A West Philadelphia real estate developer who bribed a city official to get an inside track on sheriff’s sales was sentenced Thursday to serve one month in federal prison, followed by nine months of home confinement.
Behzad “Ben” Sabagh, 37, was the first of three real estate investors who pleaded guilty to bribery-related offenses in a long-running federal probe of the Sheriff’s Office to be sentenced. The other two, Gregory Guzman and Binyamin Maoz, are scheduled to be sentenced in December and January, respectively, in the probe into how the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office sells seized and foreclosed properties.
In a deal with prosecutors, Sabagh pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Six other wire-fraud charges were dropped as part of that deal.
Prosecutors alleged that Sabagh made multiple cash bribes to Michael Riverso, who provided Sabagh with the list of properties to be sold at sheriff’s sales. The document, which sometimes contained the opening bid expected for properties, was not available to the public.
Riverso also granted Sabagh more time than normally permitted to make payments on the properties he bought. Riverso has also pleaded guilty and is to be sentenced in November.
In their testimony, Sabagh’s friends and family painted a picture of a hard-working, self-made and generous man who made a mistake that was out of character.
“As a mother, I promise you’re never going to see any of us here" again, Sabagh’s mother, Ghazaleh James, told U.S. District Judge Wendy Beetlestone.
Beetlestone agreed, saying, “I do not believe that you will commit a crime."
Sabagh wore a black suit and blue tie. He spoke softly, sometimes stumbled over his words, and frequently sighed as he spoke, seemingly in exasperation at himself.
“I’m truly sorry,” Sabagh told Beetlestone. “I didn’t understand what I was doing at the time until the government told me what I did was wrong.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Diviny had a very different outlook on Sabagh, pointing out that Sabagh kept a $30,000 check sent in error to him by the Sheriff’s Office until he was told to return it.
“He knew what he was doing here,” Diviny said.
Beetlestone said she had a “great deal of difficulty” understanding Sabagh’s actions, saying that even though he emigrated from Iran to escape a “corrupt government and bad regime,” he engaged in corruption himself.
“Those ideas that you got as a teenage boy in Iran may have played a role here,” Beetlestone said. “In fact, trying to escape, you have done exactly the same thing. Life is funny like that.”
Because Sabagh showed remorse and had no prior criminal record, he faced 10 to 16 months in federal prison under federal sentencing guidelines.
Sabagh was ordered to turn himself in on Sept. 30.