Exclusive interview with La Shish boss, Talal Chahine, from Lebanon

La Shish boss says he doesn’t support terrorism
Subhead: FROM LEBANON, HE SAYS UNFAIR CHARGES HURT MANY
Byline/Affiliation: By NIRAJ WARIKOO FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
5/28/2006

As the owner of the most popular chain of Middle East restaurants in southeastern Michigan, Talal Chahine sits atop a food empire that employs hundreds and serves thousands every week.

But the 51-year-old Dearborn Heights owner of La Shish – facing government claims he evaded taxes and met with terrorists – says that success could collapse under the weight of allegations he believes unfairly target him.

In an exclusive interview by telephone from his home in Beirut, Chahine said Friday that despite the allegations he plans to return to metro Detroit next month.

The Justice Department has issued an arrest warrant for him on four counts of tax evasion and has linked him with Hizballah, a group based in Lebanon that the U.S. government says is a terrorist organization.

“I’m very eager to go back, but I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t have concerns,” he said. He added, jokingly: “Maybe they want to send me to Guantanamo Bay right now. Maybe they got some vacancies over there.”

The accusations are leveled at a man who rose rapidly after arriving in the United States at the age of 15, from a gas station attendant to a Ford engineer to a successful restaurateur.

Now, he faces legal action and business trouble.

In blunt language, Chahine said that prosecutors stand to ruin an operation that employs more than 600 people.

“If things are not reversed almost immediately, we’d have to lay off a lot of innocent, hard-working, honorable people,” Chahine said. “Their livelihoods would be devastated.”

At the La Shish franchise in Orchard Lake, business dropped by half in the last week, manager Mohammmed Cheaib said.

Cheaib’s restaurant is independently operated with no financial ties to La Shish Inc. or Chahine. Cheaib said he paid a fee for the La Shish name because of its reputation for fresh food and good service.

On Saturday, he said that name now is hurting him because customers are worried about the terrorism allegations.

Chahine and his wife, Elfat El Aouar, are accused of scheming to cheat the U.S. government of millions of dollars in taxes, according to the indictment unsealed this month.

Prosecutors say the two kept a double set of computerized books and records – one real and one fake – in order to conceal more than $20 million received by the restaurants.

Some of the money, the government alleged, was moved to Lebanon.

El Aouar, the company’s financial manager, has been arrested and has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Speaking to the Free Press, Chahine said he is in Lebanon to track down a killer.

He said his 23-year-old son, Khalil Chahine, was wrongly convicted of fatally shooting Paul Hallis, 20, of Redford Township two years ago, and the killer is in Lebanon – his own son-in-law, Ali Abbas El-Ozeir.

“I’m trying to work the system here to secure his return to the U.S. so he can set the record straight,” Chahine said.

Wayne County prosecutors have remained firm that Khalil Chahine was the gunman, however. He was sentenced a year ago to up to 30 years in prison. And they say they’ve never been contacted by Talal Chahine about El-Ozeir.

“There were eyewitnesses that unequivocally identified Mr. Chahine as the shooter,” said Maria Miller, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office, referring to Khalil Chahine.

As for the tax charges, Talal Chahine said any irregularities will be addressed.

“I can assure you, without exaggeration, we are more compliant than at least 99% of the organizations in our industry,” he said.

Then there are the accusations linking Chahine with Hizballah. According to federal prosecutors, Chahine attended a fund-raiser in Lebanon in August 2002, at which he and Hizballah’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, were the keynote speakers.

On Friday, Chahine acknowledged he spoke at the fund-raiser, his topic being the importance of taking care of poor and disabled people and orphans.

But he said the event was to raise money for Al-Mabarrat, a Lebanese charity Chahine said is licensed by the U.S. government. Its U.S. arm, based in Dearborn, is listed as an approved nonprofit, according to GuideStar.org, which tracks nonprofits.

“This suspect’s organization is approved, licensed, sanctioned, given tax-exempt status in the United States,” Chahine said. “Otherwise, we would have never supported them.”

A Shi’ite Muslim, Fadlallah is considered by many to be Hizballah’s spiritual leader, and he is on the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist supporters. But some people in metro Detroit’s Lebanese-American and Shi’ite Muslim communities say he is a man who preaches cooperation with other religions.

“This is foolish” to say Fadlallah is with Hizballah, said Imam Mohammad Elahi, head of the Islamic House of Wisdom in Dearborn Heights, who has met with Fadlallah. “He’s a religious leader. … He is very open.”

Elahi and other Muslims and Arab Americans in metro Detroit said this week that they’re concerned that prosecutors have been tacking on terrorism allegations after charging Arab defendants with crimes.

But U.S. Attorney Stephen Murphy denied any connection between the two, saying Friday: “We go where the evidence takes us. We don’t have any sort of agenda.” He declined to speak specifically about the case against Chahine.

Chahine, however, called the accusations unethical, saying his patriotism is being unfairly impugned.

They have “tainted my loyalty, my commitment, my love, my allegiance, to my country, America,” he said. “It just really tears my heart apart.”

“I’m very eager to go back, but I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t have concerns.”Talal Chahine, La Shish owner.

– Contact NIRAJ WARIKOO at 248-351-2998 or nwarikoo@freepress.com.

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