A Broussard businessman who had an IHOP restaurant franchise in Lafayette avoided prison time but was fined $20,000 and sentenced to probation Wednesday for illegally shipping guns, bullets and body armor to Lebanon.
Joe Ali Youssef, 54, was charged last year after agents with U.S. Customs and Border Protection found four pistols, two rifles, a shotgun, body armor and 8,000 rounds of ammunition in two large shipping containers bound for Lebanon.
Youssef is a U.S. citizen but was born in Lebanon, where he has a second home.
He faced up to two years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines, but U.S. District Judge Richard Haik opted instead for two years’ probation and a hefty fine after hearing from Youssef’s attorneys about his involvement in the community and the lack of any evidence that he planned to sell the weapons to militants in the volatile region.
The judge specifically talked of Youssef paying the college tuition of one his IHOP employee’s children and the heavy toll the criminal case already has taken on him, including the loss of his contract for the IHOP franchise.
“I think to put you in jail would be a travesty, because you’ve led an exemplary life — an American dream that turned into an American nightmare,” Haik said.
The firearms, body armor and ammunition were hidden in compartments built into furniture Youssef was shipping overseas, according to court documents, and agents discovered more firearms and ammunition in a search of his home in the upscale Le Triomphe subdivision in south Lafayette Parish.
When he pleaded guilty earlier this year, Youssef told Haik he was shipping furnishings for his residence in Lebanon and hid the weapons for fear government inspectors there might steal them.
“They steal everything they see,” he said at the time. “I wasn’t hiding from the United States.”
Federal prosecutors acknowledged at Wednesday’s sentencing hearing that there was no evidence the weapons and ammunition were for anything but personal use.
“He loves his country, and he never intended to do anything illegal,” said Youssef’s attorney, Gerald Block.
The shipment was illegal because Youssef did not obtain the required license to export firearms and did not properly list the weapons on shipping forms.