Fred (Farhad) Monem, fugitive in Oregon prison scandal, talks for the first time

International fugitive Fred Monem, in hiding in Iran, said he is willing to serve a short prison sentence for his “mistake” of taking bribes while serving as Oregon’s prison food buyer.

Monem, in recent e-mails to The Oregonian, said he never cheated the state.

“I never did anything to hurt anybody,” Monem said this week, in his first public comments. “I always did my job to save money for the taxpayers of the state.”

Monem, 52, is wanted on federal charges that he took $1.2 million in kickbacks from vendors selling distressed foods to the state Corrections Department. He fled the state in 2007 while negotiating a plea deal with federal prosecutors.

Monem’s comments came as a federal judge Thursday spared Monem’s wife from federal prison. Karen Monem, 47, pleaded guilty to participating in the scheme and in 2009 was sentenced to one year in federal prison.

Her date to show up for prison was postponed repeatedly so she could tend her ailing mother and son, who live with her in Salem. Prosecutors recommended that she be sentenced instead to probation and four months’ home detention. She works as a store clerk and will be allowed to leave home for her job.

“Karen Monem has complied with all the requirements that the court imposed since she accepted responsibility,” said Chris Cardani, assistant U.S. attorney.

The bribery case is one of the largest public corruption episodes in Oregon history.

Court records show Monem took kickbacks from five vendors from 2000 to 2006. The vendors sold foods pulled out of normal distribution channels because expiration dates were reached, packaging was wrong or manufacturers were overstocked. The foods typically are deeply discounted, and allowed Monem to drive down the costs of feeding Oregon’s 14,000 inmates.

karen.monem.march3.2011.JPGKaren Monem

Vendors paid their bribes to Monem in cash, delivered to his Salem home by courier or given to him directly during trips to Las Vegas. Federal agents found more than $500,000 in cash when they searched Monem’s home and safe deposit boxes in early 2007.

“I got money from them because I knew how much they are making from us,” Monem wrote. He said he didn’t directly buy the foods but instead sent requests through the Corrections Department. “They would buy it if it was the best price,” he said.

He said federal prosecutors “want to fry me for my mistake,” saying he has been offered a six- to eight-year prison sentence. “I would come back and face the court if they give me the same thing, the offer [to] others,” he said.

Prosecutors won’t bargain.

“Mr. Monem is not in a position where he can negotiate terms with the government after he abandoned the state of Oregon, and abandoned his own family knowing that he was being investigated for public corruption,” Cardani said.

Four food vendors pleaded guilty to bribing Monem, and served up to three months in prison.

“I know it wasn’t right what I did but I never hurt anyone. I always did my job right. I just take some of their profit,” Monem said. He said the state got good prices, vendors got sales and he got money. “It was win-win situation,” he said.

Monem worked for the state Corrections Department for 10 years.

Life in his native Iran is “very hard,” he said. “It would have been easier if I went to jail.” He returned to Iran to care for his father, he said. His mother died before he got back, and he missed her funeral. “That is very bad in my country,” Monem said

He said he isn’t working because his father is “well off.”

He said he can now return to the U.S. if he can get an acceptable plea deal.

“I would love to come back to my country,” Monem said. “I grew up there. I never had any problem there. I love everyone there.”

Cardani said the government is ready.

“We welcome Mr. Monem’s return,” he said.

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