Judge won't jail men accused of impersonating federal agents

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A Metropolitan Police patrol car is parked in front of a a luxury apartment building in Southeast Washington, Thursday, April 7, 2022. Federal prosecutors on Wednesday charged two men they say were posing as federal agents, giving free apartments and other gifts to U.S. Secret Service agents, including one who worked on the first lady's security detail. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

WASHINGTON – A federal judge has denied the government’s request to detain two men accused of posing as federal Homeland Security agents, tricking actual U.S. Secret Service officers and offering them free gifts and apartments at a luxury apartment building in Washington.

Federal prosecutors have argued the two men -- Arian Taherzadeh, 40, and Haider Ali, 35, -- had posed as fake agents and offering the gifts in an effort to “ingratiate” themselves and integrate with law enforcement agents, including a Secret Service agent assigned to protect the first lady.

The men were arrested last week when the FBI raided the building in southwest Washington and have been charged with impersonating federal officers. Prosecutors said the agents found body armor, gas masks, zip ties, handcuffs, equipment to break through doors, drones, radios and police training manuals during a search of five apartments in the building.

Prosecutors allege Taherzadeh and Ali had falsely claimed to work for the Department of Homeland Security and work on a special task force investigating gangs and violence connected to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Taherzadeh is accused of providing Secret Service officers and agents with rent-free apartments — including a penthouse worth over $40,000 a year — along with iPhones, surveillance systems, a drone, a television, a generator, a gun case and other policing tools, according to court documents. In one instance, Taherzadeh offered to purchase a $2,000 assault rifle for a Secret Service agent who is assigned to protect the first lady, prosecutors said.

“They tricked people whose job it is to be suspicious of other people and to ask these questions,” prosecutor Josh Rothstein said.

Rothstein revealed that the men “inadvertently” learned they were under investigation when a Secret Service investigator had tipped them off, forcing the FBI to move ,pre quickly than expected to arrest them.

Prosecutors had alleged that Ali was a flight risk and that he had told a witness in the case that he had ties to the Pakistani intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, a claim the government later said it hadn’t substantiated. The Pakistani embassy forcefully denied the assertion, saying it “categorically rejects this false claim.” They had also raised his travel history, saying he had visas from Pakistan and Iran.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Harvey had intensely questioned prosecutors about the case in a hearing that spanned over three days. He ultimately decided on Tuesday that he would release the men on Wednesday, subjecting them to supervision that includes GPS monitoring.

Harvey agreed to stay his order until Wednesday morning while the government decides whether to appeal. The judge pointed out that the charge is not a violent crime and neither of the men faces a significant prison sentence, if they are convicted. He said there have been “significantly worse and more dangerous impersonation cases.”

“Nevertheless, I still find that the government has sufficient evidence here to convict both the defendants of the crimes they have been charged with,” Harvey said.

The plot unraveled when the U.S. Postal Inspection Service began investigating an assault involving a mail carrier at the apartment building and the men identified themselves as being part of a phony Homeland Security unit they called the U.S. Special Police Investigation Unit.

The defendants were tipped off on April 4 after the Secret Service began investigating four of its employees who were put on leave for allegedly accepting gifts from the men. As part of that internal probe, a Secret Service investigator reached out and Taherzadeh responded, Rothstein said in court.

Taherzadeh’s lawyer, Michelle Peterson, argued that he had no intention of compromising the agents and had provided the luxury apartments and lavish gifts because he wanted to be friends with them.

She said her client had previously been licensed in Washington as an unarmed special police officer – a private guard to protect people or property – and was also a licensed private detective. In an extensive interview with investigators after his arrest, Taherzadeh she had made “an embarrassing misrepresentation that got out of control.”

“When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” Peterson said during one of the hearings. “They have jumped to the wildest conspiracy theories imaginable over the most scant of evidence.”

The two men also had surveillance equipment and a high-power telescope, prosecutors said. The FBI found evidence that they may have been creating surveillance devices and also found a binder with information on all the residents in the luxury apartment building, which is home to law enforcement officers, defense officials and congressional staffers.

Prosecutors say the men had also set up surveillance in the building and had been telling residents there that they could access any of their cellphones at any time. The residents also told investigators they believed the men had access to their personal information.

The FBI also found several firearms — including handguns and ammunition — and disassembled rifle pieces and sniper scopes, Rothstein said.

Ali’s lawyer, Greg Smith, has argued his client didn’t know Taherzadeh was lying about a connection to Homeland Security and genuinely believed he was working on behalf of the government. He said his client is a naturalized U.S. citizen and has no ability to obtain a Pakistani passport.