Monday, June 18, 2007
Secret Bank Accounts, Checks to the Holy Land Foundation, False Claims of Persecution, and Oodles of Saudi Money -- The Islamic Society of Boston Bit Off More Than It Could Chew
On May 29, the news came, rather suddenly, that the Islamic Society of Boston had dropped its wide-ranging defamation and Civil Rights lawsuit against seventeen defendants, including individuals, activist groups, reporters, and media outlets like the Boston Herald and FOX-25. (For a comprehensive background of the case, see my previous piece, The Silencing.)
The Muslim American Society quickly held a press conference declaring that the dropping of the case actually represented a great victory, but a more sober assessment of the outcome from the perspective of the ISB/MAS seemed to be in order, as indicated in a Wall Street Journal piece, Be Careful What You Sue For, written by attorney Floyd Abrams, the man who represented terror expert Steven Emerson, a defendant in the case.
I decided to sit down with the lead defense attorney on the case, Jeff Robbins, who represented The David Project, its Director of Education, Anna Kolodner, two-thirds of Citizens for Peace and Tolerance -- Episcopal Political Science Professor at Boston College Dennis Hale, and attorney Steve Cohen (the third member of CPT, Ahmed Mansour, was brought into the suit later and represented separately) -- and see if we could get to the bottom of some of the questions people still had.
Q: Was there a quid pro quo in the dropping of the suit?
A: In the cases (there were three of them brought by the Islamic Society of Boston), the Islamic Society of Boston and its two officers dropped all the claims against all seventeen of the defendants -- media defendants and non-media defendants -- for not one penny and the only "quid pro quo" in those cases was that the non-media defendants (who were the only ones who could come after the ISB for their legal fees) agreed not to pursue them for those fees.
Q: So FOX and the Herald can't come after them anyway because...
A: ...they did not have even a theoretical possibility of coming after them for their legal fees because in America, as you know, unfortunately perhaps, defendants have no right to come after plaintiffs for their legal fees except in the most extraordinarily rare circumstances. So that dropping the case is really just a complete capitulation by the Islamic Society of Boston and its chairman of the board of trustees, and its chairman of the board of directors -- Osama Kandil and Yousef Abou-Allaban respectively -- who, after spending what one estimates must have been in the neighborhood of 1.5 to 2 million dollars in legal fees and trumpeting their claims to have a civil rights claim and to have a conspiracy claim and to have dozens of defamation claims, essentially were forced to acknowledge that they had nothing of the kind, and that rather than proceeding any further in the discovery process, which was already subjecting them to a bit of a buzz saw and was about to get even worse for them, they preferred to fold.
Q: They've been playing up the Policastro case big time -- that the Policastro case was threatening to level the Mosque and turn it into a pile of dirt and that this settlement has killed that case...that's not the case?
A: That's simply nonsense. Policastro had brought a lawsuit which was dismissed back in February and the most it ever could have achieved was to require the ISB to pay the BRA (Boston Redevelopment Authority) more money. So if Policastro were successful, ironically, the BRA, which had been withholding documents, would have received more money from the ISB, and even that would not have happened until years down the road. So Policastro decided, as I understand it, that what he really hoped to achieve, which was to shine a spotlight on the BRA/ISB transaction, a) already had been done in some measure and b) was going to be done in full measure by the public records lawsuit that The David Project had filed, in addition to Policastro's own public records requests. Therefore, the already-dismissed Establishment Clause challenge had precious little meaning. What Policastro hoped to do, which was to shed light on how the BRA did business, was being done, had been done, and would continue to be done by the case which The David Project brought, and which, significantly, The David Project refused to drop.
In other words, the ISB not only was required to drop all its claims against everybody for not one dime and not only in essence had to beg to be absolved of any liability for the defendants' attorneys fees, but the ISB could not even secure The David Project's agreement to drop its public records case because The David Project refused to do so.
Q: You estimate that they've spent between 1.5 to 2 million dollars. You don't have any specific way of knowing that do you? You're not working pro-bono are you? Are you working pro-bono?
A: Mintz Levin? Mintz Levin is working principally pro-bono, predominantly pro-bono.
Q: What does "predominantly" mean? Like a serious discount?
A: Meaning significantly more pro-bono than not pro-bono. Which is to say Mintz Levin did this in the main because it was convinced, as I was convinced, that it was simply unacceptable to permit citizens and non-profits to be bullied into submission by an organization with millions and millions and millions of dollars at its disposal which that organization, the ISB, decided to deploy for the purpose of scaring the heck out of people.
Q: They say that The David Project and their allies are the ones with millions of dollars, that they have all the resources, and that the ISB is just a poor, small Islamic organization. Abou-Allaban got up at the press conference and said that they had to sell off property in order to be able to afford to fight this battle or to continue building the mosque because things dried up. Is that not the case? Where are they getting their money from?
A: I don't know where to begin with their characterization. It is true that they are an Islamic organization and that, I think, is the extent of the truth of their assertion. They are an organization funded principally by millions of dollars of overseas money -- mostly Saudi Arabia but also from elsewhere in the Middle East. In addition, they had millions of dollars worth of property which they own mortgage free in Cambridge. They were in a position to commandeer wire transfers into their accounts of $999,875 or $999,900 at a pop -- two separate wire transfers, both from Saudi Arabia -- not including millions of dollars that poured into their bank accounts from Saudi Arabia and other places in the Middle East.
Q: When was that? When did that start happening?
A: Well it happened beginning in 2000 and appears to be going on to this day.
Q: So that money that they've been taking in -- it never decreased following the accusations in the Herald and on FOX25 and with what The David Project and others have been saying, or since the Policastro suit was filed? Their fundraising hasn't suffered?
A: Quite to the contrary. It's a matter of public record -- and there are filings which show this -- that the ISB claims they were defamed in the main by articles that appeared in the Boston Herald in late 2003 running into early 2004 and these articles, they say, "devastated" or "crippled" their fundraising. Come to find out, as we did in this case, that in April of 2004, that is, after most of the supposed defamation had "devastated" their fundraising, a bank account was set up out of the jurisdiction, in New Hampshire...
Q: What's the significance of that?
A: Well, ordinarily, banks or other entities outside of Massachusetts are not susceptible to a subpoena issued by a Massachusetts court. In this case, however, someone may have overlooked the fact that this particular New Hampshire bank had an Andover [MA] branch and therefore this bank was capable of having its records subpoenaed.
And what those records showed was that in April of 2004 -- that is to say after the supposed devastation had occurred to the ISB's fundraising -- the ISB set up this bank account and, in the months following, approximately $4.5 million poured into this bank account alone, every dime of which was from the Middle East. That's just one of the bank accounts maintained by the ISB. The evidence indicated that there were as many as twenty bank accounts that the ISB maintained in various locations and at various times and the ISB decided, perhaps wisely from its perspective, to cave before all of those bank records were exposed.
It's also a part of the public record that quite contrary to its claim to be an organization that was devastated by these news reports -- which they have effectively now acknowledged were true by dropping the claims without a dollar being paid -- just before the ISB filed this lawsuit alleging that their fundraising had been "devastated," their own lawyer and their chairman of the board had sent out an email proudly proclaiming "fundraising has been robust." So in October of 2005, when this lawsuit was filed, the ISB lawyers and the ISB chairman knew full well that they had recently sent out an email claiming that "fundraising has been robust" and yet they turned around and filed a lawsuit claiming falsely, it would appear, that their fundraising had been "devastated."
There was a great deal of evidence that these claims were not merely meritless, but worse than that. And I expect that the imminent disclosure of even more evidence to that effect played a significant role in the ISB's decision to fold when it did. Remember that the timing of this caving on the part of the ISB is probably not coincidental. Muhammad Ali-Salaam, one of the ISB's principal fundraisers, had just been ordered by the Court-appointed discovery master to appear with his personal emails relating to the ISB and to give testimony under oath about those emails. That was to have occurred on June 7. On June 8 the ISB was required to turn over somewhere between 25 to 50 boxes of its own records. On June 15 it was required to answer 700 and some-odd interrogatories under oath, including those that would have required that they identify all their contributions to certain organizations.
So I think one can fairly infer that it's not entirely coincidental that the ISB decided to fold when it decided to fold. [On May 29.]
Q: So now we're never going to get that stuff, or we're going to get that stuff still because of the lawsuit against the BRA is ongoing? Are we destined never to see some of these things?
A: Well, that's difficult to say. The evidence is in different categories. It's certain that many of the records that the ISB never had to turn over will never see the light of day and that was the design of the ISB's capitulation. On the other hand, there are documents on the other side of the spectrum which are public records which, by rights, if the BRA complies with its legal obligations, will see the light of day.
Q: So the ISB is now off the discovery hook, but the BRA, because it's a public entity, there's still some chance of getting some information...
A: Yes, as far as the ISB's contributions to certain organizations and certain of its funding sources, there's no doubt that the ISB has decided to cut off the disclosure of that evidence to the fullest extent that it can. It'll be interesting to see how they respond to public calls for the disclosure of its contributions to certain organizations.
Q: Like Roxbury Community College?
A: Well, I wasn't thinking of those kinds of contributions. I was thinking of other contributions.
Q: The Holy Land Foundation? Does that figure in?
A: Let's put it this way. I think it would be an interesting question for the ISB to answer: What organizations that have been identified by the Treasury Department of the United States as foreign terrorist organizations have the ISB contributed to, in what years, and in what amounts?
To give you one example which is already a matter of public record, there is evidence that the ISB contributed about $14,000 in one year alone -- that's the only record that we have, that one year -- to an organization called the Benevolence International Foundation (BIF), which has been identified in the 9/11 Commission Report as an Al Qaeda front, and has been identified by the Treasury Department and shut down as a foreign terrorist organization.
On record is the tax return for the Benevolence International Foundation for 1996 which lists approximately $14,000 for that year from the Islamic Society of Boston and lists as its P.O. Box, its address, the address set up by one, Abdurahman Alamoudi, the founder of the ISB, now in jail for a series of terrorism financing violations, who, when he formed the ISB, listed that same address as his address and that of the ISB, and that's the address which shows up on the BIF tax return.
Q: What's the overlap between the ISB and the Muslim American Society? The MAS did the press conference. So are they the same group, do they give money to each other? What's going on there?
A: Let me confine my remarks to the evidence that's a matter of the record to date. There is evidence that MAS operated out of ISB's offices, that the COO, in effect, of the ISB, the Imam Basyouni Nehela, is a member of the MAS board of directors, that the recently sacked trustee of the ISB, Mr. Attawia, was a long-time director of the MAS. When the ISB or the MAS or whoever it was who held the press conference the morning after they folded, the speaker was Mahdi Bray of the MAS, so there is a very substantial amount of overlap.
Q: Abou-Allaban said he had to leave the country at fear for his family's safety and that he suffered greatly. What's the truth of that?
A: Well, I don't want to frame my answer in terms of what the "truth" is, but let me simply say that as a matter of evidence, it is a matter of record, that a number of, I think five, of Abou-Allaban's neighbors had signed sworn affidavits stating that Abou-Allaban admitted to them that his own allegations were false, and that he had lost no money, no income, at all, and that he had never been under any threat at all. Indeed, it is a matter of public record that far from being in fear, Abou-Allaban excitedly tried to draw as much attention to himself as he possibly could, trying to interest reporters in covering the filing of his lawsuit and proudly boasting to his friends and colleagues that he had managed to secure for himself interviews for himself on television and radio. That's hardly a man who's concerned about being in the public eye. So let's suffice it to say that five of Mr. Abou-Allaban's neighbors were so appalled by the allegations that he made in his complaint that they signed affidavits under oath stating that on very specific occasions when they asked him about the truth of his allegations, Dr. Abou-Allaban admitted that his allegations were not true.
Q: You think they're still friends, he and his neighbors?
A: It may have disrupted the atmosphere at the neighborhood association.
Q: So Albert Farrah filed a lawsuit just a few months after saying fundraising had been robust. Isn't there something shady about that? I mean can you do anything if I come to you and I say I'll pay your fee and I want you to file this lawsuit and you know it hasn't got anything behind it...
A: I think it would be inappropriate for me to comment on that. I know Al Farrah. I've come to know him during the case and I like him.
Q: OK. David Rich? Do you like him too?
A: Very much.
Q: Howard Cooper?
A: Howard is a skilled and an energetic and a very clever lawyer who has achieved significant successes in his field and it's not difficult to see why.
Q: OK, I got the answers I expected from that one.
There's been a lot of talk about people being against "Muslims." They tried to stop a mosque, The David Project is stirring up bad feelings about Muslims. Is it about Muslims?
A: Look, I saw no evidence that it was ever about Muslims at all. On the contrary, all you have to do to realize how ludicrous that is is to think about who did the ISB sue? They sued a very courageous Islamic Cleric, Ahmed Mansour, and they accused him of having a "non-authoritative" view of Islam. Of all the ugly aspects of this lawsuit -- the decision to file it, the allegations that were made, the strategy of suing people in order to intimidate them into silence -- in some ways nothing was uglier than the decision that was made by whoever it was that made it, whether it was made in Saudi Arabia or Washington, D.C. by Mr. Bray or elsewhere, the decision to sue and to frighten Ahmed Mansour and through him other moderate Muslims into staying silent is to my mind one of the most grotesque aspects of this lawsuit.
Here's a man who was jailed in the Middle East for having spoken out in favor of pluralism and respect for democracy and tolerance for other religions. He comes to the United States and gets political asylum. He goes into the current ISB mosque and he sees literature which is exactly, to his mind, the kind of stuff that made him disgusted and outraged in the Middle East, and he thinks "How can this be? How can this be in my new country?" and he has the courage to speak out. Let there be no mistake. The decision to sue Ahmed Mansour, like the decision to sue Anna Kolodner, Steve Emerson, Bill Sapers and the journalists, was borne of a desire to bully people into submission. I understand why the day after they were forced to cave in the ISB did its best to try to peddle this as an attack against Muslims. It was no such thing. It was their attack. And it was their attack on Muslims, and on Christians and Jews. I joked to some people that where the ISB sued a Muslim Cleric, a Christian Political Science professor, and a Jewish daughter of Holocaust survivors, they had managed to achieve the perfect ecumenical exercise. They were trying to bully everybody, without regard to their religion.
Q: Does Qaradhawi still have any sort of official standing with the ISB?
A: The answer to that question is yes, inasmuch as he remains on the original declaration of trust, and as I understand it he can, under the terms of that trust, be made a trustee at any time still to this day.
Q: The disclosures went both ways. There were some emails that were widely circulated on the other side that showed people talking about what to do to stop the mosque construction, I mean, they were talking about how to stop the structure going up.
A: If one simply steps back and remembers that this is about a group of citizens who wanted to share and obtain information, were committed to trying to understand what the facts were -- and that meant going through public records, trying to consult with experts including Muslims, including Ahmed Mansour, consulting with a very respected Muslim scholar on the west coast, Khaleel Mohammed, that there will be emails. That is how people communicate. So the notion that there's something nefarious about finding out what the facts were -- there were emails where people quite nobly insisted on trying to kick the tires on facts and go back and go back and say who is that? What is that? Who is the Muslim Brotherhood? What has al Qaradhawi said? What do the trust documents say? How do they work? How does the ownership of the land work? This, to my mind, is a very noble thing that the citizens did and the emails are the emails of noble people doing what citizens should do.
Q: The ISB has local people as part of a "board," but then there's the "trust" which is mostly, if not all, at least until recently, overseas people?
A: That is one of the things that, in these supposedly nefarious emails, people were trying to asertain. Well, they said, we're told there's a local board, so let's try to understand that. Isn't it true that it's really the trustees that own the land? Isn't it true that under the terms of the trust, the trustees can kick the ISB out any time they want, that it's the ISB trustees rather than the ISB who actually own the land, who actually own the funds, who actually control the project? And if that's so, what does that say about the public line being peddled by the ISB that, oh, well, really this is a local organization? Is that false or is it true?
Q: Now, this business with the trust and who's really running things between they and the ISB board figures in to explaining why Walid Fitaihi and others resigned when they did, doesn't it? You were going to be able to get into his records and that was one of the things that they sort of cut off at the pass by calling it quits on the lawsuit, correct?
A: Yes indeed. That's right. The sudden departure from the scene of Walid Fitaihi because he suddenly discovered that he had other engagements is a very interesting aspect of this. Walid Fitaihi was the trustee of the ISB trust from its very inception back in 1993. He was the Treasurer. He was, from all accounts, the principal Saudi fundraiser, which is to say the principal fundraiser, for the iSB. He was somebody who, let's say, had signed many of the checks which the ISB had written to other organizations and we'll leave it at that.
And when it was pointed out that under Massachusetts law the trust really had this claim, or at least possessed enough of the claim to need to be brought into the case, and that meant the individual trustees had to be named as parties and brought in and subjected to depositions, and answering interrogatories, and producing emails and the rest, and when a deadline was set for Mr. Fitaihi to be brought in and subjected to the jurisdiction of the court, all of a sudden Mr. Fitaihi decided that he wasn't so interested in being a trustee anymore and resigned immediately before the deadline by which he was to be subjected to the court's jurisdiction.
Now the ISB has said publicly that nothing should be inferred from that, it's just that he had some other commitments. It is peculiar to think that April 10, 2007 was when all those commitments kicked in when the dealine for him being brought into the case was April 11th, but perhaps he had some commitments which just kind of emerged suddenly out of the blue. Sometimes commitments can get like that.
Q: Had they offered to settle earlier than this? I know they'd been calling for mediation, but had they tried to settle the suit itself?
A: I think that the better part of prudence is to not disclose communications from them to me that they probably would like to be kept confidential. I think I should honor that, but I think that it's a matter of public knowledge that the ISB has been trying to get the David Project to agree to mediation since March of 2006, making public calls for it, trying to get other people to make public calls for it, and I think trying to generate some pressure for The David Project to engage in mediation and we simply refused. Our position was that there was nothing to mediate.
Q: There have been a ton of disclosures. Do they have any recourse to stop this? Did they try at all to stop this bleeding of information?
A: The ISB tried repeatedly to persuade the Superior Court to issue an order shielding all of the evidence disclosed during discovery from public view. It began back in the fall of 2006 and it continued for months thereafter as they tried over and over to argue that they were entitled to a "shield" to keep the evidence about their operations out of public view. And the court, to its credit, rejected those efforts and ruled that this was a public proceeding and that the evidence was public. The first argument they made before they thought better of it was that the reason that they really wanted a confidentiality order was not because they were concerned about anything with contributions or with funding or anything like that. They said that their concern was that, you know, in this post-9/11 age, if the schematics of the mosque were published, that could pose a security threat. And we responded by filing in court a brief which pointed out that #1) no one could care less about the schematics of the mosque, but #2) they had themselves published the schematics of the mosque on the internet on their own web site.
So it was very likely that there was something other than the schematics of the mosque that they were concerned would reach the public. And indeed, their decision to capitulate as they have and when they have confirms that it was the exposure of the very kinds of facts that we thought they were concerned about that caused them to pack it in.
Q: A lot of people have commented about Muhammad Ali-Salaam and his sort of double-dealing. Is that illegal? I know that he's probably protected politically...
A: On the question of whether it's illegal, that's for someone else to say. On the question of whether it is profoundly disturbing, that I think I'm as qualified as the next person to say and of course it is. You have, as far as the public records disclosed show, the very same person who is presiding over the transaction from the point of view of the public, and, by the way, negotiating a very, very substantial, perhaps as much as a 91%, discount in the fair market value of public land, being transferred to an organization dominated by overseas interests, that very same person is an active fundraiser for those overseas interests, traveling at their expense overseas to raise money for them.
Now, just to step back, you have this same person, who's simultaneously acting on behalf of the public and acting on behalf of a private interest on the very same transaction. He is simultaneously the person driving the project and overseeing the discount to the private organization and he's the representative of the private organization, making trips to the Middle East to raise money for it and then coming back and then presto, the land gets conveyed for a fraction of its fair market value. I don't think one has to be, you know, super smart to see, as I think everybody who's looked at this deal sees, that that is extraordinarily troubling.
Q: "Highly irregular" as they say.
A: I hope it's highly irregular!
Q: Jeff Robbins, thanks for joining me.
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