ORLANDO — A federal prosecutor accused the owner of a chain of gift shops in Orlando's tourist district with having ties to groups that "advocate violence" but the man's attorney called the allegations "a bunch of garbage" and said his client never directly supported terrorist organizations.
The U.S. government, in an indictment Thursday, charged Jesse Issa Maali, one of the leading businessmen in Orlando's Middle Eastern community, and his business associates with employing illegal workers and creating shell companies to disguise payments to the workers.
During Maali's first appearance in court, Assistant U.S. Attorney Cynthia Collazo said the millionaire businessman had ties to foreign organizations that support violence. Collazo refused to elaborate after the hearing, saying only, "You'll have to go to the bond hearing."
Maali and four other men were being held pending a bond hearing Monday before U.S. Magistrate David A. Baker. Dozens of Maali's friends and relatives packed the courtroom during Thursday's hearing ready to appear as character witnesses. They groaned when Collazo made her statement.
"I've heard this cheap shot made whenever there is a defendant of Middle Eastern descent. His biggest crime is that he is a Middle Eastern man in 2002," said Maali's attorney, Mark NeJame.
NeJame conceded Maali, a U.S. citizen of Palestinian descent, had contributed to Palestinian charities but said he never directly contributed to terrorist groups. NeJame said he did not know the names of the charities supported by Maali, who counts Tiger Woods and Shaquille O'Neal as neighbors.
Federal agents raided several gift shops owned by Maali and arrested his business partner and three employees along International Drive and U.S. Highway 192. The roads are popular tourist strips located near Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and other theme parks and scores of hotels, restaurants and shopping centers.
The five men each were indicted on 53 counts of immigration violation, a count of conspiracy to commit money laundering and a count of conspiracy to commit violations of immigration laws.
Maali, 57, and his business partner, M. Saleem Khanani, 51, were accused of recruiting 53 workers from Pakistan, India, Italy and Morocco, among other countries, to come to Orlando to work in seven Big Bargain World stores and a Sports Dominator shop over the past three years, according to a federal indictment.
Also indicted on the charges were Khan Aslam, 56, a van driver for the stores; Saeedullah Awan, 43, a store manager; and Mahmood Jamal, 48, a store general manager.
The indictment said the men created four shell companies to hide at least $2.25 million in payments to the workers by disguising them as legitimate business transactions, helped the workers find housing, instructed the workers how to avoid detection by authorities and evaded paying taxes and overtime.
NeJame and Greg Miller, Khanani's attorney, denied the charges.
Even if Maali's stores employed illegal workers, he was unaware of it since he is not involved with day-to-day operations, NeJame said. The stores employ about 800 workers.
The defendants could face up to 20 years in prison and a $500,000 fine if convicted on the conspiracy to commit money laundering count, 10 years in prison and a $250,000 if convicted on the second conspiracy charge, and 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each immigration violation count.