Former Mich. congressman pleads guilty to obstructing justice in terrorism financing case

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Ex-Mich. congressman pleads guilty to obstruction

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A former Michigan congressman accused of accepting stolen funds to lobby on behalf of a charity with alleged ties to terrorism pleaded guilty Wednesday to two charges including obstruction of justice, but prosecutors said more serious charges would likely be dropped.

Former Republican Rep. Mark Deli Siljander, who served in Congress from 1981 until 1987 and as a United Nations delegate for a year, pleaded guilty in federal court in Kansas City to obstruction and acting as an unregistered foreign agent.

Charges of money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering will likely be dismissed under the terms of the 59-year-old Siljander’s plea deal, said Don Ledford, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Western District of Missouri.

Abdel Azim El-Siddig, a co-defendant who was a part-time fundraiser for the Islamic American Relief Agency, also admitted Wednesday to conspiring to hire Siljander to lobby for the group’s removal from a Senate Finance Committee list of charities suspected of having terrorist ties and reinstated as an approved government contractor. Prosecutors said El-Siddig, of Chicago, concealed this advocacy and didn’t register with the proper authorities.

Prosecutors said Siljander, who is free on bond, received $75,000 from the charity to push for its removal from the list, and that $50,000 of it was part of unused grant money that was supposed to have been returned to the U.S. Agency for International Development after it terminated its grants for two relief projects in Mali, Africa, with the charity in 1999.

Of the $2 million the charity received, $85,000 was supposed to have been returned to the agency and wasn’t, Ledford said.

The indictment said Siljander and three charity officers agreed to cover up the money’s origins and use it on the lobbying effort. Money was funneled to Siljander through nonprofits, prosecutors said.

The original indictment alleged the charity sent about $130,000 to help Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whom the United States has designated as a global terrorist. The money, sent to bank accounts in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 2003 and 2004, was masked as donations to an orphanage located in buildings that Hekmatyar owned.

Authorities described Hekmatyar as an Afghan mujahedeen leader who has participated in and supported terrorist acts by al-Qaida and the Taliban.

Prosecutors said Siljander, who now lives in Great Falls, Va., lied to the FBI about being hired to lobby for the charity. He told investigators that the money he received was a donation to help him write a book about Islam and Christianity.

U.S. Attorney Beth Phillips said in a news release Wednesday that Siljander engaged in illegal lobbying for the charity, then used his own charities to hide the payments for that lobbying.

“Siljander repeatedly lied to FBI agents and prosecutors investigating serious crimes related to national security. With today’s guilty pleas, all of the defendants in this case have admitted their guilt and will be held accountable for their actions,” she said.

The charges are part of a long-running case against the charity, which was based in Columbia, Mo., before it was designated in 2004 by the Treasury Department as a suspected fundraiser for terrorists.

The organization has long denied allegations that it has financed terrorists.

Shereef Akeel of Troy, Mich., who represented the organization in a 2004 attempt to unfreeze its funds, maintained that the charity has no ties to terrorism. He said he’s frustrated that the group’s money remains frozen.

“The money should go to the people in need, and that’s the bottom line,” Akeel said. “In our zealous efforts to combat terrorism we have undermined our war against famine.”

Siljander refused comment after the hearing. When the judge asked him if he acknowledged what the prosecution was alleging was true, he answered “yes.”

“Today, Mark Siljander has accepted responsibility for his conduct in his pleas to an obstruction of justice charge and a violation of a regulatory statute,” Lance D. Sandage, one of Siljander’s attorneys, said. “We would point out that all other charges of money laundering and conspiracy against him will be dismissed, and of course no terrorism charges were alleged against Mark Siljander.”

Under federal sentencing guidelines, Siljander could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison without parole, plus a fine of up to $500,000. But there is no minimum sentence for either charge, and he could receive a much lighter sentence as part of his plea deal.

El-Siddig faces up to five years in federal prison without parole, plus a fine of up to $250,000. Sentencing dates have not been set for either defendant.

Three other co-defendants already have entered pleas in the case.

Siljander won a special election in 1981 to represent his southwestern Michigan district in Congress, and was appointed to a one-year term by President Reagan in 1987 to serve as a U.S. delegate to the United Nations.

Siljander was elected to Congress initially with the support of fundamentalist Christian groups, and said at the time he won because “God wanted me in.” In 1983, he claimed that “Arab terrorists” planned to kill him during a pro-Jewish rally; the FBI and Secret Service said they knew of no such plot. Siljander attended the rally wearing a bulletproof vest.

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