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Peter Deutsch backs away from a group led by a friend but still criticizes Betty Castor's handling of the matter.
By ANITA KUMAR and MICHAEL VAN SICKLER
Published July 14, 2004
ST. PETERSBURG - Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Peter Deutsch on Tuesday distanced himself from an independent group criticizing rival Betty Castor for not firing Sami Al-Arian while she was president of the University of South Florida.
"I think not firing the guy was absolutely a defensible position," Deutsch, a congressman from Hollywood, said in his first extensive remarks on the issue. "Absolutely defensible."
Deutsch also said he wanted no outside groups, such as the one attacking Castor that is led by his longtime friend, to campaign or raise money during the Democratic primary race.
"I would wish that they didn't exist," he told the St. Petersburg Times editorial board. "You know, I'd love for that to occur."
Castor defended her handling of the Al-Arian situation Tuesday at a campaign stop at a fire station in Carrollwood. She said she made the right decisions in the 1990s when Al-Arian, a computer science professor, was under investigation for allegedly raising money for terrorists. He was indicted last year and fired by Castor's successor, Judy Genshaft.
Instead of firing him, she put Al-Arian on paid leave for two years and hired a prominent lawyer with close ties to the school to look into allegations against him and the university's actions involving Al-Arian.
In recent weeks, with the three major Democratic candidates agreeing on virtually all major issues, how Castor handled Al-Arian has come to dominate the race. Recent polls show Castor leading Deutsch and Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas.
Tuesday marked a shift in Castor's handling of the Al-Arian issue.
For the first time, she directed her attacks at the Republicans instead of Deutsch and the group tied with his campaign, the American Democracy Project.
Al-Arian campaigned for President Bush in 2000, posed for a photo with him at Plant City's Strawberry Festival in March of that year and said publicly that Muslims in Florida may have tipped the close presidential election to Bush.
He also visited the White House complex in 2001 for a meeting with Muslim activists and Bush's top strategist, Karl Rove.
"I was doing everything I could," she said. "Meanwhile, Al-Arian was invited to the White House. Why wasn't he prevented from being invited to the White House?"
Deutsch said Tuesday that Al-Arian likely was invited to the White House because he was not a physical threat to Bush and because the federal government did not want to let Al-Arian know he was under investigation.
But he said Al-Arian's White House visit is irrelevant to Castor's actions as USF president.
What Castor should have done, Deutsch said, is meet with Al-Arian when she was USF president and denounce his activities.
"I can understand why she wouldn't fire him," he said, "but to do nothing?"
Castor, who said she did denounce Al-Arian's activities, says she could not fire him because she never got "one iota" of information from law enforcement agencies, including the FBI.
"That's not accurate," Deutsch said. "She did get an iota of information. She got a 44-page affidavit."
The affidavit, unsealed in 1996, suggested the FBI had probable cause to believe Al-Arian's think tank and charity were fronts for terrorists.
Deutsch called information in the documents "extraordinary" and "disturbing."
The affidavit said Al-Arian was connected to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, phone calls were made from his home to numbers associated with the 1993 World Trade Center bombers and that he used two charity groups connected to USF to aid international terrorism.
Al-Arian has said in the past that his fundraising was for charitable Palestinian causes.
Deutsch said he has not asked his friend, Bernie Friedman of Hollywood, to stop his group's attacks on Castor because he is not legally allowed to coordinate with the group and because Friedman has the right to speak up.
"Ultimately that's for voters to decide," he said.
- Times staff writer Anita Kumar can be reached at 727 893-8472 or email@example.com
[Last modified July 14, 2004, 01:00:43]