The Complicated Case Of Shakir Hamoodi
A local grocery store owner’s “crime of compassion” has earned him a three-year sentence in federal prison. Now Shakir Hamoodi’s fate rests in the hands of President Obama.
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Once the sanctions were lifted in 2003, Hamoodi stopped sending money to Iraq. He says the Iraqi government began raising salaries, starting with teachers. His sisters were among the first to get the income boost. Once his family in Iraq was able to support itself, Hamoodi became concerned with supporting his wife and five children in Columbia.
“When my family back home told me they were OK, I said this is the time to focus on my family,” he recalls. “I’m 60 and have been working extremely hard since I was in high school; only when my kids grew up and they started high school, that became a very pressing priority for me.”
He opened World Harvest International and Gourmet Foods late in 2003 with two partners — Havam Jaber and Mohmad Hazim — who also owned a World Harvest store in Champaign, Ill. He moved his family from a rental house on Green Meadows Road to the five-bedroom home on Woodberry Court in 2004. Hamoodi is vague about his source of funds to buy the house in The Pines; he says he had help from the Islamic community. The home's current appraisal value is $394,000, according to the Boone County Assessor’s Office.
Despite their new home and new neighborhood, Hamoodi’s children faced discrimination and bullying in school. The Woodberry Court house was vandalized almost every other week for a summer, Owais remembers. Hamoodi filed police reports on three separate occasions regarding the graffiti and even talked to an FBI agent about considering it a possible hate crime.
On Sept. 15, 2006 — just days after the fifth anniversary of 9/11 — an event at the Columbia Islamic Center brought the Islamic community and law enforcement together; FBI agents spoke to the public to calm fears and ease tensions that had escalated since the 9/11 attacks. Two of those FBI agents would raid Hamoodi’s house the following Monday.
The Woodberry Court raid prompted a sealed government investigation into Hamoodi’s financial behavior. Although Hamoodi freely admitted he’d aided his family in Iraq, he says he was optimistic that he wouldn’t receive a prison sentence. He’d followed similar court cases that were tried by the same judge in the same court; five individuals who had sent money through the Islamic American Relief Agency received varying sentences.
The IARA was a charity based in Columbia that illegally sent money into Iraq and was identified by the Department of the Treasury as a specially designated global terrorist organization. In October 2004, FBI agents raided IARA’s Cherry Street offices, its storage units and the agency director’s home, seizing assets used in an investigation of the organization. Columbia resident Ahmad Mustafa, who’d sent one transaction of $1,000 to Iraq and was allegedly unaware the IARA wasn’t properly licensed to send money to Iraq, received six months’ probation when he pleaded guilty in 2009. IARA Executive Director Mubarak Hamed, a Columbia resident, sent more than $1 million to Iraq and received nearly five years in federal prison in Texarkana, Texas, when he pleaded guilty in 2010.
Hamoodi, confident that his crime didn’t compare in scope to Hamed’s, pleaded guilty in hopes that by cooperating and helping with the investigation he would get probation.
“We’re not excusing or justifying the conduct,” says James Hobbs, Hamoodi’s attorney. “We know that it’s serious; the felony is indeed serious.”
Judge Nanette Laughrey made the distinction that Hamoodi didn’t commit a one-time offense. In her words, he was the leader of a “nine-year conspiracy.” He sent money again and again into Iraq, she pointed out, and his delivery method through the company in Jordan was illegal, despite his alleged misunderstanding of the law. Hamoodi should have obtained a license to send goods into Iraq — not money, Laughrey maintained.
“[Sending money is] not permitted because there is no way for the government to know where the money actually ended up,” Laughrey said at Hamoodi’s May 16 sentencing hearing. “It’s like feathers being blown in the wind, and you can never keep track of where those dollars, in fact, went.”
Hobbs, a highly regarded attorney in Kansas City who specializes in white-collar criminal cases, argued at Hamoodi’s sentencing hearing that “there’s absolutely not a scintilla of evidence before the court that any of this money went to something other than an intended recipient.”
Neither is there evidence that the money stayed where Hamoodi says it went, prosecutors maintain.
“Frankly, we don’t know where the money went,” says Acting U.S. Attorney David M. Ketchmark. “That is not relevant to this case, which is about the defendant’s actions rather than his motives. Regardless of his motivation, Hamoodi violated federal sanctions and must be held accountable for his criminal actions.” Ketchmark also points out Hamoodi entered a plea agreement that allowed him to avoid possible wire fraud, mail fraud and tax fraud charges.
Laughrey sentenced Hamoodi to three years in federal prison with two years of probation, almost two years less than the maximum 57 months put forth in the guidelines of the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Laughrey, who lives in Columbia, refused to comment after her judgment, but at Hamoodi’s sentencing she said he earned the lesser sentence because of his cooperation and his involvement in the community.
“He obviously has a model family, a lovely family, lovely children … I am sure it is largely as a result of your leadership in the family,” she told him. “But I have also had to take into account what you did … you disagreed with the law, and you decided not to comply with the law. That does not show respect for the rule of law, which is the foundation of this country. And that was particularly of concern because you had a way to achieve humanitarian goals here. You could have gotten a license and sent in medicine, you could have gotten a license and sent in food, but you chose not to do that. The law did not permit you to send in money. Even with the license, it’s not permitted because there is no way for the government to know where the money actually ended up. Anybody can write a letter and send it and say all of the money went to buy medicine, all of the money went to buy food.”
Laughrey, however, did agree to recommend a minimum-security prison camp and to start Hamoodi’s sentence on Aug. 28, allowing him 10 days after this year’s conclusion of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month.
The Next Step
After Laughrey pronounced sentence, Hamoodi’s friends and supporters sat in stunned silence. Rogers stood up.
“This family is going to need our help for five years,” he remembers saying to the 30 people present. “Not three years, five. And we need to get organized.”
The Monday after the sentencing, Hamoodi’s supporters held a press conference, and the crowd of 30 grew to more than 100.
The next step, Hamoodi’s friends decided, is an attempt to commute Hamoodi’s sentence, an avenue that would require the help of President Barack Obama. A commutation can reduce a sentence but will not change a conviction. Submitting a petition for commutation requires a formal written petition addressed to the president; it does not require a lawyer or a recommendation from a public official. Still, in an election year, Hamoodi’s hopes for commutation could hinge on a major political favor, should anyone with political influence be willing to go to bat for him. The most likely prospect, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Columbia native and potential channel to Obama, has declined to comment.
Commuting the sentence is Hamoodi’s only remedy, says Craig Van Matre, an attorney in Columbia and Hamoodi supporter. The only way to get Obama’s attention, Van Matre says, is to put together the most compelling petition possible.
“He helped his blind mother and a sister-in-law who lost a baby. No money went to terrorism or Saddam Hussein,” Van Matre says. “Anybody would have done it.”
By mid-July, the petition to commute Hamoodi’s sentence had nearly 3,000 signatures. Obama, however, has commuted a sentence only once in his presidential term, for a cancer-stricken Illinois woman who had sold crack cocaine to support three children.