A Famous Felon on the Path to Redemption
Hassan Nemazee was a swaggering New York financier and A-list fundraiser for Democratic candidates. He was Hillary Clinton’s national finance chairman in 2008 and raised millions of dollars for Barack Obama’s first run at the presidency. Nemazee was also a joint-venture partner with financial powerhouses AIG and J.P. Morgan and served on the boards of prestigious organizations including the Asia Society.
Then he made a series of mistakes that landed him in federal prison. Hoping to hit a home run to pay off debt, Nemazee obtained hundreds of millions of dollars in loans from Bank of America, Citibank and HSBC using falsified statements showing he owned more than $100 million in securities. In August 2009, the FBI questioned him about his Citibank loans. A day later, he was arrested and charged with bank fraud. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 years in jail. He forfeited a multi-million-dollar New York house, an Italian estate and nearly $100 million in cash and stock.
Yet Nemazee was different than other white-collar criminals in one important respect. He never denied any of his wrongdoing and he repeatedly expressed genuine sorrow and regret for his actions. “I’m deeply ashamed of my conduct,” he told federal Judge Sidney H. Stein at his sentencing: “Pride, ego, arrogance, self-image, self-importance — all of these and more are among the reasons why I traveled down this destructive path.”
He also has a compelling personal story, steeped in business success and philanthropy. He is the scion of a legendary Middle Eastern family. His father and grandfather were prominent international merchants and civic leaders in their native Iran. His father, Mohammed Nemazee, built what today is one of the region’s most important hospital systems, the Nemazee Hospital in Iran. He also established Iran’s first piped water system.
Hassan was born in Washington, D.C., where his father was posted as a diplomat for the pre-revolutionary Iranian government. Hassan graduated from Harvard University and returned to take over the family’s businesses and charitable organizations in Tehran in 1972 after his father died of a tainted blood transfusion. Shortly thereafter, in typical Nezamee fashion, Hassan helped establish Iran’s first national blood bank to reduce the chances of that kind of mistake happening again. When the Iranian Revolution occurred in 1979, Hassan was out of the country, but his property was confiscated by the new regime.
He made the U.S. his home where he continued to be charitable and to thrive as a financier. His civic works ran the gamut from serving on the boards of the Asia Society and the Brain Trauma Foundation to founding the Iranian American Political Action Committee, which donated to both Republican and Democratic candidates. He also established the Nemazee Fellowship to support Iranian American scholars at Harvard and currently co-chairs the Foundation for the Children of Iran, which brings youngsters from Iran to the U.S. for lifesaving surgeries.
His life was interrupted by his bank-fraud conviction. But his dedication to public service never waned. Nemazee served 8 ½ years of his sentence as a model prisoner. In 2019, he became a beneficiary of the First Step Act of 2018, which makes inmates older than 60 who have served two-thirds of their sentences eligible for home confinement. Nemazee moved into a friend’s one-bedroom apartment in New York and took a job as a financial adviser; 15 percent of his salary pays restitution to the banks.
Nemazee, who is 70, is trying to make amends to those he’s wronged and to contribute where he can. He is working to enact additional prison reforms that would ease the transition to life outside prison for fellow former inmates. He is doing so without bitterness, despite the fact that the many powerful Democrats who benefited from his fundraising abandoned him in his hour of need. None have spoken on his behalf.
Dozens of Nezamee’s friends have offered testimonials for him. One was a business partner who Nemazee embroiled in the fraud. Still, at Nemazee’s sentencing, the partner asked the court to be lenient in his friend’s sentencing. Judge Stein, acknowledging Nemazee’s remorse and his contributions to society, said he was convinced that Nemazee would never commit another crime nor was he a threat to anyone. He cut in half the prosecutors’ request for a 24-year sentence.
At a moment in our national life where division and rancor are so prevalent, a tale of redemption is a welcome contrast. Forgiveness requires two preconditions, penitence and atonement. Hassan Nemazee has met them both. He has fully paid his debt to society.
Gil Kapen is a former senior aide on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.