By Steve Weinstein
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By Tessa Stuart
By Alison Flowers
By Albert Samaha
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By Raillan Brooks
Last week, New York State attorney general Eliot Spitzer charged Ahmed Fayyaz, a 39-year-old Queens man, with using the identity of Munir Lodhi, a prominent figure in New York's Pakistani community, to conduct a brazen bank fraud and money-laundering scheme that netted more than $1.5 million in cash and credit. Fayyaz faces 78 felony counts in what appears to be one of the most audacious cases of identity theft in recent memory. He has pled not guilty.
The case raises a host of questions and includes a curious link to one of the most notorious New York City murders in recent memory: Sitting in the Staten Island courtroom during Fayyaz's April 19 arraignment was Abdurrahman Mian, the biological father of murdered seven-year-old Nixzmary Brown.
Mian, who is described by Fayyaz's lawyer, Mark J. Fonte, as "a friend" of his client, sat behind the defense table, according to a source present at the hearing, and at one point approached Fonte and conferred with him. Mian's lawyer, Daniel Flanzig, confirmed that his client attended the hearing but declined to comment further. Asked about Mian's possible involvement in the Fayyaz case, Spitzer spokesman Brad Maione declined to comment.
Last month, Mian, who had not seen Nixzmary when she was alive, stepped forward to announce that he will seek control of the little girl's estate, which could be worth millions of dollars thanks to lawsuits charging the city of New York with negligence. Revelations in the case prompted Mayor Mike Bloomberg to shake up the city's Administration for Children's Services.
In the identity theft case, Fayyaz faces 78 felony counts, including multiple charges of forgery, money laundering, and grand larceny. Armed with the identity of Lodhi, who is the secretary of the upcoming 2006 Pakistani Independence Day Parade, and the deed to Lodhi's Staten Island homeit's unclear how he allegedly obtained the latterFayyaz is accused by prosecutors of obtaining more than $1.5 million in home equity loans and lines of credit, the bulk of which he was able to withdraw in cash. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of 15 years for each of the six Class C felony charges, or 90 years in prison.
Calling Fayyaz a flight risk, prosecutors asked that he be held without bail. Judge Leonard Rienzi agreed, and Fayyaz was remanded back to Rikers Island, where he has been held since his arrest earlier this year. Fonte told the Voice last week that the prosecution had advised him that U.S. immigration officials had determined that "the legality" of Fayyaz's "stay in this country has expired." Fonte acknowledged that Fayyaz faces a "very long" prison sentence but vowed to exonerate him.
Prosecutors do not believe Fayyaz acted alone, according to a person familiar with the case. Rather, they believe Fayyaz was the front man of a small money-laundering unit of maybe three or four peopleone of many dozens of such units believed to be operating throughout the city, the source said. Prosecutors hope Fayyaz will provide information about others who may have been involved in the scheme, either in obtaining Lodhi's identity and carrying out the thefts, or laundering the money after it was stolen from the banks. Spitzer's office has been working on the investigation with several other agencies, including the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, the state banking department, U.S. postal inspectors, and the Secret Service, according to a statement released by his office last Thursday.
Prosecutors allege that the scam began in October 2004 when Fayyaz acquired fake New York State driver's licenses bearing the names of Lodhi and his wife, Mumtaz, according to the indictment. Fayyaz was also able to obtain the Lodhis' Social Security numbers and other personal information that allowed him to open bank accounts in their names. He also somehow gained possession of the deed to Lodhi's home at 124 Lincoln Avenue, which he used to secure $1.4 million in home equity loans through Washington Mutual, Wachovia, Citibank, MBNA America/Countrywide, and Wells Fargo, according to the indictment. In 2004, county tax assessors valued Lodhi's property at $276,000.
A person close to the case called it "striking" that Fayyaz was able to acquire so much of the Lodhis' personal information, not to mention the deed to his house. Spitzer spokesman Maione said Fayyaz "gained access" to the Lodhis' home while they were out of the country on vacation last year. The Lodhis could not be reached for comment.
With the fraudulent loans deposited in newly opened accounts under Lodhi's name at many of the same banks, Fayyaz started cashing huge checks, prosecutors said. For the first few months of 2005, he cruised around Brooklyn impersonating Lodhi, wielding what Assistant Attorney General Meryl Lutsky, chief of the state's Money Laundering Investigation Unit, described at the arraignment as a "very good forged ID."
Fayyaz used that ID to obtain several lines of credit through JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, HSBC, MBNA America, American Express, and Bank of America, according to the indictment. Then, using what the indictment described as "multiple" credit cards at the same time, Fayyaz bought $180,000 worth of home electronics and furniture and financed the purchase of three luxury cars.
By March 2005, Fayyaz had withdrawn $1.4 million in cash, according to prosecutors. Toward the end of his spree, prosecutors said, Fayyaz would hit several banks a day, armed with checks made out to cash and withdrawal slips, and emerge carrying bundles of cash. "This guy was going from bank to bank every day withdrawing suitcases full of cash," according to a law enforcement source involved with the case. After that, the money disappeared. "We have no idea where the cash went," said the source. "It's like a black hole."