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Iraqi pleads guilty in hazmat license bribery

Friday, December 14, 2001

By Torsten Ove, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

An Iraqi refugee charged in a scheme to bribe a state employee to issue licenses for hauling hazardous materials yesterday became the first of the 20 Middle Eastern men indicted in the case to plead guilty.

Alawi Al-Baraa, 33, who is serving a state prison term for stabbing a man in a bar fight, admitted to U.S. District Judge Robert Cindrich that he illegally obtained a hazmat license in 1999 from Robert Ferrari, a former Pennsylvania Department of Transportation examiner at the State Office Building, Downtown.

Al-Baraa faces a federal prison term of between two and eight months when he is sentenced March 15.

The indictment naming him and the others created a stir after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks because of the possibility that the scheme was linked to terrorism. Federal authorities have said they have found no such connections, and Cindrich took the unusual step yesterday of asking the lead prosecutor to make that point clear for the public in Al-Baraa's case.

"We have attempted through the FBI's efforts to establish any possible connections between Mr. Al-Baraa's activities and the events of Sept. 11," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce Teitelbaum. "We have been unable to establish any link."

Teitelbaum said there is no reason to believe Al-Baraa is anything but a truck driver who paid bribe money to get a new hazmat certification without taking the required test.

A trucker in Iraq who fled that country after the Gulf War, Al-Baraa lived in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia and moved to the United States in 1995, settling in Erie and working in a factory. He later moved to Detroit, where he got a commercial driver's license with a permit to haul hazardous materials and worked as a trucker.

In March 1999, Teitelbaum said, Al-Baraa lost his license because of driving violations. At the end of that year, he wanted to move back to Erie and take a new job driving trucks, but he no longer had a legitimate license. Even if he had, a hazmat permit cannot be transferred from state to state, so he would have had to take a test to get the permit for Pennsylvania.

Instead he decided to get one illegally through an Iraqi friend who knew Elmeliani "Ben" Benmoumen of Squirrel Hill, who is charged separately as the middleman between Ferrari and those who wanted the licenses.

Al-Baraa came to Pittsburgh with the friend, whom he paid $300 to give to Benmoumen, who in turn paid Ferrari.

All the other men charged in the case had been released on bond except Al-Baraa. Teitelbaum said he would have been released, too, had he not already been in prison. Al-Baraa is serving a 2- to 4-year sentence at the State Correctional Institution Rockview for aggravated assault in Erie. He was sentenced Nov. 14, 2000.

In accepting Al-Baraa's plea, Cindrich commended the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office for handling the hazmat case fairly during what he called a "very difficult time in our nation's history."

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