TAMPA Two local businessmen were named in a federal indictment unsealed Tuesday accusing them of conspiring to profit from fraudulent tax refund checks.
One of the men, Osama "Sam" Mahmud Mustafa, previously owned a gas station in San Diego, where he briefly employed a man in 2000 who later would become one of the Sept. 11 hijackers. Mustafa's name appears in the official report of the 9/11 Commission, but he was not linked to the hijackings.
In connection with the tax fraud indictment, federal prosecutors are seeking the forfeiture of more than $26 million either obtained from or linked to the offenses.
In addition to Mustafa, who lives in Riverview, the indictment, handed up last week in Virginia, names Khaldoun "Tony" Khalil Khawaja, of Tampa, as well as Khawaja's brother, Muawia "Mike" Khalil Abdeljalil, who lives in Virginia.
Khawaja was sentenced last month to three years in prison on a federal weapons charge. Abdeljalil was arrested in Tampa on tax fraud-related charges when he attended his brother's sentencing hearing.
The three men are accused of involvement in a growing type of fraud in which street criminals use stolen personal information to file tax returns with bogus financial information used to get tax "refunds." Authorities estimate street criminals in the Tampa area alone have stolen hundreds of millions of dollars from federal taxpayers since late 2010. Nationwide, officials say, the fraud is costing the federal government billions.
The brothers own convenience stores — Khawaja in Tampa and Abdeljalil in Virginia.
Mustafa was arrested today as federal agents searched his Riverview home and his Tampa car businesses.
According to a federal indictment, the three men used their businesses to launder the proceeds of tax fraud. Authorities say they purchased fraudulent income tax return checks and checks issued for refund anticipation loans and then presented those fraudulent checks for payment at financial institutions in Virginia, Florida and elsewhere.
In total, the three are accused of fraudulently depositing more than $17.5 million.
Mustafa's cousin, Willie Museitef, manages one of Mustafa's businesses, BNA Automotive on Linebaugh Avenue. Museitef said about six or seven agents from the FBI, the Treasury Department and U.S. Marshals Service showed up at the business this morning and searched business records.
He said the tax fraud allegations were "absolutely shocking."
Museitef said he was aware of his cousin's name being mentioned in the 9/11 report. "What he was telling me is they think that one of the guys that was involved in that mess worked in the gas station," Museitef said of Mustafa. "The FBI came over and started asking questions. … After an investigation, they let him go."
Museitef said his cousin was in no way linked to the attacks. "He didn't even have any knowledge of it." And he said, Mustafa barely knew the hijacker, Nawaf al Hazmi. "From what he told me, he hardly saw him there," Museitef said of the San Diego gas station. "It was one of a couple of businesses Sam had over there."
According to the 9/11 Commission report, Mustafa and the manager of the San Diego gas station station, Iyad Kreiwesh, "have both been the subject of FBI counterterrorism investigations. The investigations did not yield evidence of criminal conduct."
Hazmi worked at the station for a few weeks in the fall of 2000 while he bided his time waiting for his co-conspirators in Pakistan and Afghanistan to send a new colleague. "On one occasion, Hazmi told a fellow employee that he was planning to find a better job, and let slip a prediction that he would become famous," the report states.
A neighbor of Mustafa in Riverview, Ginger Kaas, was alarmed when she says she saw the words "terrorist unit" on the vest of one of the agents who searched Mustafa's home. "When you see 'terrorist unit' and 'FBI,' of course you know what's going on … all over the world. Of course, it conjures up fear and we wanted to know what it was all about. We still don't know."
But FBI spokesman David Couvertier said the search was not related to a national security or terrorism investigation. The case, he said, is strictly criminal. Agents from various units routinely participate in each other's searches.
U.S. Magistrate Thomas Wilson granted a request from Assistant U.S. Attorney Mandy Riedel and set bail for Mustafa at $50,000, which he may secure using property that is not included in the forfeiture section of the indictment. The forfeiture section of the indictment covers property prosecutors hope to seize because it was gained through the proceeds of fraud or is related to the fraud.
Khawaja was recorded buying bogus U.S. Treasury checks from undercover detectives, according to evidence introduced in his weapons trial in January. On the recording, Khawaja can be seen paying $280, representing 20 percent of the face value, for a bogus Treasury check.
When investigators searched Khawaja's store May 20, they found four Treasury checks in his front pocket, according to a federal court affidavit. He told agents he often negotiated Treasury checks and sent them to Abdeljalil in Roanoke, Va.
Agents obtained FedEx Express records of 36 packages sent by Khawaja to Abdeljalil between February and July 2010. In addition, agents analyzed 399 of the checks worth almost $1.7 million deposited into Abdeljalil's accounts, and found a majority of them were payable to out-of-state residents, primarily people in Tampa.
At least three of the checks in Abdeljalil's accounts were prepared by Shawntrece Sims, who was sentenced in December to nine years in federal prison for committing more than $670,000 in tax fraud and mail fraud.
Riedel told a judge last month that Khawaja is in this country illegally from Jordan. And Abdeljalil is accused in a separate indictment of entering into two fraudulent marriages in an effort to remain in the U.S. The arrest affidavit says Abdeljalil's real wife, the mother of his children, married a gay sex offender in an attempt to stay in the U.S.
Mustafa told a Tampa Tribune reporter in 2005 that his family lived in Ramallah, a Palestinian city on the West Bank.