COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The president of a North Charleston company has been arrested and charged with illegally exporting goods to Iran and lying to agents about his trade practices, according to federal prosecutors.
Markos Baghdasarian was arrested Saturday at Atlanta's main airport before he could board a flight to the United Arab Emirates. That's where, according to federal authorities, Baghdasarian had a business associate who helped get his South Carolina-made products into Iran.
Baghdasarian was president of Delfin Group USA, a Russian-owned producer and supplier of synthetic motor oils that solidified its U.S. presence in the North Charleston area in 2008 with a $55 million renovation to an old Shell Oil plant it had bought for $20 million. Company officials said he was placed on leave May 14 and referred comment on the case to its outside counsel, who did not immediately return a message Tuesday.
Prosecutors said Baghdasarian broke federal law that prohibits trade with Iran without special permission from the federal government. Federal law also requires exporters and shippers to file forms showing where the goods are going.
Some of the evidence that agents say they have amassed against Baghdasarian comes from emails to him from two unidentified business associates, who discussed how to safely get Baghdasarian's products to Iran without detection. According to prosecutors, one of those unidentified businessmen was Baghdasarian's agent in Iran and also represented a company in the United Arab Emirates used to ship Delfin products to Iran.
A second unidentified businessman operated another business in the UAE for similar purposes, said John Hardin, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent, in an affidavit.
In July 2010, one of the unidentified businessmen had conversations with another person on how to help Baghdasarian get around U.S. sanctions on Iran by using his UAE-based company. In those communications, according to Hardin, the unidentified businessman said the materials would come into Iran via Dubai but would be relabeled as "UAE product."
"So u are safe Markos is safe," the other associated replied, according to Hardin. Other communications discussed what product labels should look like, with one message including a fake address for a California company and a toll-free number that agents determined actually went to offices for Victoria's Secret.
In August 2011, Delfin USA tried to send aviation engine lubricating oils worth $850,000 to an associate in the UAE, according to Hardin. Federal officials failed in their efforts to contact Baghdasarian's company to get information about that shipment. Agents attached electronic trackers to another load of 11 containers bound for the UAE; one was traced all the way to Iran.
Earlier this month, Baghdasarian acknowledged to federal agents that one of the unidentified businessmen was a middle man for his company's products but, according to agents, lied in saying that he didn't know that the other associate was in Iran until just a few months earlier — after the U.S. Department of Commerce suspended his company's trading privileges.
Baghdasarian faces up to 20 years in prison if he is convicted. He had an initial hearing in Georgia on Monday, and it wasn't immediately clear when he would be extradited to South Carolina. A person who answered a number listed for Baghdasarian's home said she did not know if he had an attorney.