International Policy Digest

Business /02 Jul 2020
07.02.20

Airline Tycoon Farhad Azima Runs out of Runway

It’s one thing to lose in court; it’s another to get crushed. Farhad Azima, the mysterious Iranian-American airline executive, has been found guilty by a London court in a civil fraud claim.

In a scathing verdict, Judge Andrew Lenon QC ordered Azima to pay the Emirate of Ras-al-Khaimah (RAK) $4.1 million, ruling the aviation tycoon misrepresented the costs of his investment into a joint aviation training academy established between the Emirate and Azima’s company, HeavyLift, in 2007. Lenon also agreed with RAK that Azima had bribed former Ras Al Khaimah Investment Authority (RAKIA) head Dr. Khater Massaad to the tune of $500,000 following the sale of a RAKIA-owned hotel to three Iranian businessmen with close ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, a sale for which Azima received a hefty seven-figure commission. Azima said in a statement that he would be appealing the decision.

The UK High Court ruling is the first time Azima – who once raised money and rubbed shoulders with former U.S. President Bill Clinton – has been pinned to the wall. The verdict also represents the climax – if not the culmination – of a 14-year relationship between Azima and Ras-al-Khaimah, a partnership that turned ugly following Massaad’s departure from RAK in 2012 on separate allegations of fraud. Azima had been trying to mediate the dispute between the Emirate and its former employee at the time the Emirate settled its accounts with Azima over the joint venture, a settlement the UK High Court now agrees was based on misrepresentations by Azima and his long-term right-hand man Ray Adams.

In the court judgment, Lenon wrote that he considered the way in which Azima and Adams accounted for HeavyLift’s contribution to the joint venture was not “reasonable or honest.” Azima therefore knew, according to Lenon, that HeavyLift’s expenditure on the joint venture was “nothing like the amounts represented to RAKIA.” Mr. Azima also knew, Lenon continued, that the invoices from him of $1 million for the simulator and $450,000 for the training aids had been “backdated” and “did not reflect actual purchases.”

Lenon then zeroed in on emails sent between Azima and Adams during a critical August 2013 weekend on Azima’s yacht in the south of France where the joint venture agreement between Azima and RAKIA was modified, placing the Emirate on the hook for any losses.

“I consider that the explanations given by Mr. Azima and Mr. Adams of these communications made no sense and were untruthful,” Lenon said. “I agree with RAKIA’s submission that the overwhelming inference from the documentary evidence is that Mr. Azima and Mr. Adams retrospectively drafted the Joint Venture Agreement in the summer of 2013. Mr. Azima and Dr. Massaad then signed that retrospectively drafted and backdated document on board Mr. Azima’s yacht on 25 August 2013 and thereafter misrepresented to RAKIA that this document was the original document that had been signed on 12 April 2007,” he added.

Lenon also rejected Azima’s claims that RAKIA had essentially tricked him into accepting so-called ‘good faith’ clauses into the 2015 joint venture settlement agreement in which RAKIA agreed to pay out $2.6 million for the failed joint venture. Azima accused the Emirate of adding the clauses only after hacking his personal accounts and finding evidence of his fraud. The Emirate, for its part, responded that it had nothing to do with hacking Azima’s accounts and had only become aware of the leaked material in August 2016, when a consultant flagged it to their attention.

On the question of hacking, Lenon deferred despite serious misgivings about the testimony he heard. He found no proof either way of Azima’s claim, a decision Azima framed as a “hacker’s charter.” But, and as Lenon noted in his judgment, it wasn’t RAK that sprung to Azima’s mind when he was informed that he had been hacked.

Indeed, other suspects are in the frame. The dissemination of Azima’s material on the Internet in August 2016 came only weeks after a U.S. court entered a multimillion-dollar judgment in favour of Afsaneh Azadeh, a high-ranking Azima employee, against Iran. Iran had previously detained Azadeh in the notorious Evin Prison, torturing her until she managed to produce an amount of money that almost exactly matched the amount she and Azima had taken from the three Iranian businessmen who purchased the hotel from RAKIA. Even former Azima ally Solomon places the blame for the hack of Azima’s material – material that got him fired from the WSJ – on Iran.

Azima’s pursuit of the hacking source continues apace, with the businessman now pointing his finger squarely at Stuart Page and his associates from Israel. In his ruling, Lenon found that Page had “access to agents with the capacity to hack emails” but that he had seen no evidence to prove that Page had procured the Azima hacking. Azima’s team were vehement in their belief that the buck stopped at Page.

The genesis of the hacking will likely form the basis of Azima’s appeal, should one happen. The bigger question for Azima now is how he will pay for that appeal. The businessman declared his income to be a paltry $71,000 in 2017 and has put his various luxury properties up for sale. Just how he’ll find the millions to pay the verdict to RAK and a future court proceeding is unclear, something noted in Lenon’s updated verdict.

The 79-year old Azima might just be counting on his fame to see him through. During the trial, it was announced that a book about Mr. Azima’s life was coming to bookshelves this August. Could a movie based on his life be in the offing? Mr. Azima has certainly led a cinematic life.

Perhaps the international man of mystery hasn’t yet run out of runway.