Telecommunications giant and phone maker, ZTE Corporation has agreed to plead guilty and to pay a $1.19 Billion penalty to the United States for conspiring to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) by illegally shipping U.S.origin items to Iran. It will also plead guilty to the charge of obstructing justice and making a material false statement. According to court documents, for a period of almost six years, ZTE obtained U.S.-origin items – including controlled dual-use goods on the Department of Commerce’s Commerce Control List (CCL) – incorporated some of those items into ZTE equipment and shipped the ZTE equipment and U.S.-origin items to customers in Iran. ZTE engaged in this conduct knowing that such shipments to Iran were illegal. ZTE further lied to federal investigators during the course of the investigation when it insisted, through outside and in-house counsel, that the company had stopped sending U.S.-origin items to Iran. In fact, while the investigation was ongoing, ZTE resumed its business with Iran and shipped millions of dollars’ worth of U.S. items there.
According to court documents, between January 2010 and January 2016, ZTE, either directly or indirectly through a third company, shipped approximately $32,000,000 of U.S.-origin items to Iran without obtaining the proper export licenses from the U.S. government. In early 2010, ZTE began bidding on two different Iranian projects. The projects involved installing cellular and landline network infrastructure. Each contract was worth hundreds of millions of U.S. Dollars and required U.S. components for the final products.
ZTE also created an elaborate scheme to hide the data related to these transactions from a forensic accounting firm hired by defense counsel to conduct a review of ZTE’s transactions with sanctioned countries. It did so knowing that the information provided to the forensic accounting firm would be reported to the U.S. government by outside counsel. Outside counsel was not aware of this scheme and indeed was wholly unaware that ZTE had resumed business with Iran. After ZTE informed its counsel of the scheme, counsel reported – with permission from ZTE – the conduct to the U.S. government.
In December 2010, ZTE finalized the contracts with Iranian customers. The contracts were signed by four parties: the Iranian customer, ZTE, Beijing 8 Star and ZTE Parsian. Court documents explain that ZTE identified Beijing 8 Star (8S) as a possible vehicle for hiding its illegal shipments of U.S. items to Iran. It intended to use 8S to export U.S.-origin items from China to ZTE customers in Iran. As part of this plan, ZTE supplied 8S with necessary capital and took over control of the company.
Under the terms of the Iran contracts, ZTE agreed to supply the “self-developed equipment,” collect payments for the projects and manage the whole network. ZTE Parsian was to provide locally purchased materials and all services. 8S was responsible for “relevant third-party equipment,” which primarily meant parts that would be subject to U.S. export laws. ZTE intended for 8S to be an “isolation company,” that is, ZTE intended for 8S (rather than ZTE) to purchase the embargoed equipment from suppliers and provide that equipment under the contract in an effort to distance ZTE from U.S. export-controlled products and insulate ZTE from U.S. export violations. However, 8S had no purchasing or shipping history and no real business reputation.
ZTE also hid data related to its resumed illegal sales to Iran from a forensic accounting firm hired by defense counsel to conduct an internal investigation into the company’s Iran sales. ZTE knew the forensic accounting firm was reviewing its systems and knew that the analysis was being reported to the DOJ and U.S. law enforcement. To avoid detection of its 2013-2016 resumed illegal sales to Iran, ZTE formed the “contract data induction team” (“CDIT”). The CDIT was comprised of approximately 13 people whose job it was to “sanitize the databases” of all information related to the 2013-2016 Iran business. The team identified and removed from the databases all data related to those sales. ZTE also established an auto-delete function for the email accounts of those 13 individuals on the CDIT, so their emails were deleted every night – a departure from its normal practices – to ensure there were no communications related to the hiding of the data.
The case is being prosecuted by Deputy Chief Elizabeth Cannon of the National Security Division’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Sections and Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Penley of the Northern District of Texas.
Jeffrey Newman represents whistleblowers