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USF considered $1M payoff to Al-Arian

By MEG LAUGHLIN
Published February 8, 2007


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At the height of the controversy over Sami Al-Arian's future at the University of South Florida - before he was criminally charged but after he was suspended from teaching - university officials considered paying him nearly $1-million to resign.

The previously undisclosed settlement proposal, made in the late summer of 2002, became public Wednesday in a broadcast interview Al-Arian did with Democracy Now!, a left-leaning news and public affairs program.

At the time, USF had suspended Al-Arian, citing security concerns because of death threats against him, after TV commentator Bill O'Reilly said he believed Al-Arian was linked to the violent activities of a terrorist group.

Al-Arian, who is in federal custody in Virginia, told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! that the university's way of dealing with the allegations and death threats against him was to offer him money to resign. But, the deal fell through at the last moment.

"The chairman of the board Dick Beard objected," Al-Arian said, "because of the anticipated political fallout."

"It happened," Dick Beard acknowledged to the St. Petersburg Times on Wednesday. "The president (Judy Genshaft) and the lawyers felt that they were doing something to end the problems with Al-Arian, but I objected because I saw it as a payoff."

Bob McKee, Al-Arian's attorney who negotiated the secret deal, said Al-Arian was to get "between $920,000 and $930,000."

"It was a done deal on a Saturday," McKee said. "But, by Monday, when I was supposed to get a fax confirming the amount, it was off, and I never knew why."

USF spokeswoman Lara Wade said Genshaft would not discuss the deal. "As a matter of practice the university does not comment regarding negotiations, if any, with former employees," Wade said.

McKee said the offer came after weeks of negotiations with Genshaft and the school's lawyers. In mid July 2002, Genshaft announced publicly that she would decide about Al-Arian's dismissal by late August.

"By late August, the media blitz was getting worse and worse. The American Federation of teachers was supporting Al-Arian. So was the American Association of University Professors," McKee said. "The school just wanted it to go away."

And it did.

But not because of a secret settlement. Instead, it was because Al-Arian was arrested in February 2003 and charged with aiding a terrorist group with violent activities, and those charges gave the university grounds to fire him.

In December 2005, a jury acquitted Al-Arian on eight of the counts and deadlocked on nine others. In May 2006, he pleaded guilty to helping associates of a terrorist group with nonviolent activities and received a 57-month sentence.

Al-Arian is in the 18th day of a hunger strike to protest attempts to force him to testify before a grand jury in another terrorism investigation.

After talking from jail about the negotiations to get him to resign, Al-Arian told Goodman: "And, as the word goes, now we know the rest of the story."

Meg Laughlin can be reached at mlaughlin@sptimes.com or (727)893-8068.

[Last modified February 8, 2007, 00:21:05]


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