Folks having trouble arranging loans in these recessionary times might take some inspiration from Ali Kouhestanian, a gentleman who--despite the dual hardship of arranging credit while in prison and using a totally false identity--was still able to obtain $68,000 in emergency funds for himself from two of the country's leading institutions.
He did not bother with pesky forms or minor factotums. He went straight to the top of such prestigous firms as Morgan Guaranty Trust Co. and the International Monetary Fund, speaking directly to Morgan President Robert V. Lindsay and IMF Special Representative to the United Nations Jan-Maarten Zegers from the prison telephone.
He did not allow himself to be hampered by the unfortunate facts of his circumstances, which included a conviction for auto theft, nor by his humble surroundings, the Middlesex County Jail, Billerica, Mass.
An Iranian national, he told the bankers he was a wealthy Saudi, one Sheik Abdul Aziz Qurayshi, Governor of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency. It is a name that, in international banking circles, can be likened to David Rockefeller's. He said he was facing a sensitive personal problem--a nephew in prison in Massachusetts. He said the youth needed money, and fast.
Hearing the voice of a prominent client--with whom the bank had spoken in the past--Morgan Guaranty delivered the goods. It sent him $18,000, depositing it with a bank in Boston. Then, a few days later, another $25,800 in cashier's checks was sent by Express Mail directly to jail.
Shortly thereafter, Morgan Guaranty learned of its error and Ali Kouhestanian was treated to a New York City prison cell.
Awaiting trial, he called the IMF, explaining he had a nephew in a prison in New York City. Naturally, when Zegers learned who he was, he got the $25,000 to him, delivering it personally, and fast.
This week, after Kouhestanian's conviction for fraud in federal court on May 10, the officials of Morgan Guaranty Trust who had authorized the cash transfer were unavailable for comment. A spokesman for Morgan, John Morris, however, rankled when it was suggested that it was amusing that a convict could so easily obtain a loan from Morgan, when other, more legitimate, customers had trouble arranging a car loan.
The $43,800 his bank sent along, Morris stressed, was not a loan. It was the question of someone posing as a client "dealing with the bank for an advance from his own account."
There had been no breakdown in policy, he insisted, for "it is policy to know your customer, and in this case we thought we knew our customer."
On the subject of corporate humiliation, however, he was succinct.
How would he rate this episode, embarrassment-wise, on a scale of 1 to 10?
"A 10, I guess."
The IMF's Zegers, who had delivered $25,000 of his personal funds to the phony sheik, was sportsman enough to speak to the press.
He pinpointed the exact moment he realized he had been taken, which, he says, immediately preceded the moment he broke out in a cold sweat. (A fellow in New York called him and told him to stop the check because "something funny was going on.")
Zegers spoke of his fear that there might be a fraud versus his fear of "upsetting a very important financial personality." He spoke of the methods he used to try to determine whether the needy caller was a fraud. (He asked the sheik what time it was in Riyadh. The phony sheik knew.)
He also said, echoing Morris, that "anybody who's been the subject of a fraud feels somewhat embarrassed." One thing made him feel better.
"I didn't feel so bad when I heard others had been taken," he said. "He tricked them two times at Morgan Trust."
In fact, according to court papers and authorities, Kouhestanian had attempted to take 14 institutions.
From August through December, 1981, he had made contact with 14 banks and tried to get through to Alexander M. Haig Jr., Paul A. Volcker and Adm. James Nance.
His method, according to assistant U.S. attorney Kate Pressman's opening argument, was simple:
While in a Massachusetts prison in the summer and fall of '81, Kouhestanian and a friend, Natalie Dodson, a part-time worker at Boston's University Hospital, together placed calls to several banks.
Kouhestanian, as a prison inmate, was able to make only collect calls, but Dodson had access to a conference call system. (Dodson's attorney, a public defender, would argue later that while Dodson placed the calls she was "basically a switchboard operator" who did not know Kouhestanian's intentions.)
Kouhestanian, then, placed a collect call to Dodson, Dodson placed a conference call to the banks. Kouhestanian identified himself as Sheik Qurayshi, in need of funds for his nephew "Ali Kouhestania"--a Saudi version of his actual name.
Morgan Guaranty was not the first bank on the list. According to toll call records, the pair telephoned several banks first, including Citibank and Chase Manhattan. They did not bite, and at Chase, officials became suspicious enough to record calls.
The Chase executives became suspicious on two counts: Willard C. Butcher, the board chairman, reportedly knew the real Qurayshi, and Robert Bublitz, a vice president and assistant to the chairman, had lived in the Mideast, and quickly determined that Kouhestanian did not speak Arabic.
Chase never sent Kouhestanian any money, and, according to testimony, notified the FBI and "clearing house banks that we thought we were being approached by a fraud."
But Morgan, apparently, never got the word.
Kouhestanian, according to court testimony by Morgan President Lindsay and Senior Vice President and Counsel General Boris S. Berkovitch, got through to people at the top on Aug. 24, receiving his funds a speedy three days later.
Lindsay declined to reveal why. But according to testimony, the scenario was as follows:
Kouhestanian, in his guise as Qurayshi, told Lindsay that he was calling on a highly confidential matter. He did not stress money--he merely asked Lindsay to call his nephew's "trusted friend," Natalie Dodson, and to see about getting the nephew legal aid.
Lindsay relegated the matter to his counsel, Berkovitch. Berkovitch contacted the trusted Dodson, who said that the unfortunate nephew needed $14,000 for taxes on his house and $4,000 for lawyer's fees, and that he was in prison for auto larceny.
Berkovitch also phoned Kouhestanian, in prison. Kouhestanian confirmed that he was Qurayshi's nephew and that, indeed, he was in jail. The $18,000 was promptly transferred to Dodson's Boston account.
Morgan Guaranty sent a statement to Qurayshi, advising him of the transfer of funds.
On Sept. 2, Kouhestanian called Berkovitch directly from prison, saying he needed $25,800 for taxes on his "other house." It was shipped immediately, Express Mail, to the jail.
The same day, Morgan Guaranty discovered it had been had. It was able to recover the $25,800, but the $18,000 was long gone. Testimony at the trial indicated that $3,000 had gone towards a Mercedes for Kouhestanian, $2,000 for one of his lawyers, and $2,400 for a burgeoning telephone bill.
Kouhestanian was charged with fraud by wire and mail, and on Nov. 23 was taken to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York. There he made a friend, Maurice Benjamin, who was released mere hours after Kouhestanian arrived.
While in the correctional center, he approached Zegers using the same technique. Zegers, though suspicious, arranged for funds, but because this was "a personal matter" and the monetary fund was an "inter-governmental group," he conferred with an associate and gave Kouhestanian's trusted friend--prosecutors say Benjamin--a personal check.
Zegers had been suspicious, he said, and had attempted to check out his caller. But, he said, many things he wished to ask seemed "too evident" should the man not be an impostor.
Attempting to find out if Kouhestanian had indeed been a student at Harvard Law, as he had claimed, Zegers failed. "It was so complicated, they have so many schools, finally, I gave up," he said.
The clear telephone connection from Qurayshi in Saudi Arabia--which was actually coming across town in Manhattan--also did not alert him. "After he called once, I said to my secretary, 'It's an excellent communication, but we should not be surprised, the Saudis can afford the best possible equipment.' "
Zegers' personal check for $25,000 was retrieved.
He said he also talked to the real Qurayshi and he had "no hard feelings at all."
Last week, Kouhestanian was found guilty of four counts of fraud, which could translate into 20 years in prison; his trusted friend Natalie Dodson was convicted on one count of fraud.
Finally, only Morgan Guaranty is out any money, with its loss of $18,000. Officials insist, however, that this will not affect their policy in the future.
Says spokesman Morris: "One of the reasons people come to Morgan Guaranty is because they can get personal service, including service over the telephone."