BROWNSVILLE — A Brownsville man whose auto businesses were raided by the Cameron County District Attorney’s Office in April waived the reading of an indictment Tuesday morning, entering a not guilty plea to accusations he falsified government records.
George Z. Rafidi, 43, is charged with five counts of tampering with governmental records over allegations he falsified applications for an auto sale license and concealed handgun license by failing to disclose a conviction in Israel for being a member of the Popular Front, a Palestinian group the U.S. has designated as a terrorist organization.
According to documents from Israel’s Military Court, Rafidi admitted to being a member of the Popular Front and pleaded guilty to flying flags and writing prohibited slogans, activities his attorney say would be protected by the First Amendment in the United States.
“The crime he was accused of in Israel would not be recognized as a crime in the United States,” defense attorney Reynaldo “Trey” Garza said. “Freedom of speech guarantees our rights to express ourselves. We also enjoy rights of freedom of association, allowing us to join any group we want.”
According to the indictment against Rafidi, he is accused of making a false entry on an application for an auto sales license on April 13, 2016; on Dec. 28, 2017; and on Aug. 24, 2017; and making a false statement on an application for a concealed handgun license on Dec. 12, 2009, and on Oct. 10, 2013.
Garza said he believes the accusation concerning the alleged false entry on Dec. 12, 2009, runs afoul of statute of limitations, which, according to Garza, is seven years.
At the heart of all of the charges, is that Rafidi allegedly failed to include his criminal record in Israel, according to the indictment.
As for that criminal history in Israel, Military Court documents from the country indicate that in light of the evidence, Lt. Col. Cheniel Yoram sentenced Rafidi to 10 months in prison on the charges because the official believed leniency in the case was necessary.
“The duration of the accused’s membership was short, he left this organization before his arrest, and on his own initiative, and his activity even included the lightest of activities, not significant activities,” Yoram wrote in a sentencing document. “As mentioned, the accused is a university student and he deserves to be given an opportunity to open a new page …”
Rafidi’s arrest came after a Palestinian uprising against the Israeli government.
The Cameron County District Attorney’s Office has also initiated civil forfeiture proceedings against his companies: Lone Star Motors in San Benito and Rafidi Auto Sales in Laguna Heights.
He is scheduled for trial on the tampering with government record charges on June 24, court records show.
The indictment from the Cameron County District Attorney’s Office follows federal charges levied against Rafidi that include attempted procurement of citizenship contrary to law; use of an immigration document procured by false statement or fraud; false statement under oath in a matter relating to naturalization; false statement of representation; and false statement on a loan and credit application.
On April 2, Rafidi reached a plea deal with federal prosecutors, admitting to false representation after not disclosing to immigration officials that he was detained at the Gateway International Bridge by U.S. Customs and Border Protection on August 25, 2009, after attempting to leave the country with $28,995.
The application required Rafidi to inform immigration officials about whether he had ever been arrested, cited or detained by law enforcement officials.
Federal records do not return any criminal charges against Rafidi for failing to declare to officials that he was in possession of more than $10,000 when leaving the country, as required by law.
Authorities had also levied charges against him regarding failing to disclose his former membership with the Popular Front and his conviction in Israel, which federal prosecutors plan to dismiss at sentencing, according to court documents.
He faces up to five years in prison on the false statement charge with a possible fine of up to $250,000, court documents indicate.
Sentencing in this case is scheduled for July 11.