipment or nonmilitary things. The point is to starve the Iranian economy and make them come to the table or quit supporting [terrorism] and developing nuclear weapons.”
But according to Androphy, the government’s case was “built on lies.”
“It was all bullshit,” Androphy said. “The government portrayed my client as a 69-year old James Bond.” Androphy claimed the government “misinterpreted” Mechanic’s emails and invoices, and that Mechanic was not deeply involved in Faratel’s operations, even though he is the majority owner of the company and the chairman of its board of directors. He said the emails showing Mechanic approving sales to NAJA did not exist, and that there were no Iranian government agencies on Faratel’s client list.
“This sounds a little conspiratorial, but I think the U.S. started arresting people here for trade sanctions violations that were not serious, just to use them as trade bait later,” Androphy said. “I think Mechanic fell into that trap. They wanted to keep him in jail to make it look like he was being aggressively prosecuted. It sounds crazy. I don’t know if that’s the case, but I’ve thought about it. Was he a pawn in the government’s plan to exchange prisoners? I’ll never know. But it’s not unrealistic.”
In an email, Angela Dodge, the spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Houston, which handled the prosecution, said the office would not be commenting on Mechanic’s case “for a variety of reasons,” though she refused to explain what those reasons were. However, referring to the court filings from the bond hearing, Dodge did say, “We will let the record stand as it is.”
In a separate email, Christina Garza, a spokesperson for the FBI, which conducted the investigation, also declined to comment, claiming, “Department of Justice guidelines prevent us from providing more information about this matter.” But Garza did provide a statement saying the FBI uses “appropriate, reasonable and lawful methods to conduct investigations.”
We reached out to the Justice Department directly, but got no response.
In the bond hearing, Androphy sought to downplay the government’s claims against Mechanic. A private investigator testified for the defense that he was able to find the parts Mechanic was accused of selling on the shelves of local retailers.
Androphy said in an interview that Faratel wasn’t even permitted by its own government to do business with Iranian government agencies, which, he argued, rendered the U.S. government’s allegations impossible. But, according to Faratel’s website, it has received a few awards from Iranian government ministries, which would be strange if it were truly blacklisted.
Androphy also planned to argue that Mechanic’s role in the transactions was not prominent enough to warrant criminal action.
“We were not going to disagree with a lot of what the government had to say,” Androphy said in another interview, signaling a somewhat precipitous drop from his original claim that the federal government’s case was all bullshit. “We were going to say, okay, if that happened, then he just didn’t intend to do it wrong.”
Androphy produced a letter from 1997 that he said was sent by Mechanic’s trade lawyer, Robert Givens, requesting advice from the Treasury Department regarding Mechanic’s business operations with Faratel. Givens said he never received a response from the government. The non response was interpreted as a sort of green light going forward for the legality of Mechanic’s actions. Androphy said Mechanic tried to follow the “confusing” trade laws, and acted only on the advice of his attorneys. If the government could not prove Mechanic acted with willful intent to break the law, then, Androphy said, it could not convict Mechanic of a crime.
“His [trade] lawyers were finding loopholes for him to deal with trade regulations,” Androphy said. “A loophole is not a violation of law; it’s just a means of avoiding direct violations of regulations. This is part of American culture. Is everybody a crook? No. People are just trying to take advantage of what the rules are.”
More difficult to defend was the bounty of illicit drugs the feds found when they raided Mechanic’s apartment. In a safe, along with nine credit cards, multiple passports and $100,000 in different national currencies, Mechanic kept pill bottles containing 156 grams of cocaine and 4.4 kilograms of a black, tar-like substance that McIntyre testified had tested positive for opiates. According to Harris County court records, Mechanic was charged with “possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver,” but the charge was dismissed in May, last year.
Androphy said in an interview that “opiates [are] an Iranian tradition for treating back pain…and Mechanic had a prescription from a doctor in Iran.” And the cocaine? “His brother passed away, and his family gave him a bunch of stuff and the cocaine was in there,” Androphy said. “It was never his. He’s not buying cocaine on the street, but his brother used for some reason. He’s not a drug dealer.”
By the end of the bond hearing, the federal prosecutors had painted Mechanic as a serious threat to national security. In pointing out his significant financial assets and lack of close family tying him to Houston, they also argued that he was a risk to jump bail and fly to Iran. The judge ruled to deny Mechanic bond.
According to court transcripts, Judge Nancy F. Atlas found that there was “substantial evidence” against Mechanic.
“The lack of respect for the law the defendant has demonstrated by having drugs in his home are in my mind a demonstration that the defendant does not believe he has to follow the law,” Atlas said. “Mr. Mechanic has repeatedly violated export laws, and it’s not about the punishment, it’s about him understanding that these laws are to be followed. The United States government has prosecuted or pursued Mr. Mechanic twice. You would think Mr. Mechanic would learn and get himself into a separate line of work. But he chooses not to. He deals with agencies in Iran that are of prohibited nature in the heart of what the embargo is about.”
Atlas was referring to Mechanic’s history of entangling himself in international trade restrictions, which the prosecution briefly brought up in the bond hearing. Mechanic had two prior transgressions that were eerily similar to his most recent case, in two important ways: that he violated export regulations, and that he received lenient punishments.
In the late 1990s, Mechanic was the subject of a federal criminal investigation for allegedly breaching export law by shipping goods to Iran through third-party countries. A federal indictment unsealed in 1998 outlined a scheme nearly identical to the one the federal government alleged in 2015. According to the indictment, Faratel would send a purchase order to Mechanic at his Houston facility, and Mechanic would source the goods through an Asian broker — the same Taiwanese company Mechanic was accused of working with more than a decade later — and then ship the products to Faratel in Iran.
Federal customs agents seized business papers, including faxes, letters and invoices, that allegedly ensnared Mechanic in the act. The indictment alleged that in November 1996, Mechanic’s sister-in-law, Mary Akers Mechanic, who held a high-ranking position in the Houston company, said in a phone conversation that Bahram Mechanic was “always trying to get around the Iranian embargo.”
But the criminal investigation was dropped in favor of civil litigation. According to a 1997 letter from then-U.S. attorney Eric Holder, there was “strong evidence that violations of sanctions occurred,” but unspecified evidence had developed late in the investigation that apparently made it “extremely difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mechanic possessed specific criminal intent.” Mechanic settled with the federal government in 2000, and, without admitting guilt, agreed to pay a fine. The Treasury Department initially set that fine at $329,739, but it was reduced to a lump sum of $100,000.
According to court documents in an earlier case, in 1984 a sales rep for Hughes Aircraft Company received a phone call from Mary Akers Mechanic requesting a price quotation for a sweep generator, a piece of equipment used to test electric frequencies. Akers Mechanic told the sales rep that she wanted to use the generator for a beeper system at Mechanic’s Houston facility, which made the sales rep suspicious because the sweep generator was incompatible with the beeper system. He contacted a higher-level employee at Hughes, who found that Mechanic had ordered a sweep generator once before and shipped it to Switzerland. Hughes Aircraft sold the generator to Akers Mechanic, but also contacted U.S. Customs, which installed a tracking device before the package was sent to Houston.
Federal agents put Mechanic and his facility under constant visual and electronic surveillance. Peeking through his office building’s windows, agents testified, they observed him repackaging the generator into a secure black trunk. When he took it out of the original Hughes box, Mechanic saw the tracking device fall onto the floor, and agents testified that they saw him intentionally stomp on it. Later that night, agents observed Mechanic acting suspiciously. They said he drove in circles around his suburban neighborhood, speeding up and slowing down, as though he were conducting “heat runs” to see if he was being followed. That same night, agents saw him peering through his living room windows with binoculars (in court, Mechanic’s attorney claimed he was merely nervous because his stepdaughter had not come home yet).
Mechanic contacted a man named Eugene Krug, and offered him an “all expenses paid” trip to Switzerland — all he had to do was take the black trunk along with him. On April 16, 1985, agents observed Mechanic and Krug loading the sweep generator into a Cadillac parked outside Mechanic’s business. The pair shook hands, and Mechanic went back inside, while Krug departed for Houston Intercontinental Airport. Federal agents followed. When he checked his baggage, customs agents opened the black trunk and found the sweep generator inside. Krug bought a ticket destined for Zurich, but was arrested before he boarded the flight. Krug did not have the required license to export the generator. He was also found with a sign that read “Mr. Hans.”
After Krug was arrested, federal agents raided Mechanic’s facility in Houston. There, they seized a number of documents, including a key telex sent from Mechanic’s company to a man named Hans Wirth, a business partner at Cosmotrans AG, a freight forwarding company based in Zurich. Cosmotrans had links to the Bulgarian intelligence services and had been indicted for allegedly diverting equipment from the U.S. to the Soviet Union. The telex read: “Please meet our man in the airport at 11:00. He has the paper written, ‘Mr. Hans’ on it in his hand. Please just take your parcel. He doesn’t know anything about it.”
The telex was signed “Regards, Mr. B.”
Bahram Mechanic, Mary Akers and Krug were all indicted and charged with conspiring to violate export regulations. Mechanic was visiting Iran at the time, and flew back to Houston voluntarily. He was arrested as soon as he deplaned at Intercontinental. Mechanic appeared to have been caught red-handed, but he pled not guilty. His defense attorney offered what would become a familiar defense, claiming Mechanic did not knowingly violate export regulations and did not intend to break the law. But prosecutors produced a document from Hughes Aircraft that had notified the Mechanics that they needed a license to export the sweep generator before they made the purchase, and the government attorneys had found a handful of half-completed license applications in Mechanic’s office.
In his closing arguments, prosecutor Philip Hilder said the defense’s arguments were “nothing but smoke,” and Mechanic was convicted by the jury. Hilder recommended the judge sentence Mechanic to nine years in prison. Instead, the judge decided to give him only five years of probation. Hilder said in an interview later that he felt it was a surprisingly lenient punishment. He was even more surprised when, 30 years later, he opened up the newspaper and read that Bahram Mechanic had again been arrested for violating export laws. According to Hilder, white collar criminals tend not to cycle back through the criminal justice system.
“To get prosecuted by the U.S. government is a very physically and emotionally disruptive procedure for a defendant,” said Hilder, who left the U.S. Attorney’s Office and now runs a private practice white collar criminal defense firm in Houston. “Mechanic is very fortunate that the judge saw it fit not to give him prison in the first prosecution. His luck has obviously followed. Getting a pardon at that stage of the proceedings is akin to winning the Powerball lottery.”
Why would Mechanic continue to put himself in a position that could land him in prison? He doesn’t appear to be politically motivated to support the Iranian government’s cause — public records show Mechanic contributed to George W. Bush’s presidential campaign, even though Bush infamously included Iran in his “Axis of Evil.” Perhaps the best theory for explaining Mechanic’s behavior comes from the sentencing memorandum Hilder submitted in 1985. Hilder wrote: “Though we do not know for certain the force motivating Mechanic’s criminal conduct, it would appear that greed is the culprit.”
Androphy, however, said the case against Mechanic in 1985 was “probably all lies,” too, and disagrees that greed is the motivation behind Mechanic’s repeated run-ins with the law.
“That’s unfair,” Androphy said. “It wasn’t greed; he was just supporting the families of his employees. If that’s what the government calls greed, then that’s greed. But I think Mechanic cared. He had a burning desire to help out his employees in Iran and here, and he sort of got too energized in helping them. The risk was worth it to him. He’s not doing anything wrong in his mind.”
Androphy says Mechanic is trying to rebuild his business. When Mechanic was arrested in April last year, local and national news outlets reported that he led an “Iranian nuclear procurement network operating in the United States.” Smart Power Systems hemorrhaged both employees and clients while Mechanic was imprisoned.
“The government instilled an atmosphere of terror that frightened everybody into thinking Mechanic was a threat to national security,” Androphy said. “Once the skunk is in the box, you can’t extricate it. The lingering fear of people is not going to be vaporized.”
It is certainly possible that the government irresponsibly labeled Mechanic a “national security threat.” The phrase conjures up imagery of explosive vests and beheadings rather than misleading invoices and money laundering. But there is also a strong argument that Mechanic is just a more nuanced national security threat than we are used to, and it is naive to claim his alleged attempts to evade export regulations were harmless. While the United States lifted some sanctions against Iran as a result of the nuclear agreement, many restrictions remain in place. It is unclear if Mechanic plans to continue to operate his business as usual.
“Some of exporting is quite bureaucratic, but export regulations have been set for a reason,” Hilder said. “No one wants to see unregulated flow of our technology out of the United States. It must be regulated. It’s part of doing business, and it’s also a part of national security. If you aren’t willing to follow or learn the law, you will run afoul of the law.”
Androphy said he views the pardon as a “total exoneration.”
“You have the leader of the free world nullifying these charges,” Androphy said. “To me, that says to the world that there was not enough evidence to charge these guys from the beginning. It’s coming from the President, one step below God — well, maybe a few steps below God. But God only has jurisdiction in Heaven. This was the highest vindication on Earth.”
In reality, however, the pardon is not a vindication in any jurisdiction. Two former pardon attorneys for U.S. presidents — John Stanish, who was the pardon attorney for three years under Jimmy Carter, and Margaret Love, who was the pardon attorney from 1990 to 1997 under George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton — both said in interviews that a pardon is not at all a proclamation of innocence, unless it is specifically stated so in the pardon letter. Mechanic’s pardon letter contains no such language.
“A pre-trial pardon is unusual and extremely rare,” Stanish said. “Generally, pardons are done after a conviction, and they’re given to someone basically to forgive them of the crime. That’s all it is, a forgiveness.”
Regardless of what the pardon actually meant, Androphy rode the wave hard.
As soon as he returned home from the federal detention center following Mechanic’s receipt of the pardon, he was bombarded with interview requests. His face and name showed up on CNN and PBS and in the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and The Washington Post. Even Iranian TV news stations wanted interviews. Androphy went to Washington, D.C., and to New York City, where he visited with Iranian diplomats and talked politics over tea and pistachios. He was invited to the Iranian consulate’s celebration honoring the 37th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution. Androphy said he still wants to travel to Iran, and hopes to meet the minister of foreign affairs, Mohammad Javad Zarif. Androphy said he’s also added a few more Iranian clients, including one who told him he wants Androphy to secure him a pardon. “I can go to Iran probably and set up shop now,” Androphy joked.
Immediately after his release from jail, Mechanic went back to his $2 million condo on the top floor of the Four Leaf Towers, with its dramatic, sweeping view of the city’s sprawling skyline — there, it was as if he were untouchable. He quickly satisfied his long-awaited craving for a crabmeat dinner. He may have spent the past nine months in prison, but in the end, just as he always has, Bahram Mechanic got exactly what he wanted.
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