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Trial's cost: still counting

Trying Al-Arian and his co-defendants probably cost tens of millions. But no one knows yet.

Published December 8, 2005

TAMPA - Taxpayers may not see the final bill for putting Sami Al-Arian and three others on trial for several years.

While federal government officials refused to speculate on cost Wednesday, some legal experts say the bill could potentially range in the tens of millions of dollars, making it the most expensive trial ever in the court district including Tampa.

It may even rank among the most costly federal prosecutions in recent history.

"Certainly it was a major, significant case and there were a lot of resources dedicated to it," said Steve Cole, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Florida.

He pointed to the four prosecutors - two from out-of-town - and several law enforcement agencies that spent years investigating the case, which took six months to try.

Federal officials in Tampa and Washington said Wednesday they generally don't keep ready tabs of hours and dollars spent on a particular case in the same way private law firms do.

Yet, several local attorneys who used to work as prosecutors said they think the final bill, which would date back to the original wire tapping investigation of Al-Arian in early 1994, to reach tens of millions of dollars.

So far, the few bills and dollar amounts that have surfaced during trial represent a tiny percentage of the money it took to bring the case to trial.

"There's no question that the government viewed it as a priority. Therefore, when the government decides it's a priority, the resources are unlimited," said Tampa attorney John Lauro, who has worked as a federal prosecutor in Florida and New York. "We've just seen the tip of the iceberg at trial."

At this point, only small pieces of the bill are known:

The Tampa Police Department provided extra security during the trial for $160,000, which was paid for by the Liberty Shield Homeland Security grant.

Compensation for jurors over the six-month period was more than $9,000. The dozen jurors, alternates and extras were paid $40 a day the first month, and $50 per day the rest of the time, which doesn't include daily lunch and parking.

U.S. District Judge James Moody approved more than $180,000 paid over the course of the trial to appointed federal defenders and language experts to help the defense, according to federal court records.

Government witness Arafat Muneer testified he was paid $35,000 to cooperate with agents.

The overall bill would also include the cost of importing and hosting at least a dozen witnesses from Israel, as well as dozens of investigative trips to the Middle East.

Also, the bill includes the cost of blowing up a bus in the Everglades, an effort undertaken to simulate a suicide bombing. Moody prohibited the government from showing the videotape of the explosion during trial.

It was expected to cost $400,000 or more to convert thousands of hours of surveillance tapes to a digital format to make them easier to handle, which took eight months.

More is known about the cost of some other complicated federal prosecutions, such as the trials of Oklahoma City bombing conspirators Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh.

In all, the government reported spending more than $82.5-million to investigate the bombing and prosecute the cases. And the cost to defend the duo was an additional $19.2-million, according to court records.

The McVeigh and the Nichols trials occurred separately, but each case had between 100 and 200 witnesses, more than the 80 witnesses who testified during the Al-Arian case. Yet both trials ran much shorter than Al-Arian's, lasting about 28 days each. Al-Arian's trial was in session for about 80 days.

However, the trials of McVeigh and Nichols took place within about 31/2 years of the bombing. By contrast, the investigation and the bill for the Al-Arian case started 12 years ago. And since the case against Al-Arian has yet to be concluded, the bill is still running.

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

[Last modified December 8, 2005, 00:51:07]

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