New details in alleged Iran plot

File/Staff

A hidden electronic tracker and a phone number borrowed from a lingerie company helped unravel a North Charleston business executive’s illicit dealings with customers in Iran, federal authorities said.

Markos Baghdasarian, former president of Delfin Group USA, remains in federal custody in Atlanta, awaiting a transfer back to South Carolina to face charges of illegally exporting goods to Iran and making false statements on federal documents, authorities said.

U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles said Baghdasarian was arrested Saturday at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta before he could board a flight to the United Arab Emirates.

Baghdasarian is accused of engaging in a scheme to ship $850,000 worth of aviation lubricating oils and polymers to buyers in Iran, in defiance of sanctions, according to court documents.

He allegedly used a proxy buyer in the United Arab Emirates to disguise the transactions. The middle-man then shipped those goods to Iran, documents stated.

United States citizens and companies are barred from business dealings with Iran unless authorized by the U.S. Treasury Department. Baghdasarian didn’t have that paperwork, authorities said.

Bart Daniel, Baghdasarian’s lawyer, would say only that his client looks forward to getting this matter resolved.

Investigators obtained emails linking Baghdasarian to the scheme, including a June 2010 message from his Delfin account in which he referenced a sales quote offered to Pars Oil, a company owned by the government of Iran, a federal affidavit states.

Other emails from Baghdasarian and others involved in the enterprise referenced a July 2010 appointment in Dubai with “Iran management people” and concern over how billing would be handled, with the Dubai contact indicating that “Markos will have problem unless u plan,” according to court documents.

In another email, from December 2010, Baghdasarian’s alleged sales agent in Tehran told him, “I will be honored to be your partner in Iran,” an affidavit stated.

Investigators said they came across attempts to conceal the transactions, including a barrel of Delfin lubricant shipped to the United Arab Emirates with a label indicating the product came from a Santa Cruz, Calif., company.

The address on the label was fake and the emergency assistance number listed rang at the intimate-apparel company Victoria’s Secret, authorities said.

On Aug. 25, U.S. Customs officials grew suspicious about a delivery of eight cargo containers from Delfin to a general trading company in the United Arab Emirates that would have no obvious use for such a large quantity of aviation lubricating oil, court papers said.

The shipment was ultimately cleared for delivery, but when Customs learned that 11 more containers were bound for two companies in Dubai in October, investigators slapped electronic tracking devices on the shipments.

One tracker died after its shipment arrived in the United Arab Emirates, but the other shipment was tracked to Iran, court documents stated.

Baghdasarian admitted to federal investigators this month that he knew his Dubai contact was acting as a middle-man and would not be the final user of the goods, according to an affidavit.

Baghdasarian falsely claimed that he didn’t know his other contact was inside Iran until February, when the Commerce Department temporarily suspended Delfin USA’s export privileges, the document stated.

Delfin issued a statement Tuesday indicating that Baghdasarian was placed on administrative leave from the company on May 14. John Gordon has been appointed to serve as president of Delfin Group USA.

The company referred further comments to its outside counsel, Atlanta attorney Joe D. Whitley, who did not return a phone call.

Delfin Group is a Russian-owned producer of synthetic motors oils located on a 42-acre compound on Virginia Avenue.

Delfin bought the plant from Chevron in 2007 for $20 million and announced plans to invest $55 million in the facility. The enterprise was expected to create 160 jobs.

That qualified the company for a state incentive that assesses the property at a lower rate, and a county program to additionally rebate $250,000 in payments the company would make in lieu of property taxes.

In 2009 the company concluded that its investment would reach only $30.1 million, but the county agreed the following year to make good on its promised economic incentives anyway, county officials said.

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.