September 17, 2021

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Ex-UM professor charged with shipping genetic equipment to Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions

A former University of Miami assistant professor has been charged with violating U.S. sanctions against Iran for shipping genetic sequencing equipment to the Persian Gulf country, federal authorities said.

Mohammad Faghihi, along with his wife and sister, is scheduled to appear for a detention hearing in Miami federal court Wednesday morning on charges of receiving as much as $3.5 million to purchase genetic machines and ship them to Iran without a required license from the U.S. Department of Treasury, according to court records. Faghihi and the other family members are accused of buying some of the machines from U.S. manufacturers before shipping them to Iran between 2016 and 2020, according to a criminal complaint.

Faghihi and the others are accused in the complaint of using the money not only to send the genetic equipment illegally to Iran but also to purchase a property for their company, Express Gene, in Palmetto Bay. The money was transferred to his business from various foreign bank accounts in Malaysia, China, Turkey, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates.

Faghihi’s defense attorney, Bradford Cohen, did not immediately respond to a request for comment early Wednesday. His client, who had a first appearance in federal court Tuesday, was charged with the unauthorized equipment sale to Iran along with money laundering, smuggling goods and making a false statement to authorities. He and the other family members were arrested Monday.

His wife, Farzeneh Modarresi, 53, and his sister, Faezeh Faghihi, 50, were also charged with violating the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control sanctions against Iran. The court docket did not list defense attorneys for them, so their lawyers could not be reached for comment.

Mohammad Faghihi, 52, worked from 2013 to 2020 as an assistant professor in the UM medical school’s department of psychiatry and behavioral science. During this period, he was the principal investigator on several National Institutes of Health grants. Authorities said that he and his company, Express Gene, received large deposits from international wires during this period and that he failed to disclose them to UM or the NIH.

Faghihi was confronted by federal investigators in February 2021 when he returned from a trip to Iran, according to the criminal complaint.

Faghihi gave a “false statement” to Customs and Border Protection officers at Miami International Airport when he was asked about whether he worked in Iran or conducted any research there, the complaint said. In fact, he was the director of a genetic laboratory at the Shiraz University of Medical Science, according to federal prosecutor Michael Thakur, who works in the counter-terrorism section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

In addition, Faghihi’s luggage contained 17 vials of unknown biological substances covered with ice packs and hidden underneath bread and other food items, the complaint said. All of the vials were subject to regulations, authorities said.

The University of Miami, which was credited with helping prosecutors and FBI in the investigation, could not be reached for comment early today.

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