tampabay.com

Terror trial defendant sentenced for fraud

Sameeh Taha Hammoudeh and his wife get probation. The terrorism trial starts Monday.

By JENNIFER LIBERTO
Published June 4, 2005


TAMPA - On the eve of a massive terrorism trial, one of the accused got a bit of good news.

Sameeh Taha Hammoudeh, 44, and his wife Nadia Ibrahim Hammoudeh, 41, were sentenced Friday to probation with no jail time on federal tax, immigration and mortgage fraud charges. They also agreed to be deported back to Ramallah, Palestine, after Sameeh Hammoudeh's terrorism trial finishes.

If he is convicted in the terrorism case and sentenced to federal prison, the rest of family would still be deported.

In accordance with a plea agreement worked out in February, each of the Hammoudehs had already pleaded guilty to three of 14 counts of fraud, originally levied last August in a 48-page indictment filed in federal court.

The Hammoudehs were convicted of conspiring to defraud the United States, making false statements to a federal agency and filing a false federal income tax return. The U.S. Attorney's Office dropped the rest of the charges.

The fraud charges carried a maximum penalty of five years in prison and as much as $250,000 in fines. Yet prosecutors had recommended that the Hammoudehs receive lenient penalties.

U.S. District Court Judge James Moody agreed and sentenced the Hammoudehs to five years of probation for each charge, all to be served at the same time. Moody also waived all additional court fines, except a $300 special assesment fine for each Hammoudeh.

Nadia Hammoudeh's attorney Stephen M. Crawford said he was pleased with Moody's ruling and called Moody "courageous."

"If my clients' names were Smith or James, we wouldn't be here," Crawford said.

A spokesman for the federal prosecutor's office declined to comment.

A former Arabic instructor and doctoral student, Sameeh Hammoudeh will remain in jail through the duration of his terrorism trial, which starts Monday with opening arguments.

Hammoudeh, Sami Al-Arian, Hatem Fariz and Ghassan Zayed Ballut are accused in a 53-count indictment of conspiracy, racketeering and giving material aid to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The organization is considered a terrorist group by the U.S. government and is blamed for more than 100 deaths in the Middle East.

While Nadia and Sameeh Hammoudeh didn't look at each other during the hearing, Sameeh Hammoudeh spent much of hearing glancing back at his oldest daughter, Weem Hammoudeh, 18, who sat in the audience.

Once Hammoudeh's fate is known on the remaining terrorism charges, the entire family, including six children, will go back to Palestine. Some of their children are U.S. citizens, but they are too young to stay on their own.

The Hammoudehs were accused of concealing their employment at the Islamic Academy of Florida in Tampa and filing inaccurate tax returns. They owed the Internal Revenue Service about $8,000, and were ordered to pay the government.

According to records, Sameeh Hammoudeh, was born and educated in Jordan, then worked at the Arab Studies Society in Jerusalem before coming to the United States in 1992.

He entered the country on a British passport, and was encouraged by Al-Arian to seek admission to the University of South Florida.

After his wife and family joined him in Tampa, Hammoudeh pursued a master's degree in political science, according to a USF report.

Hammoudeh earned a master's degree, then pursued one in religious studies. He became a teaching assistant in 1995. Most recently, he was working on a doctorate in applied anthropology.

--Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.