Former Aide Testifies Against Tycoon

By Mark Schlueb | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted January 1, 2003

The case against gift-shop magnate Jesse Maali advanced Tuesday when a former top aide publicly accused him of personally hiring foreign nationals to work illegally in Central Florida.

Saeedullah Awan, who ran one of Maali's gift shops on International Drive, made the claim as part of a plea bargain arranged with the U.S. Attorney's Office.

"As the manager, I did not have the authority to hire and fire people," Awan told U.S. Magistrate Karla R. Spaulding in federal court in Orlando.

The testimony came out when Spaulding questioned Awan, 43, before allowing him to plead guilty in what became one of the region's most controversial cases of 2002.

Unsubstantiated allegations by a federal prosecutor that Maali, a Palestinian-American millionaire, had financial ties to groups supporting Middle East violence drew intense publicity to what otherwise might have been a routine case of money laundering and immigration charges. However, concern that Maali might flee prompted a judge to set bail at $10 million, a record for Central Florida.

Awan was arrested Nov. 14 in a roundup of Maali, 57, business partner Saleem Khanani, 51, accountant David Portlock, 51, and store managers Khan Aslam, 56, and Mahmood Jamal, 48. They were accused in an indictment of money laundering to pay 53 foreign nationals recruited to work illegally in Maali's chain of Big Bargain World and Sports Dominator gift shops.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Cynthia Hawkins Collazo agreed to drop 54 of the 55 counts against Awan in return for his promise to testify against Maali and other co-defendants, according to testimony Tuesday.

Collazo told Spaulding that Awan will testify that Khanani ordered him to set up phony accounts in which to hide payments to foreign nationals working illegally.

Khanani also advised Awan to lie and say that neither Khanani nor Maali knew about the illegal activity, Collazo said.

"Yeah, it's true," Awan said in court.

Under the plea bargain, Awan could serve little or no prison time on the single charge of conspiring to violate immigration laws, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, according to federal sentencing guidelines.

Awan signed the plea agreement in mid-December, but it did not take effect until Spaulding allowed him to plead guilty during Tuesday's hearing.

Orlando attorney Mark NeJame, one of several attorneys representing Maali and his corporations, would not comment on Awan's testimony.

Collazo twice has requested a court order to squelch defense attorneys' out-of-court comments on the case. The order has not been granted.

"We strongly agree with the government's position in dropping 54 counts, and we reserve comment on the single remaining charge," NeJame said.

In previous interviews on the courthouse steps at 80 N. Hughey Ave. during Maali's bail hearing in November, NeJame said that Maali employs more than 800 workers and could not know the immigration status of each.

A trial date for Maali and the others has not been set. They could face years in prison and millions in fines, if convicted.

Source: Orlando Sentinel