Cleared of violating Iran sanctions, man hopes for pardon
NEW YORK (AP) — Plenty of inmates in American prisons have served long sentences before their convictions were reversed. Few have emerged from behind bars quite like Mahmoud Reza Banki.
The Iranian-born, Ivy League-trained U.S. citizen has been on a quest to clear his name and draw attention to the hardships prisoners face when they are released into a suspicious society.
So far, he has been unable to overcome the stench of a 2011 conviction — later overturned — on a charge of violating the Iran trade embargo and operating an unlicensed money transmitting business.
Ten banks have closed his accounts, he said, and random credit card companies cancel his cards. Employers seem enthused to hire him until they Google his name. After applying for more than 100 jobs, he received a dozen offers, all rescinded after background checks.
“It’s remarkable to me how damaging it’s been,” Banki said. “I’m a second-class citizen.”
Now, he’s hoping for a pardon from President Barack Obama for two convictions that remain on his record for making false statements to a federal agency. He has gotten some congressional support, obtaining letters urging that he be among those considered during the flurry of pardons that usually occur at the end of a president’s term.
But he is also running out of time. It seems unlikely that a President Donald Trump, who has urged a hard line on Iran, will make his case a high priority.
The odds of anyone getting pardoned are slim. On Dec. 19, Obama pardoned 78 people, bringing the total number issued in his administration to 148. That’s out of nearly 3,100 people who applied during his presidency, according to the Justice Department.
Banki, 40, was born in Tehran. He initially came to the U.S. after being accepted to Purdue University.
He earned two degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, became a U.S. citizen in 1996, and then got a doctorate in chemical engineering from Princeton University in 2006. With those high-powered degrees, he landed a job at the management consulting firm McKinsey & Co.
Banki’s problems began in 2010, when federal prosecutors in New York charged him with using an unlicensed money transferring network popular in the Muslim world to transfer $3.4 million from relatives in Iran to accounts in the U.S.
His motive, he said, was purely to help his mother. Relatives in Iran wanted to protect her share of the family’s fortune after she separated from Banki’s father. Banki’s mother testified that the family owns three Iranian power utilities and a pharmaceutical company.
Prosecutors said Banki used $2.4 million of that money to buy a Manhattan condominium. The false statement conviction was partly related to letters he sent to a U.S. Treasury office saying his cousin, an Iranian citizen, had helped him arrange the money transfers.
One of his lawyers, Kathleen M. Sullivan, said Banki was the first person to be charged with violating the Iran trade embargo who was not operating a business.
When the jury returned a guilty verdict, Banki was shocked.
“I had my hands on the table and I couldn’t feel my arms. They were numb,” he said.
A judge sentenced him to 2 ½ years in prison, despite a plea for leniency from a 2003 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, the Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi.
He had served 665 days when an appeals court overturned the conviction, saying the U.S. sanctions on Iran contained an exemption for the transfer of family money. It left his convictions for false statements intact, though — a black mark that has stayed with him.
Assistant Federal Defender Sabrina Shroff said a criminal record is no easy-to-overcome liability, especially when looking for work.
“This is the ultimate of bad references,” she said. “You’re never going to get past the first cut.”
Since his release from prison in 2011, Banki said he has been speaking publicly about his case in part to raise awareness about the challenges that prisoners of all types face when released from jail.
“If I can’t turn the ship around,” he asked, “how do we, as a society, expect all these other people to turn their lives around?”
He has created a website, Reza Story, devoted to his cause. He delivered a TED talk and a documentary about him is in the works.
And he is determined to stay in America. In the past year, he worked five months for a technology firm though his background precluded him from a permanent job.
“I am the person I am because America gave me the opportunities,” he said.