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Navy engineer with secret access accused of concealing double life as Iranian citizen

February 24, 2016 (Photo Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais /AP)

A 30-year Navy engineer with access to government secrets has been indicted on charges of lying about his dual Iranian citizenship and creating false identities to conceal his ongoing ties and money he received from overseas.

U.S. federal prosecutors are accusing Naval Sea Systems Command employee James Robert Baker, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Iran, of lying about his holding an active Iranian passport and using four separate social security numbers to open bank accounts, move money and shield his income from taxes — including an unexplained overseas wire transfer of $133,902 in 2009.

Baker, who changed his name from Majid Karimi when he became a U.S. citizen in 1985, faces 14 counts on charges including lying on his SF-86 security clearance questionnaire, identification documents fraud and social security fraud, which could bring a maximum sentence of nearly 70 years in prison. However, experts say Baker, if convicted on all charges, would likely only spend about five years behind bars because of sentencing guidelines.

Baker’s attorney, Tom Walsh of Petrovich & Walsh P.L.C., did not return calls and emails seeking comment by Wednesday. A number D.C. number listed for Baker was disconnected. Baker, whose is believed to be in his 60s, is currently out on $75,000 bond and is awaiting an April jury trail, according to court documents.

Baker's alleged fraud appears to span his entire 30-year career as a Navy civilian and has raised questions about whether authorities missed red flags that should have disqualified him from access to secrets.

“He shouldn’t have a security clearance, no questions about it,” said Bill Cowden, a former U.S. attorney who independently reviewed the indictment for Navy Times. “This is just another example of what’s causing a lot of people to question whose dropping the ball on security clearances. You have leaks of government information, you have people accessing personnel records and you have this. It just doesn’t give you a lot of confidence that the government is doing a good job of vetting people.”

A spokesman for NAVSEA, where Baker has worked as an electrical engineer since 2006, said “it would be inappropriate to comment given the ongoing case.” 

U.S. Marshalls arrested Baker on or about Feb. 4, when the federal indictment was filed. Baker has been suspended from his NAVSEA job, pending the outcome of his case.

The office of the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, which filed the indictment, declined to comment on the charges. 

In July, authorities searched Baker’s home in Springfield, Va., and discovered a Maryland driver’s license under the name Majid Karimi and seized the key to a safe-deposit box located at a bank in Vienna, a few minutes’ drive from his home. Not long after agents arrived at the bank, an incensed Baker walked in demanding the bank give him immediate access to his safe deposit box. The agents told Baker to have a seat while they executed the warrant.

When they opened the box they found three Iranian passports — two expired and one active, the last issued in 2012 — under the name Majid Karimi with Baker’s photograph on them.

Authorities also found four different social security cards dating back to July 6, 1979 — two under the name James Robert Baker and two under Majid Karimi with addresses in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware. Furthermore, Karimi had driver’s licenses and ID cards from Virginia, Maryland, Texas, Delaware and New Jersey.  

Financial intrigue

In 2009, Baker mysteriously transferred a large sum of money acquired overseas and spread it across his various identities, prosecutors allege. Baker moved $133,902 from a bank account in New York to his BB&T account opened under his former name, Majid Karimi. The lump sum originated from a bank in Slovenia and was wired to his New York account through an intermediary servicer in the United Arab Emirates, Al Samaa LTD. Attempts to contact Al Samaa, which appears to be a financial institution, have been unsuccessful.

Baker then moved $40,000 from the BB&T account under his Karimi identity to a PNC account under his Baker identity.

He is also accused of — but not charged with — lying to NAVSEA about tax withholdings from his paycheck. Baker, the indictment alleges, opened a bank account with Navy Federal Credit Union and gave his sister in Tehran control over it as a way of avoiding tax reporting under his name.

In tax forms, Baker reported his sister’s U.S. address as his own, though U.S. officials have no record she has traveled to the U.S. and that the only person who used that account regularly was Baker.

'Provable crimes'

Baker became a naturalized citizen in 1985 and legally changed his name from Karimi to Baker, according to the indictment. It was also the year he started working for the Naval Surface Warfare Center. In 2001, just days after the Sept. 11 attacks, officials informed Baker that he could not have a secret clearance and a foreign passport, adding that he would need to furnish proof he had given up his Iranian passport.

Six days later, he used his Iranian passport to fly to Iran. In October, the Navy learned about his trip and suspended his clearance. But Baker challenged the suspension, stating that he’d returned his passport to Iran, and his clearance was reinstated in 2002, according to the indictment.

The passport he claimed was given up was later discovered in his Vienna safe-deposit box.

The alleged lies about his passport and the elaborate fraud to conceal his multiple identities and the complicated and opaque transfer of more than $100,000 from overseas has raised concerns ranging from a complicated tax evasion scheme to espionage, and it remains unclear whether investigators intend to file more charges against Baker.If prosecutors had an espionage case, they would likely keep records sealed and the indictment hush-hush, experts say.

“It’s probably frustrating for the prosecutor,” said Cowden, the former prosecutor who's now a defense attorney with the Federal Practice Group in Washington, D.C. “They probably think there’s something more going on here, he’s got money coming in from overseas and probably don’t know what the source of it is and haven’t been able to get as far into it as they’d like. Or they’ve run it to ground and they think he’s a social security and tax fraud.”

Each charge each carries a five year sentence and Karimi is facing 14 counts, but because of sentencing guidelines and that they are all essentially the same crime, the charges are likely to be grouped together.

“You’ve got a guy who’s been investigated for more than eight months, and because there is a public indictment, the message is he’s not cooperating,” Cowden said. “The fact that there is a public indictment out there, they’ve thrown 14 counts at him, that seems to be what they can uncover as provable crimes. They’re not huge crimes, not the kind of crimes that will put him in jail for 20 years or longer.

“He’s probably lawyered up and they’ve come to the conclusion that he’s better off not cooperating.”

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