Flaws in Al-Arian suit raise doubts
By GRAHAM BRINK, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- John Loftus made a big splash last week when he filed a lawsuit against Sami Al-Arian, accusing the suspended University of South Florida professor of using charities to solicit and launder money, then funnel it to terrorist groups in Syria.
Loftus said he made the accusations public to pressure the government into taking action against Al-Arian and the Saudi organizations "that helped fund terrorism." But he also thinks he will be able to bring enough evidence and witnesses to win the case.
But will the suit hold up in court? Does the former federal prosecutor turned Nazi hunter have legal standing to file it? Or is it just a "publicity stunt," as Al-Arian called it while vehemently denying the allegations?
The lawsuit has flaws, including factual mistakes and misspellings. It also relies heavily on confidential sources that Loftus said he developed during 25 years as an intelligence community insider and observer.
Tampa attorney Bill Jung said he does not envy the judge who has to sort through the 23-page suit.
"It starts out strong but then turns into a bad Ludlum novel," Jung said. "That said, on legal grounds he has a case that cannot be dismissed outright."
Tampa attorney Eddie Suarez said that unless Loftus can prove that money flowed between Al-Arian's legitimate charitable organizations and those with alleged terrorist ties, the case would likely crumble.
"The rest of the stuff, all the stuff that sounds like a Hollywood script, doesn't mean anything unless the flow of money can be established," he said.
Al-Arian was the focus of a federal investigation in the mid 1990s, when agents suspected that the World and Islam Studies Enterprise, or WISE, a think tank he had established at the University of South Florida, was a front for Middle Eastern terrorists.
The think tank was shut down, but Al-Arian was never charged with a crime.
But he came under scrutiny again after appearing on the Fox News show The O'Reilly Factor in September. He was grilled there about his ties to Ramadan Abdulah Shallah, whom Al-Arian had brought to USF in early 1990 and who later resurfaced as the head of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist organization.
In his suit, Loftus said federal officials have had enough evidence to arrest Al-Arian for several years. Each time they came close, he said, the State Department called them off the case so as not to embarrass the Saudi government, one of America's top allies in the Middle East.
Loftus said high-level Saudi officials, including King Fahd, knew about the illegal fundraising and money laundering and also knew that the money was going to terrorist groups that targeted and killed not only Jews, but also Arabs who supported the peace process. If federal authorities arrested Al-Arian, all of that would have become public, Loftus said.
About 85 percent of what was in the suit can be found in public records, Loftus said. The rest came from his numerous sources within the intelligence community.
The "facts" Loftus attributes to those sources have met with mixed reactions.
At a news conference when he filed the suit, Loftus said his sources had told him that in the next 24 hours federal agents would raid at least a dozen homes and offices in Virginia for information about Saudi-linked terrorist financial networks. A few hours later, the agents raided the buildings, carting away boxes of material.
On the other hand, Loftus said in his suit that his confidential sources told him that John O'Neill, a senior FBI official, resigned his position with the FBI because "he was disgusted with the way the Saudis were being protected."
A profile of O'Neill published by The New Yorker magazine in January made no reference to O'Neill resigning for that reason. The story instead suggested that O'Neill resigned for a number of reasons, including the perception that he had botched an investigation and might have compromised national security by leaving a briefcase full of secret documents in a hotel.
O'Neill died in the Sept. 11 attacks in New York City.
"Those other reasons may have also played a role," Loftus said in an interview this week.
Loftus wants the state to shut down any of Al-Arian's organizations that still exist and force Al-Arian to surrender assets until it is determined whether they were generated by illegal activity. He filed the suit under the Florida Consumer Protection Act, claiming that he was an "aggrieved party" since, among other things, he donated to Al-Arian's charities.
But Loftus made nominal donations only in the last few weeks, years after several of the charities shut down.
It's not uncommon in legal cases for plaintiffs to purposely inject themselves into a controversy for the purposes of filing a suit. On the other hand, a "manufactured plaintiff" doesn't always sit well with a jury if the case goes to trial, said Suarez, the Tampa attorney.
Al-Arian said it was just one example of the "frivolous" nature of the suit.
"He sends in ten bucks a few days ago to a defunct organization and that makes it legitimate?" Al-Arian said. "It shows that this is a political attack. Nothing more."
As for the factual errors, Loftus wrote that Al-Arian was a "citizen of Kuwait." Al-Arian was born in Kuwait but is not a citizen and holds no passport.
Loftus also called Syria a "former communist state." While Syria received weapons and money from the Soviet Union, it was not governed by a communist regime.
He also misspelled names, including Mazen Al-Najjar, Al-Arian's brother-in-law, and Hillsborough County.
Other facts appear exaggerated. Loftus, for example, wrote that Al-Arian was the managing director of "several new entities whose activities are on-going to the present day."
Al-Arian is a director of only two active nonprofit groups or corporations: the Islamic Academy of Florida (a Muslim school in Tampa) and the Tampa Bay Muslim Alliance (an umbrella organization of various mosques), according to state records. The other "charities," including WISE, were dissolved years ago, the records showed.
Will those details hurt the suit?
The credibility of a claim is enhanced, especially a controversial one like this one, if the technical details are correct, Suarez said.
"There's no real legal effect to having some minor technical errors," he said. "But as a practical matter, it can weaken your claim."
-- Times staff writer Susan Taylor Martin contributed to this report. Contact Graham Brink at (813) 226-3365 or email@example.com.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times
local news desks