A former startup CEO has pleaded guilty to participating in a fraud scheme that conned Qualcomm, a San Diego-based tech giant, into paying $150 million for a technology that it already owned. Sanjiv Taneja, who served as the CEO of Abreezio, a Bay Area startup, admitted to his role in the scam on Thursday in federal court.
The scheme involved a former Qualcomm VP and his sister
According to the prosecutors, the scheme was orchestrated by Karim Arabi, a former vice president of research and development at Qualcomm, and his sister Sheida Alan, a Canadian graduate student. Arabi had invented a faster method for evaluating microprocessors while working at Qualcomm, but he concealed his involvement and portrayed the invention as his sister’s work. He also filed provisional patents using fake email accounts and changed his sister’s name legally to hide his identity.
Arabi was heavily involved in founding Abreezio, a startup that claimed to commercialize the invention. He hand-picked Taneja as the CEO and Ali Akbar Shokouhi as an entrepreneur and consultant. He also used bogus email accounts to communicate with them and Qualcomm. The information was hidden from Qualcomm during the negotiations that led to its acquisition of Abreezio in October 2015.
The fraudsters received $150 million in cash from Qualcomm
Qualcomm paid $150 million in cash to acquire Abreezio, believing that it was buying a cutting-edge technology that it did not own. In reality, it was paying for a technology that it had already paid Arabi to develop. The fraudsters received the money and distributed it among themselves. Arabi left Qualcomm in June 2016 after working there for nine years.
The fraudsters face up to 20 years in prison and hefty fines
The fraud scheme was uncovered by federal investigators and a grand jury indicted the four defendants in May. The indictment was unsealed on Monday and the arrests were made on the same day. Taneja was the first to plead guilty and agreed to cooperate with the authorities. He faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000 or twice his gain for the fraud charge.
Arabi and Shokouhi were arrested in San Diego and pleaded not guilty on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively. They were released on $1 million bonds each. Alan was arrested in Canada and faces extradition proceedings to the United States. All four defendants are also charged with money laundering, which carries another 20 years in prison and a fine of $500,000 or twice their gain.
Qualcomm is one of the world’s leading chip makers and wireless technology providers. It has over 41,000 employees worldwide and reported revenues of $23.5 billion in 2022.