ABOVE: Kassim Tajideen
Prosecutors love to add cute little nicknames to indictments. In their view, United States v. John Jones aka Vicious Johnny the Kneecapper sounds much, much better than plain old vanilla United States v. John Jones. So, in the indictment against recently arrested Kassim Tajideen the government makes sure to lead off with a few akas: “Big Haj” and “Big Boss.” In this case, however, maybe the United States needs its own aka as well: “United States aka United States of Imaginary Laws”
Tajideen is on the Office of Foreign Assets Control’s List of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons. He is being prosecuted for “causing” U.S. persons to violate the rules against transactions with blocked parties. Charging an SDN for doing business with U.S. persons, rather than charging U.S. persons that do business with the SDN, is unusual but not unprecedented.
The problem here, however, is not that the prosecution is unusual. The problem is that the prosecution is based on a rookie mistake and an careless misinterpretation of governing law. The theory of the indictment is that Tajideen, by not disclosing that he controlled various companies, caused U.S. persons to transact business with those companies in violation of U.S. sanctions. Here’s what the indictment says:
The business empire utilized different corporate entities over the years, all controlled by KASSIM TAJIDEEN, including Epsilon, ICTC, and Sicam Ltd., to procure and distribute goods throughout the world, including the United States. KASSIM TAJIDEEN was the ultimate owner and chief decision-maker of the business empire, with IMAD HASSOUN acting as confidante and lieutenant. KASSIM TAJIDEEN benefited directly and indirectly from the operation of the business empire.
22. At all relevant times during the conspiracy, the defendant KASSIM TAJIDEEN was designated a Specially Designated Global Terrorist by the United States Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control, pursuant to the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, Executive Order 13224, and the Global Terrorism Sanctions Regulations. As discussed above, the SDGT designation resulted in any property in the United States, or in the possession or control of U.S. persons, in which KASSIM TAJIDEEN had an interest, being blocked, and all U.S. persons were generally prohibited from transacting business with, or for the benefit of, KASSIM TAJIDEEN.
Most readers here will immediately see the problem with the prosecutor’s case. In effect, the prosecution is asserting, wrongly, that it is illegal for a U.S. person to deal with an entity in which an SDN has any interest. Alternatively, the prosecutors might be asserting above that it must be at least a controlling interest. But whichever the case, that is just not true.
OFAC has issued clear guidance, easily found by anyone with access to the Internet (which presumably includes the prosecutors here) that describes the circumstances in which any entity in which an SDN has interest is itself also blocked by operation of law. This guidance makes clear that it takes more than “any interest” or even a “controlling interest” for ownership by an SDN result in the owned entity being itself blocked.
Here is what that guidance says:
Persons whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to an Executive order or regulations administered by OFAC (blocked persons) are considered to have an interest in all property and interests in property of an entity in which such blocked persons own, whether individually or in the aggregate, directly or indirectly, a 50 percent or greater interest. Consequently, any entity owned in the aggregate, directly or indirectly, 50 percent or more by one or more blocked persons is itself considered to be a blocked person.
The guidance makes it perfectly clear that control alone does not result in the SDN’s company being blocked:
U.S. persons are advised to act with caution when considering a transaction with a non-blocked entity in which one or more blocked persons has a significant ownership interest that is less than 50 percent or which one or more blocked persons may control by means other than a majority ownership interest. Such entities may be the subject of future designation or enforcement action
There’s good reason for this rule. Although majority ownership of an entity is something on which information can be easily gathered, it is difficult, if not impossible, for a party to a transaction to determine every owner of that entity or even the person who might ultimately exercise de facto control over that entity. So, under the OFAC guidance, it was not illegal for U.S. persons to transact business with these entities in which Tajideen had some interest, maybe even a controlling one. If those transactions were not illegal, then Tajideen did not cause any illegal transactions and the bottom drops out of the government’s case.
What the government had to allege here, and what it somehow was unable to do, is that Tajideen had a “50 percent or greater” interest in Epsilon, ICTC, and Sicam Ltd. Even saying, as the indictment does, in one place that Tajideen was the “ultimate owner and chief decision-maker of the business empire” is not the same as saying that he had an interest of 50 percent or more in the three companies at issue.
Indeed the government’s silence here, like the dog’s silence in The Adventure of Silver Blaze, says all you need to know.