Ashland's Seda found guilty in tax case

EUGENE — A federal jury on Thursday convicted the co-founder of an Islamic charity chapter who was accused of helping smuggle $150,000 to Muslim fighters in Chechnya.

Pete Seda was convicted of one count of conspiracy to defraud the government and one count of filing a false tax return. His lawyers said they would appeal.

"The verdict is a devastating blow to Mr. Seda and his family," said defense attorney Steven Wax. "We do not believe that it reflects the truth of the charges. We will be pursuing a just result of this case to the highest court in the land, if need be. This fight is not yet over."

Judge Michael Hogan set Seda's sentencing for Nov. 23. No sentencing guidelines were available.

Seda claimed the money was intended as a tithe that his accountant failed to disclose on a tax return for the U.S. chapter of the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation in Ashland. The foundation has been declared a terrorist organization by the U.S. government, though Seda was not.

The tax-fraud conviction was the government's first significant victory in its prosecution of Al-Haramain, which it began investigating shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. A federal judge ruled in another case involving the charity that the government's program of wiretapping suspected terrorists without getting permission from a judge was illegal.

Prosecutors said Seda had a more sinister purpose, arguing throughout the weeklong trial that he was a Muslim radical posing as a moderate promoting peace. They alleged he was trying to smuggle the money to help fighters overthrow the Chechnyan government.

The jury returned the verdict after nearly 13 hours of deliberation. A groan passed through the courtroom as Seda's family slumped down on the benches. Seda, wearing a purple polo shirt with his beard neatly trimmed, turned and smiled at his family.

News of Seda's conviction rippled through Seda's adopted hometown of Ashland, where he was a well-known arborist and peace advocate who marched his camel in the city's Fourth of July parade to help improve Western understanding of Islam.

"I'm just amazed. Shocked," said David Berger, Seda's former Ashland attorney and a supporter. "I expected Pete to be found not guilty."

Berger noted that the tax-fraud and conspiracy charges required the jury to believe that Seda intentionally helped his foundation partner, a Saudi national named Soliman Al-Buthi, smuggle about $150,000 in traveler's checks and a cashier's check from Ashland to Saudi Arabia while side-stepping federal reporting laws.

Seda failed to note the donation on the charity's tax forms, but a conviction on the tax-fraud charge required the government prove it was more than an oversight, Berger said.

"I don't think Pete intended to do any such thing at any time," Berger said. "He may have overlooked it, but Pete's not a detail man."

Al-Buthi, who is in Saudi Arabia, faces the same charges as Seda but cannot be extradited.

Assistant U.S. attorneys Charles Gorder Jr. and Chris Cardani told the jury that Al-Haramain distributed the Quran to U.S. prison inmates. They said nonMuslims were issued a regular Quran while Muslim prisoners got an edition with an appendix calling for violence against Jews and nonbelievers, a version they called the "Noble Quran."

Seda's attorney reminded jurors that a rabbi and a Christian minister testified on behalf of Seda, their neighbor, who has been a U.S. citizen for 16 years.

Seda, 52, shortened his last name from Sedaghaty and adopted the nickname Pete instead of his first name, Pirouz, after moving from his native Iran and attending Southern Oregon University in Ashland. He found widespread support when he helped open a branch of the now-defunct Saudi charity in Ashland to improve the understanding of Islam and relations with Muslims.

A raid on his home, which served as the headquarters of the Al-Haramain chapter, led to an indictment on tax charges while he was out of the country and turned him into an international fugitive.

Seda returned voluntarily with the help of a friend, Portland attorney Tom Nelson, who has been involved with a related legal battle over alleged government eavesdropping on attorneys for Al-Haramain.

Prosecutors pointed to Seda's flight as a reason to keep him in custody, while Wax said Seda showed he could cooperate with house arrest while he wore an ankle monitor for almost three years.

The judge agreed with the prosecutors and ordered Seda to be taken into custody. Plainclothes U.S. marshals stood behind Seda as he hugged his wife, children and attorneys.

As he lingered, one of the marshals stood behind him.

"Sir," the marshal said, "we gotta go."

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