A federal construction contractor that worked for several U.S. agencies bribed a State Department worker to commit “corporate espionage” and steer contracts worth more than $100 million to his company in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars in cash, federal investigators allege in a newly-unsealed search warrant affidavit.
Iranian-born May Salehi, who was assigned to the State Department’s division of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO), had a security clearance and a mountain of debt, according to the document. To get out of her financial hole, special agents working for the State Department’s Inspector General believe Salehi, 65, illegally helped steer what might have amounted to more than $100 million in State business to a Washington, D.C.-based company as part of a “multifaceted fraud scheme” that spanned several years and at least half a dozen countries.
Salehi began working for the State Department in 1996, according to her LinkedIn profile. A State Department spokesperson told The Daily Beast that Salehi is still employed there. She does not have a lawyer listed in court records, and did not respond to a message seeking comment. No arrests have yet been made, according to the affidavit.
The origins of the case can be traced back to 2014, when Montage, Inc. of Chevy Chase, Maryland, won a $26.1 million State contract to renovate the U.S. Consulate in Lagos, Nigeria. But the project went two years over deadline, and nearly bankrupted the firm, the affidavit states. That’s when something strange happened: Instead of avoiding State Department projects following the Nigeria “debacle,” the affidavit says Montage “transformed its business model so that it relied almost exclusively on State Department projects thereafter—indeed, the exact type of overseas, complex, U.S. embassy/consulate project that Montage had just been nearly decimated by.”
Over the next three years, Montage mysteriously won six major contracts with the State Department to build U.S. embassies or consulates overseas. This “seemingly counterintuitive” development can be “explained by the existence of a State Department insider who had an illegal relationship with Montage,” according to the affidavit. From that point on, roughly 95 percent of Montage’s revenue came exclusively from State Department contracts—$106.5 million of $111.4 million to date—nearly double what it had taken in previously.
Who’s the Mole?
In September 2020, State Department agents raided Montage’s offices on suspicion of, among other things, bank fraud, money laundering, and unauthorized removal and retention of classified materials. There, they seized numerous documents, nearly 40 computers, several cell phones, and a 96-terabyte server.
One office was the D.C. headquarters Montage lists publicly as its primary place of business. The second was what investigators describe in the warrant as the company’s “secret” office suite in Chevy Chase, Maryland. The space was purchased through a shell company and had a sign by the door identifying it as the American Society for Addictive Medicine.
There, agents encountered Montage founder and principal Sina Moayedi. In the affidavit, Special Agent Christopher Swenson states he told Moayedi that if he happened to have “information about a Government insider, that it would be something we would be very interested to hear.”
“Moayedi’s demeanor and expression changed immediately, as he raised his head and made direct eye contact with me, stating in substance, ‘I think I understand what you’re asking: You want to know if I’m paying someone in the State Department?’” the agent recalled.
Investigators suspected Moayedi had forged business licenses and credentials for Montage employees he said would be working on government projects. A resume he submitted to the State Department for a project manager on one job claimed the employee had “years of full-time complex work in the construction field in various capacities.” However, the affidavit states the person “had actually sold meat as a door-to-door salesman, was a landscaper, and built swimming pools for several years during the same time period.”
Agents interviewed two unnamed Montage executives, who blamed the company’s troubles on its former CFO, claiming he had embezzled money from the firm. But when they visited the ex-CFO at his home in Maryland, a different story emerged.
During the interview, Swenson read the former CFO an email in which a Montage bookkeeper painted him as an alcoholic, and said he had mental health problems. The CFO had covered up his alleged theft by “creating an entire phony universe of Quickbooks, payroll, receivables, payables and bank account statements,” the bookkeeper claimed in the message, and said the CFO “took payroll under assumed names.”
Upon learning that he was being set up as Montage’s fall guy, the former CFO turned on Moayedi, describing him as a “master forger” who electronically altered bank balances, forged resumes, and kept at least four sets of books that Moayedi not only used to dupe lenders but also to significantly reduce his own personal tax burden.
That’s when the CFO dropped a bombshell. He told agents that Moayedi “had cultivated a career employee at the State Department” and paid this person “bribes in exchange for intelligence regarding Government contracts,” the affidavit states. The CFO didn’t remember the State Department insider’s name, but recalled that she was a female “Iranian friend” of Moayedi’s whom he met through a “community group relating to Iranian heritage.”
The CFO told agents that he had met the insider at a pre-bid conference for a State Department project in Slovenia a few years back. She had also helped Moayedi and Montage win a State Department contract in the Caribbean in exchange for a $60,000 kickback, the CFO said. To hide the transaction, the CFO claimed Moayedi cut a check which the CFO cashed and provided to a middleman, who passed the cash to the corrupt State Department employee. To further obfuscate the truth, the insider was told to give the middleman a $2,000 Persian rug in exchange for the cash “in case ‘anyone asked’” about it.
Follow the Money
A search of State Department travel records identified the insider as May Salehi, an engineer in the State Department’s OBO Project Development and Coordination Division. Passport records confirmed that Salehi, who lived less than a mile from Montage’s “secret” office, was in fact born in Iran.
Salehi’s position requires a security clearance, so investigators analyzed her official paperwork for clues. One red flag involved Salehi’s 2007 divorce, which took place shortly after she secured a $1.5 million mortgage for a home in Great Falls, Virginia. The mortgage payments on the house ran approximately $10,000 a month—exceeding Salehi’s gross salary at the time of $9,333 a month. Another detail that raised agents’ suspicions was a Porsche Boxster convertible Salehi purchased in 2014, paying off $15,000 of a 60-month, $25,000 loan in a lump-sum the following year.
A review of phone records found that Salehi had “significant, sudden telephonic contacts with Moayedi in the precise period that Montage’s fortunes suddenly changed,” the affidavit says. Financial records subpoenaed by investigators turned up numerous transactions, each worth tens of thousands of dollars, including one with a memo line that read, “Final payment for Anna’s house.”
Investigators then dug into Salehi’s State Department email account. They found that Salehi “likely knew of Montage and Moayedi (in her professional capacity) by 2006, as Montage was bidding State Department projects at that time in New Delhi, India and Abuja, Nigeria,” the affidavit says, noting that agents found at least one official document in her email archive listing Sina Moayedi as Montage’s point of contact. She had also forwarded numerous internal State project documents from her work email to her personal email, all of which pertained to contracts Montage later won. Many of them were sent at odd intervals, furthering investigators’ suspicions.
“In particular, forwarding trip reports so long after the conclusion of the trip itself tends to negate any suggestion that Salehi was merely ‘taking her work home with her,’ and therefore forwarded these emails for the purpose of finishing up State Department business from home,” states the affidavit. “On the other hand, transferring these documents from her State Department account to Salehi Personal Email Account-1 would have certain benefits for someone engaged in selling Government information. For example, such transfers would allow Salehi to print hard copies for later dissemination without any State Department oversight.”
A review of Salehi’s search history on her State Department computer revealed further evidence against her. According to the affidavit, Salehi searched for “SCI clearance,” “herb for anxiety,” “Kratom herb for anxiety,” “Montage construction company litigations,” “what is litigation,” YouTube videos about litigation, and “Shiva Hamidinia,” who was Montage’s longtime legal counsel. Investigators subpoenaed cell phone records from a Montage employee and found a text from Moayedi that said: “Nela please conf call me 1/2 through your meeting with Shiva and May.” Agents also discovered Salehi’s contact info within Moayedi’s cell phone contacts and his Telegram, Skype, and iCloud accounts.
The feds now want to seize further documents they believe will bolster the government’s case against Salehi.
“[A]mong the materials we are requesting permission to seize are Salehi’s tax-related documents and filings, which are likely to contain either (implicit) admissions of her having received bribe payments, or false statements in an attempt to conceal the bribery scheme, just as she appears to have done in her State Department financial disclosure forms,” the affidavit says.
Investigators asked a judge to let them search Salehi herself, including “any and all clothing and personal belongings, backpacks, briefcases, purses, bags, and electronic devices that are within Salehi’s immediate vicinity and control, wherever Salehi is located within the federal judicial district of the District of Columbia.”
According to court filings, agents executed two warrants at 6:12 a.m. on May 20 and seized Salehi’s Apple Watch, three iPhones, a Macbook Pro, a micro SD card, a Dell laptop, an iPad, and a letter-size manila folder with a gray folder inside.