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Bad connections

Politics | A former lawmaker pleads guilty to illegally lobbying on behalf of a charity with terrorism ties-and sweeps up the Fellowship in the controversy

Issue: "Crossing the Rubiocon," Aug. 14, 2010

In 2004, Mark Siljander, a former Michigan congressman and a UN ambassador in the Reagan administration, told his friends and colleagues he was writing a book. He didn't tell them that he was also illegally lobbying the U.S. government on behalf of a Sudan-based charity that the U.S. Treasury had added to its list of sponsors of international terrorism, the Islamic American Relief Agency (IARA).

On July 7, 2010, Siljander pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and operating as an unregistered foreign agent. (Lobbyists have to register with the Justice Department.) Under the plea the government is likely to drop other charges of money laundering and conspiracy, but he faces up to 15 years in federal prison without parole and a fine of up to $500,000. No sentencing date will be set, according to the Justice Department, until it has completely finished investigating the case.

But the Siljander case is not just about crime; it is also about religion. Part of how Siljander ended up lobbying for an Islamic group may have been his desire to build bridges to powerful Muslim leaders in foreign countries. In this, Siljander found common cause with the Fellowship, a shadowy Washington religious group that funds various nonprofits and builds relationships among politicians worldwide.

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Siljander funneled some of the $50,000 he received as a lobbyist for IARA through the Fellowship. And while the Fellowship is not facing any charges and hasn't apparently done anything illegal, the Siljander case brings attention to the group's informal connections with powerful and sometimes notorious people throughout the world.

Informally, members of the organization, in efforts to reach out to Muslims, have fraternized with some of the most despicable Islamic leaders in the world, like Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, whom the International Criminal Court just charged with three counts of genocide in addition to the previous five charges of crimes against humanity and two counts of war crimes. Siljander recounts numerous meetings with Bashir in his 2008 book, A Deadly Misunderstanding: A Congressman's Quest to Bridge the Muslim-Christian Divide (see sidebar below).

That book was at the center of the case against Siljander. U.S. Attorney Beth Phillips said after Siljander's guilty plea that he had "repeatedly lied to FBI agents and prosecutors investigating serious crimes related to national security." Siljander told FBI agents and prosecutors in 2005 and 2007 that IARA's payments were to support him as he wrote his book.

On May 27, 2004, IARA paid $25,000 to the International Foundation (synonymous with the Fellowship). On June 30, 2004, the Fellowship transferred the net amount, $18,337, to Siljander's account.

As far as the Fellowship was concerned, that money was only for Siljander's book. The Fellowship board member who oversaw the transactions, Eric Fellman, denied that the money had been funneled as a lobbying payment. "The money was supposed to be used for Mark Siljander to be supported for a year to write a book," he told me. "Mark did write the book and it got published." Siljander listed Fellman as part of his "core of companions" in the acknowledgements of his book. Fellman told me he hadn't talked to Siljander in "years."

IARA director Mubarak Hamed, in pleading guilty on June 25 to sending $1 million to Iraq when the country was under U.S. sanctions, asserted that the checks were lobbying payments for Siljander. IARA's Abdel Azim El-Siddig, a co-defendant, pleaded guilty the same day as Siljander. According to the Justice Department, he delivered the checks made out to the various nonprofits directly to Siljander in Washington. An IARA board member and employee who were charged in the case have also pleaded guilty in the last months: Ali Mohamed Bagegni pleaded guilty to conspiracy and Ahmad Mustafa pleaded guilty to the illegal transfer of funds to Iraq.

"I can't comment on testimony from people I do not know, but I do know defendants will say lots of stuff to please the federal authorities and arrange a lesser penalty," Fellman wrote in an email. "We received a check from a U.S. charity in good standing with the IRS asking it be assigned to the salary account provided for Siljander to write his book."

The Fellowship's due diligence on donations involves checking the terrorism watch list and the IRS status of the nonprofit, Fellman said. "Even though we were intensely interviewed by the FBI, no question of us having done anything wrong ever came up," Fellman said. "And in fact we were never called to testify again because there was nothing-there was no smoke let alone fire in what had happened between us and the IARA."

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