By Del Quentin Wilber and Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 31, 2009
In the Islamic Center of Washington, beneath the 160-foot minaret that towers over Embassy Row, a tale of intrigue has simmered for years. It is marked by bitter recriminations between two men who are credited with rehabilitating its reputation as a prominent symbol of Islam in the United States.
The center's business manager has been accused of stealing $430,000 from the mosque in a complicated check scam. The key witness against him is the center's director and imam, a Saudi who says he noticed the crime when he spotted too many checks being written to a gardener.
The Iranian-born business manager has a different story. He says the imam told him to take the money. About half was used to pay off debts and living expenses of two women who were close to the imam, and the rest was used to pay informants for tips about the mosque's security, he said.
It was enough to confound a jury, which deadlocked 9 to 3 after the business manager's three-week trial last May.
Now prosecutors are attempting to retry him, and the manager is firing back. He has accused the imam of committing perjury and obstructing justice. A federal judge is expected to rule in coming weeks on whether to drop the charges or prevent the imam from testifying.
Muslim community leaders say the controversy has remained mostly out of the public eye because the center, built in the 1940s by ambassadors of majority-Muslim nations, is not a typical mosque. The center enjoyed a relatively peaceful existence until the 1979 Iranian revolution, when it underwent an acidic struggle for control between the mosque's board and a dissident group of worshipers, mostly Iranians opposed to the shah of Iran.
There were protests, arrests and other clashes. The board, composed of ambassadors from Muslim nations, locked down the mosque for a time.
In 1984, hoping to put the disputes in the past, the board hired Abdullah Khouj, a professor teaching in his native Saudi Arabia, to be its director and acting imam.
That same year, the board also hired Farzad Darui, who was born in Iran but became a U.S. citizen, as its director of security. Khouj later promoted Darui to be the mosque's manager.
Khouj did not respond to interview requests made at the mosque and by telephone. Darui declined to comment.
Trial testimony and interviews with worshipers indicated that the men were dedicated to improving the mosque, which today is mostly a gathering place for the diplomatic community. It was this mosque that President George W. Bush chose to visit the day after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Its Northwest Washington location, far from the large Muslim population clusters in the suburbs, draws a largely transient base of worshipers that includes commuters, students, travelers and a steady flow of taxi drivers.
Several worshipers who were approached at the mosque said they were surprised by the charges and countercharges, because the two men seemed to genuinely like and respect each other.
Both men echoed those sentiments on the witness stand.
"I trusted him like my own brother," Khouj testified.
"I considered Dr. Khouj a very close friend," Darui testified.
Federal prosecutors say Darui was anything but a friend to Khouj.
They allege that from 2000 through 2006, Darui stole $430,000 from the mosque's "special account," which was funded by the Saudi government to pay mosque expenses. Prosecutors said the theft was devastating: The center had to slash jobs and stop some philanthropic activity because Khouj thought the mosque simply couldn't meet its bills.
"This is a case about fraud, it's about theft, it's about a man who took money that did not belong to him," prosecutor Tejpal Chawla told jurors during Darui's trial.
Prosecutors say Darui took advantage of Khouj's trust and tricked him into signing checks for expenses such as electricity or insurance. After Khouj signed the checks, prosecutors say, Darui altered the payee information, inserting the names of one of his companies, Blue Line Travel or Zaal Inc.
The manager also cashed extra paychecks to staff members, prosecutors say.
Khouj testified that he noticed something was wrong in 2006 when he spotted extra checks being written to a gardener. Later, he testified, he was floored when he saw the bank statements showing unauthorized payments to Darui's firms.
"My feet were frozen," Khouj recalled during trial. "I could not even move. . . . Usually I lead the noon prayer. I couldn't even lead the prayer."
Normally, the FBI would examine the original checks to see whether they had been altered, but the checks had vanished. Without the originals, federal authorities had to use copies of invoices and copies of checks kept by the Saudi Embassy to introduce as evidence.
The lack of forensic evidence also forced prosecutors to rely on Khouj, who came under attack from Darui's legal team.
Darui's attorneys contend that someone doctored the photocopied records to make the manager look guilty. They also say all the checks -- more than 200 of them -- had been authorized by Khouj to finance the housing of the two women or mosque security expenses. Calling the women "mistresses" in court papers, Darui's attorneys say Khouj, who has a wife in Saudi Arabia, married both of the women.
At trial, Darui testified that he did not report the arrangement because he thought the money was Khouj's to spend and did not want to harm the mosque's image. He testified that he and Khouj created fake invoices in case anyone asked about the unusual expenses.
Khouj acknowledged giving the women money from his personal accounts but said he viewed it as an act of charity.
At a recent hearing, one of Darui's attorneys, Victoria Toensing, said Khouj lied about a variety of things, including a claim that he donated his salary to the center over a two-year period.
She also said it was difficult to believe that Khouj caught on to the alleged scam only in 2006 after he noticed an extra monthly check for the gardener. He had signed 58 such "extra" checks over the years, she said.
Federal prosecutors countered that they believe Khouj was truthful on the stand and that inconsistencies in testimony are common in trials.
They urged Chief U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth to let a new jury sort it all out.