Naseem “Nick” Salem said he never doubted his innocence after federal prosecutors charged him with two felony counts, related to alleged money-laundering and poor record-keeping at the San Diego card room he managed.
In his first interview since the U.S. Attorney’s office dropped the charges against him, Salem recounted the shock of being arrested at his parent’s home, in December 2015.
“They handcuffed me to where it took six months until the scar went away, “ Salem recalled. But he said the emotional and financial scars of his two-year legal battle may never fade.
An immigrant from Iraq who earned an engineering degree at National University and built a mini-empire of businesses, grocery stores, and real estate, Salem said the allegations alone, even without a conviction or admission of guilt, could have ruined his career, unraveled his success, and ruined his reputation.
“I was a family person, a big name in the Chaldean (Christian) community. I had a good reputation and was friends with the Bishop and many good people in the community, (including) doctors and attorneys. And the next thing, (I’m) becoming a criminal."
On October 25, 2017, almost two years after his arrest, Federal District Judge Marilyn Huff signed a court order dismissing both charges against Salem. He and his lawyer said Salem did not admit any wrongdoing and did not testify against any of his co-defendants as a condition of that dismissal.
The court record confirms those facts and notes that the dismissal motion was granted “with prejudice,” meaning the government cannot refile charges against Salem in the money-laundering case.
“It’s extraordinarily unfortunate that the government did not properly investigate the case before bringing the unjustified charges against Mr. Salem and jeopardizing the reputation of a decent and extremely productive member of the community," said defense attorney Sarida Kedia.
Salem said his legal victory came with a huge personal and financial cost. He spent $1 million on legal fees alone and the experience left him with serious health problems.
And despite his unwavering belief in his innocence, Salem said he often felt intimidated by the federal government's power and unlimited resources.
He credits his family, and his New York-based defense attorney, for keeping him strong.
"Many, many times when I broke down, my attorney was the one that picked me up and said, 'No, no, no, no. That's not what's going to happen. We're going to win.'"
Despite the personal, professional and financial costs of the arrest, criminal charges and legal battle, Salem says he's still grateful for all America has given him and his family.
"If I was in Iraq, where would I be now? I'm sure I would have been dead in one of those wars that Saddam created for now reason."
Prosecutors did not respond to our request for comment on the dismissal.