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FBI says fraudulent hazmat permits not tied to Sept. 11 attacks

3 charged in license scam

Friday, September 28, 2001

By Torsten Ove and Jonathan D. Silver, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Three Pittsburgh-area men arrested with 15 others across the nation in an investigation of a scheme to bribe a former Pennsylvania Department of Transportation official for licenses to haul hazardous materials were released on bond yesterday and ordered to appear in federal court next week.

 
 

PennDOT ex-employee denies selling licenses

   
 

Mohammed Alibrahimi, 32, and Ali Alubeidy, 34, cousins who live together, were charged with conspiracy to fraudulently obtain the licenses from a PennDOT license examiner who was paid off in cash, according to a federal affidavit.

A third man, Kumeit Alaraf, 33, who had worked for the others in their Brownsville Road auto shop, was charged with fraudulently obtaining a commercial driver's license but not one with a hazardous materials permit.

The affidavit lists 20 men in the plot nationwide, 18 of whom were under arrest as of yesterday.

The FBI said yesterday that the suspects were not connected to hijackers who crashed jetliners into the World Trade Center and Pentagon and another in Stonycreek, Somerset County.

FBI Director Robert Mueller said that while the 20 men charged with obtaining bogus licenses have not been linked to the Sept. 11 attacks, investigators are looking for people who have obtained licenses "under suspicious circumstances."

U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan said agents are investigating the possibility that others were involved, but she would not comment further.

Among the questions surrounding the three local defendants yesterday was where they lived. Alubeidy is listed in the telephone directory as living on East Meyers Avenue in Carrick.

But in court yesterday, Alibrahimi said he and Alubeidy lived at 221 Quincy Ave. When a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter went to that address yesterday, the house was vacant, boarded up and strewn with debris. Neighbors said no one had lived there for some time, except for occasional squatters.

Federal officials could not account for the discrepancy yesterday.

Alaraf is from the Pittsburgh area, according to prosecutors, but his address was not available.

The PennDOT employee has not been charged or named in court papers, although he has acknowledged that he issued up to 30 fraudulent hazardous materials permits at the behest of someone named Abdul Mohamman, a man of Middle Eastern origin known as "Ben." Described as the middle-man in the operation, " Ben" has also not been charged or further identified in court records.

Buchanan would not discuss why the others have not been charged and would not comment on the details of the investigation.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Kenneth Benson ordered the local men to appear before him next Friday for preliminary hearings, along with others arrested by the FBI in Detroit, Seattle, Kansas City and Dallas.

"We'll open the store at 9:30 and we'll take as many customers as you have," the judge told federal prosecutor Bruce Teitelbaum.

On the government's recommendation that the men are not a risk to flee or a danger to the community, Benson released them and gave them until Monday for each to come up with a $10,000 surety bond.

Court documents unsealed yesterday showed that Alubeidy, Alibrahimi and Alaraf were among 18 people arrested on federal warrants in Michigan, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington state. Two others, Fadhil Al-Khaledy and Raad Al-Malfky, remained at large.

According to the affidavit supporting the warrants, Alubeidy and Alibrahimi, owners of S.A.M. Auto Sales on Brownsville Road in Carrick, fraudulently obtained commercial driver's licenses with a permit to transport hazardous materials.

The warrant for Alubeidy said he also arranged for another person, an unnamed government witness in Pittsburgh who had previously failed a written exam for a commercial operator's license, to meet "Ben," who then arranged for that person to obtain a license through the PennDOT examiner.

That witness, identified in court papers only as CW-2, told authorities Alubeidy had also helped get commercial licenses for people from Kentucky, Detroit and other parts of Michigan. The witness said he paid $350 to Alubeidy for a license in December 1999, and that Alubeidy introduced him to "Ben." Alubeidy kept a portion of the money and gave the rest to "Ben," according to the affidavit.

Alibrahimi and Alubeidy appeared in court wearing mechanics' coveralls, while Alaraf sported a sweat shirt featuring an American flag and the words: "America. United We Stand." All speak English and all are in the United States legally, the U.S. attorney's office said.

All three appeared calm during the hearing, which lasted about 90 minutes.

When asked about their finances and their ability to make bond, Alibrahimi and Alubeidy, who described themselves as cousins who lived together, said their auto shop is worth about $25,000.

Alaraf said he owns a house, although he didn't say where, and said he used to work at the auto shop but no longer does.

Earlier in the day, a woman who said she had once been Alibrahimi's girlfriend but wouldn't give her name said Alibrahimi and Alubeidy are refugees from Iraq who had fled that country after the Persian Gulf War. She said Alibrahimi came to Pittsburgh two years ago and opened the auto shop in March of last year.

The ex-girlfriend said both men are Shiite Muslims who hate Osama bin Laden and even had a poster hanging in their apartment of his face in the center of a bull's eye under the slogan: "The Target of Our Affections."

"I'm worried about Mohammed. I hope this isn't a witch hunt," she said. "They said they didn't think things like this happened in this country."

S.A.M. Auto Sales, a squat, one-story business, remained closed yesterday. Two small American flags were displayed outside the building, which is little more than a garage. More than a dozen vehicles and an S.A.M. tow truck were parked in the lot outside. One customer drove up to drop his car off for servicing in the afternoon and seemed surprised to find no one there.

Residents of East Meyers Street in Carrick said Alubeidy and Alibrahimi lived together in the 200-block for about 18 months. Also living there was Alubeidy's girlfriend.

A small American flag stuck out from the mailbox there. Neighbors, who declined to give their names for fear of reprisals, said the men kept to themselves. They said the two often had visitors in the middle of the night -- always men who appeared to be Middle Eastern -- and would sometimes have loud arguments outside in an Arabic-sounding language. Neighbors also complained of frequent problems caused by the men parking numerous cars for their business on the street.

Melissa Cinkan, 21, who said she is Alubiedy's girlfriend, spoke with reporters last night outside their Carrick home.

"He's not guilty of anything," Cinkan said. "He wanted the CDL licenses for his business."

When FBI agents went to the shop yesterday, Cinkan said Alubiedy called her and told her to let agents have access to anything in their home.

FBI agents were in the home for four hours yesterday. They took a CD-ROM, personal photographs, passports, a map of Washington, D.C., bank statements and bills.

While in custody, Alubiedy took a polygraph test, Cinkan said. She said Alubiedy came to the United States sometime after the Persian Gulf War where he served in the Iraqi army and was a prisoner of war. She said he was adamantly opposed to fighting the United States.

Cinkan said Alubiedy has been in Pittsburgh for about five years and was in the process for applying for U.S. citizenship. She said he learned 15 months ago that the CDL permit he had been issued was not legal and he contacted authorities at that time. She said he never heard back from anyone until this week.

Cinkan said she has known Alubiedy for about two years and they have lived together for about a year and five months.

He and his cousin opened the auto body shop about a year ago.

The day before the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Cinkan said Alubeidy had returned from a weeklong trip to Syria where he visited his parents. She said he was devastated by the terrorist attacks.

"He's lit candles and prayed seven times a day," she said. According to Muslim law, the faithful must pray five times a day.

Cinkan said she's worried they will become targets of reprisal in light of these events.

"They're scared for their lives," she said.

Cinkan said she thinks they've been singled out because of their culture. It's because "they're Muslim and from Iraq," she said. "But they're like everybody else on this street. Ali works and has a business. He's kind and caring. There's nothing different about them."

After the court hearing, Benson let the men go under the conditions that they not leave the Western District of Pennsylvania, that they turn over passports and other travel documents to the FBI, that they observe a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew and that they surrender any licenses except a regular driver's license.

All will have attorneys appointed for them, although Benson said Alibrahimi and Alubeidy may end up paying for theirs because they appear to have assets.

Late Wednesday, Benson unsealed an initial batch of arrest warrants for seven Middle Eastern men detailing the apparent scam. A PennDOT investigation had been under way for more than a year, but it was only taken to federal authorities following the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington.

The seven men were among 10 people initially arrested in Missouri, Michigan and Washington state following an FBI warning that terrorists might strike next using chemical or biological weapons.

According to the affidavit, the drivers didn't take required tests to haul hazardous materials, and some had suspended licenses at the time they got the permits. Alibrahimi and Alubeidy fraudulently received hazardous materials licenses, Alibrahimi in October 1999 and Alubeidy in September 1999, according to the affidavit. Alaraf fraudulently received a Class B operator's license in July 1999, the court papers say.

Under federal guidelines, the maximum penalty the men could face is up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.


Staff Writer Dan Gigler contributed to this report.



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