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Counter Proliferation Investigation Unit
03/22/2017

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ZTE Corporation pleads guilty in Dallas to violating US sanctions laws by sending US-origin items to Iran

WASHINGTON — ZTE Corporation pleaded guilty Wednesday to conspiring to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) by illegally shipping U.S.-origin items to Iran, obstructing justice and making a material false statement.

This guilty plea was announced by the following federal department and agency heads:  Attorney General Jeff Sessions of the U.S. Department of Justice, Acting Assistant Attorney General Mary B. McCord for National Security, U.S. Attorney John R. Parker for the Northern District of Texas and Assistant Director Bill Priestap for the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division. This plea was entered before U.S. District Judge Ed Kinkeade.

Specifically, ZTE pleaded guilty to the following charges:

  • one count of conspiring to unlawfully export in violation of the IEEPA,
  • one count of obstruction of justice, and
  • one count of making a material false statement.

ZTE agreed to pay a fine in the amount of $286,992,532, and also pay a criminal forfeiture in the amount of $143,496,266, and submit to a three-year period of corporate probation, during which time an independent corporate compliance monitor will review and report on ZTE’s export-compliance program.

As previously announced March 7, at the time that ZTE agreed to plead guilty, the Corporation simultaneously reached settlement agreements with the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS), and the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. In total ZTE has agreed to pay the U.S. Government $892,360,064. The BIS has suspended an additional $300 million, which ZTE will pay if it violates its settlement agreement with the BIS.

According to plea documents filed in the case, between January 2010 and January 2016, ZTE, either directly or indirectly through a third company, shipped about $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.

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 (ZTE’s subsidiary in Iran). 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.

Ultimately, although 8S was a party to the contracts, ZTE itself purchased and shipped the embargoed goods under the contract. In its shipping containers, it packaged the U.S. items with its own self-manufactured items to hide the U.S.-origin goods. ZTE did not include the U.S. items on the customs declaration forms, though it did include the U.S.-origin items on the packing lists included inside of the shipments.

In early 2011, when ZTE determined that the use of 8S was insufficient to hide ZTE’s connection to the illegal export of U.S.-origin goods to Iran, senior management of ZTE ordered that a company-level export control project team study, handle and respond to the company’s export control risks. In September 2011, four senior managers signed an Executive Memo, which proposed that the company identify and establish new “isolation companies” that would be responsible for supplying U.S. component parts necessary for projects in embargoed countries. The isolation companies would conceal ZTE’s role in the transshipment scheme and would insulate ZTE from export control risks.

Special agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in Dallas were requested to join this multi-agency investigation of ZTE Corporation in 2012.  HSI has extensive and unique customs law enforcement authorities and database capabilities which helped obtain the necessary and critical evidence in successfully prosecuting ZTE.  HSI special agents worked every aspect of the criminal and civil investigation, including serving search warrants, reviewing hundreds of thousands of electronic and paper documents, and interviewing numerous witnesses.

In March 2012, Reuters published an article regarding ZTE’s sale of equipment to Iran. In response, ZTE made a decision to temporarily cease sending new U.S. equipment to Iran. By November 2013, however, ZTE had resumed its business with Iran. Beginning in July 2014, ZTE began shipping U.S.-origin equipment to Iran once again without the necessary licenses.

Instead of using 8S, however, ZTE identified a new isolation company. ZTE signed a contract with the new isolation company, which in turn signed contracts with the two Iranian customers. According to the new scheme, ZTE purchased and manufactured all relevant equipment – both U.S.-origin and ZTE-manufactured – and prepared them for pick-up at its warehouse by the new isolation company. The new isolation company then shipped all items to the Iranian customers. Shipments to Iran continued from January 2014 through January 2016.

Despite its knowledge of an ongoing grand jury investigation into its Iran exports, according to plea documents, ZTE took several steps to conceal relevant information from the U.S. government. It further took affirmative steps to mislead the U.S. government. In the summer of 2012, ZTE asked each of the employees who were involved in the Iran sales to sign nondisclosure agreements in which the employees agreed to keep confidential all information related to the company’s U.S. exports to Iran.

During meetings throughout late 2014, late 2015 and early 2016, outside counsel for ZTE, unaware that the statements ZTE had given to counsel for communication to the U.S. government were false, represented to the DOJ and federal law enforcement agents that ZTE had stopped doing business with Iran and therefore was no longer violating U.S. export laws. Similarly, on July 8, 2015, in-house counsel for ZTE accompanied outside counsel in a meeting with the DOJ and federal law enforcement agents and reported that ZTE was abiding by U.S. laws. That statement was also false.

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 to 2016 resumed illegal sales to Iran, ZTE formed the “contract data induction team” (“CDIT”). The CDIT was comprised of about 13 people whose job it was to “sanitize the databases” of all information related to the 2013 to 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 hiding data.

This case is being prosecuted by Deputy Chief Elizabeth Cannon of the National Security Division’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Penley of the Northern District of Texas.

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Last Reviewed/Updated: 03/24/2017