Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab says he paid $45,000 bribe to US prison guard

A Turkish-Iranian businessman testifying in the trial of a Turkish banker accused of helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions said on Dec. 5 that he paid a $45,000 bribe to a U.S. prison guard to obtain alcohol and use the guard’s phone.

Reza Zarrab, who is cooperating with prosecutors, testified that he got the money through a Turkish attorney whom he did not identify. Zarrab said he used the guard’s phone to speak with his wife, daughter and lawyer.

Zarrab’s name was involved in Turkey’s December 2013 corruption probes, which also embroiled four former ministers and other state officials. Zarrab was accused of paying bribes to senior government figures, but eventually the charges were quashed by the government, which said the probe was masterminded by followers of the U.S.-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen.

Zarrab was arrested in the U.S. last year but as he became the prosecution’s top witness in the trial, former Halkbank deputy general manager Mehmet Hakan Atilla is now the sole man in the dock accused of violating sanctions, bribery and money laundering.

Zarrab’s testimony likely will win him leniency against charges that otherwise could carry a prison term of up to 130 years. He testified on Dec. 5 under cross-examination by Atilla’s attorney, Cathy Fleming, that he and Atilla “do not like each other.”

Zarrab said he worked with Halkbank from 2012 to 2016 to help Iran spend its oil and gas revenue abroad using fraudulent gold and food transactions. He said Atilla helped structure those transactions.

Under questioning by Fleming, Zarrab said he attended meetings with Atilla a “handful” of times during that period. He said he had a “close relationship” with Süleyman Aslan, who was Halkbank’s general manager and Atilla’s superior until 2013. Zarrab said he sometimes complained about Atilla to Aslan.

Zarrab had testified earlier in the case that he complained to Aslan when Atilla refused to sign off on a transaction related to a sham sale of food to Iran.

Under direct examination last week, Zarrab testified that at that time, Atilla did not know the transaction was a sham and so was confused by it.

He said he paid bribes to Aslan, repeating his testimony in direct examination, but never to Atilla.

Prosecutors have charged nine people in the case with conspiring to help Iran evade sanctions, but only Zarrab, 34, and Atilla, 47, have been arrested by U.S. authorities. Prosecutors disclosed last week that Zarrab pled guilty in October to helping Iran avoid sanctions and bribing a guard.

Zarrab testified on Dec. 5 that in return for his guilty plea prosecutors said he would not be charged with lying to law enforcement officers after his arrest and after being caught smoking synthetic marijuana in jail.

According to the plea agreement, Zarrab also paid bribes to foreign officials and corporate representatives between 2002 and March 2016 in return for personal benefits, favorable business dealings and the protection of government officials. He admitted that he understated his revenues on tax returns in Turkey from 2002 to 2016 and procured prostitutes for other people in 2013.

He said prosecutors told him he could not be charged for those crimes because they were outside U.S. jurisdiction.

Zarrab estimated that he made from $100 million to $150 million between 2010 and 2016 by carrying out various illegal schemes, including helping Iran dodge U.S. sanctions with hundreds of millions of dollars.

As part of the plea deal, he has agreed to give up any illicit profits. He testified that he might be permitted to be released on bail once the trial is finished.

On Dec. 5, he was asked about his hiring of Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, and Michael Mukasey, the former U.S. attorney general, to find a “political” resolution after prosecutors initially rebuffed his bid for a cooperation agreement.

“Within the bounds of law, they did make efforts,” Zarrab said.

“You believed this was going to work for a year, correct?” Fleming asked Zarrab.

“I thought it may become possible,” Zarrab said.

Fleming pressed him: “And in fact you are furious with people in Turkey that it did not work. Is that true?”

Zarrab denied it. “I don’t have any anger towards anyone, ma’am,” he said through a translator.

It was previously known that Giuliani and Mukasey traveled to Turkey and met with officials on Zarrab’s behalf after he was arrested in Miami on his way to Disney World in March 2016. Zarrab indicated they were trying to work out some kind of U.S.-Turkish prisoner exchange for his freedom.

He said that his lawyers tried to ink a plea deal with prosecutors in August 2016, but prosecutors weren’t interested. But in August 2017, after Atilla was arrested on a business trip to the U.S., prosecutors restarted talks.

In her cross-examination, Fleming underscored that Zarrab had lied to FBI agents when he was first arrested and will likely get a reduced sentence for testifying against Atilla.

“You have very much wanted to be out of jail since you were arrested?” she asked.

“That is absolutely correct,” Zarrab said, conceding that he has discussed the possibility of being freed on bail after the trial is over but before he is sentenced.

Fleming also asked Zarrab if his chauffeur was stopped at the Turkish border with $150 million in cash in 2007, which he denied.

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