A Kashmiri-American faces up to eight years in prison after pleading guilty Wednesday to conspiracy and tax violations in connection with funneling at least $3.5 million from Pakistan’s government and major spy agency to influence U.S. policy on Kashmir.
As part of the plea agreement, Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai, the head of the Kashmiri American Council, a small nonprofit in Washington, D.C., also admitted making false statements to U.S. officials about the support he was getting from the spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI, and the government of Pakistan for 21 years. He admitted that the Internal Revenue Service lost as much as $400,000 in taxes because of the scheme.
In October, ProPublica documented Fai’s improbable rise from a poor villager in Indian Kashmir to Washington insider. Fai, 62, who emigrated to the U.S. for graduate school in the 1980s, did not admit to operating as an unregistered agent of a foreign government, the original charge against him, and the plea agreement did not mention that charge. But he stipulated that the U.S. could prove almost all of the FBI’s accusations against him.
“For the last 20 years, Mr. Fai secretly took millions of dollars from Pakistani intelligence and lied about it to the U.S. government,” Neil MacBride, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said in a prepared release. “As a paid operative of ISI, he did the bidding of his handlers in Pakistan while he met with U.S. elected officials, funded high-profile conferences, and promoted the Kashmiri cause to decision-makers in Washington.”
The case, replete with code names such as “Brylcreem” (money) and “the library in Islamabad” (an ISI office), showed just how easy it is to gain access in Washington. In the years after starting the Kashmiri American Council in 1990, Fai became the key face of the Kashmiri cause in the U.S. and rubbed shoulders with the likes of Bill Clinton and Bob Dole.
His case is one of the few times in recent history that anyone has been criminally charged with failing to register as a foreign agent. It came at a particularly dark moment in the relationship between the United States and Pakistan, a onetime close ally in the war on terror.
It’s not clear where all the millions went. Records show that some was spent on travel and Capitol Hill conferences about Kashmir that drew at least a dozen U.S. politicians. Fai visited more than 40 countries and claimed to meet more than 1,000 ambassadors.
Some money also went to U.S. political campaigns. ISI documents cited by the FBI budgeted as much as $100,000 a year for campaign donations, although the FBI identified only $4,000 in donations from ISI money. Campaign-finance records show only that Fai had given $28,165 to federal candidates and political parties since 1990, including $10,290 to Indiana Republican Rep. Dan Burton, a key supporter, and $9,500 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
There’s no evidence that any U.S. politician was aware that Fai’s money had come from the ISI. A Pakistani embassy official denied that Fai had worked for the spy agency.
As part of the agreement, however, Fai admitted taking directions from ISI handlers and giving his ISI contact annual strategy documents, which showed how he would lobby on behalf of Kashmir. He also admitted disguising that the ISI was responsible for $774,345 in donations in annual tax filings to the IRS between 2004 and 2009, hiding those donations behind so-called “straw donors.”
Shortly after pleading guilty in the U.S. District Court of Eastern Virginia, Fai sent his mailing list a statement of almost 2,600 words reiterating his commitment to the right of self-determination for people in Kashmir, the disputed Himalayan territory between India and Pakistan. He avoided talking about working on behalf of the ISI.
“I have made personal mistakes that I deeply regret and I feel great sorrow for that, but I have never compromised our goals of independence and self-determination for the Kashmiri people and our commitment to peaceful negotiations between India, Pakistan and the leadership of the Kashmiri people,” Fai wrote.
His main lawyer, Nina Ginsberg, said Fai planned to continue his work with the Kashmiri American Council. She also said his legal team found it significant that the U.S. government had agreed to withdraw the charge that Fai had operated as an unregistered foreign agent. She said he may have accepted money from Pakistan, but his message was his own.
“He admitted to receiving funds from Pakistan, but he denied that … those funds affected his work, that he was not influenced as a result of receiving these funds,” Ginsberg said. “His message was never changed. … He was not advocating a Pakistani agenda. He was advocating the rights of the Kashmiri people to be independent.”
As part of the plea, Fai, who was arrested July 19 near his home in Fairfax, Va., agreed to forfeit his interest in $142,851.32 seized by the government from five bank accounts. Fai faces sentencing on March 9. His lawyers plan to ask for probation, Ginsberg said.
“He made some very serious errors of judgment,” she said. “I am hoping that when the court sees all the things that he has accomplished, that it will exercise some leniency.”
Fai’s alleged accomplice, Zaheer Ahmad, died in early October but still faces charges in the case. Ahmad, a Pakistani-American who ran one of Pakistan’s nicest hospitals, had a stroke, according to colleagues, family members and news reports. A U.S. official said the charges stand because there’s been no independent confirmation of his death.
The two men were accused of a fairly elaborate plot: Ahmad, who ran Shifa International Hospital in Islamabad, was accused of funneling money from the ISI to 13 straw donors, mainly Pakistani-American doctors and businessmen, who then gave the money to the Kashmiri American Council, claiming tax deductions. Ahmad then allegedly reimbursed the straw donors for most of their money.
It is not clear whether any of the straw donors might face charges.