NEW YORK — A Chinese businessman accused of helping Iran's military buy materials to make nuclear weapons has been indicted on charges of illegally sending millions of dollars through New York City banks, Manhattan's chief prosecutor said Tuesday.
The 118-count indictment charges Li Fang Wei, 37, and his China-based company LIMMT, identified years ago as fronts for Iran's illegal nuclear acquisition efforts, with falsifying business records and conspiracy to gain access to U.S. banks.
Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau said Li's deception caused six New York banks to allow him and his company to continue banking in U.S. dollars — and to continue selling banned weapons material to the Iranian military.
Li is in China, Morgenthau said, and he will ask the government there to extradite him to the United States.
"We have very solid information that some weapons shipments were paid for with U.S. dollars but were unable to trace specific weapons payments to specific U.S. bank transactions," said Adam Kaufman, the lead prosecutor.
The difficulty in matching dollar payments with specific nuclear materials deals was because Li used shell companies and aliases, Kaufman said.
Investigators were able to trace "U.S. dollars that were sent to Li's agents who were helping him arrange shipments to Iran," Kaufman said.
One goal of the investigation was to make the public and the federal government aware that Iran is "deadly serious" about developing nuclear weapons technology, Morgenthau said, adding that he wanted to "shine a spotlight" on Li's conduct.
There is "no greater threat to the world today than Iran's efforts to procure nuclear weapons and long range ballistics missiles," he said.
Besides sales of standard metal and mineral products to commercial customers on the global market, LIMMT sells sophisticated military materials to Iran's Defense Industries Organization, Morgenthau said. Many materials LIMMT sells to Iran are banned from export to that country, he said.
The list of materials that LIMMT shipped to the Defense Industries Organization includes thousands of pounds of a specialized aluminum alloy used almost exclusively in long-range missile production and tantalum, a mineral used in armor-piercing projectiles, Morgenthau said.
LIMMT and Iran were in talks to have the company send 400 gyroscopes, 600 accelerometers and 100 pieces of tantalum. Gyroscopes and accelerometers are crucial technology for developing long-range missiles, Morgenthau said.
Li and LIMMT are banned from doing business in the U.S., so Li used shell companies and bank accounts with aliases to transfer money for dozens of Iranian transactions from November 2006 through September 2008, Morgenthau said.
The payments for the transactions were sent to and from Chinese banks that handled accounts for Li and his companies. Because most of the world's business is done in dollars, Morgenthau said, U.S. banks had to be used to process transactions. Because Li used banks in Manhattan, his office had jurisdiction over the prosecution, he said.
Wei and his company were banned from doing business with any U.S. banks in June 2006 because of his aid to Iran's development of weapons of mass destruction. Any transactions by Li or his company in this country are illegal, Morgenthau said.
The U.S. Treasury Department said Tuesday that it had identified eight aliases used by LIMMT Economic and Trade Co. Ltd. to circumvent sanctions against Iran and was moving to freeze their assets.
The department said it was acting to prevent weapons of mass destruction proliferators and those who support them from abusing the U.S. financial system for the benefit of Iran's nuclear weapons programs.
Morgenthau said international contacts tipped his office to Li and LIMMT's illegal activities on behalf of Iran.
The prosecutor said American banks were deceived by Li and had no part in helping him carry out the illicit transactions. He credited the New York banks with helping in the investigation and he thanked the compliance departments of The Bank of New York Mellon, Citibank N.A., JPMorgan Chase & Co., Wachovia Bank/Wells Fargo N.A., Bank of America N.A., and Standard Chartered Bank.
LIMMT is headquartered in Dalian, China.