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Intelligence conference draws criticism

Members of the former Holocaust Education Center worry its name is being misused.

By MEG LAUGHLIN
Published March 6, 2007


John Loftus, a former federal prosecutor who is a hosting a three-day conference in downtown St. Petersburg on international intelligence and terrorism, says he "may know more intelligence secrets than anyone alive."

But Loftus' claims, which include allegations that the Bush administration concealed the discovery of large stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, have been widely questioned by intelligence experts.

"This is not a mainstream conference with recognized names in the field," said Victoria Toensing, a Washington lawyer and former MSNBC legal analyst who established the terrorism unit for the Department of Justice during the Reagan administration.

"I've been in the intelligence and terrorism world a long time, and I would not suggest going to this conference for intelligence or terrorism information," she said.

Loftus, 57, has attracted about 400 people to the conference at the Hilton. But he has drawn criticism from former representatives of the International Holocaust Education Center, who are concerned that Loftus is using the name of the now-defunct educational arm of the museum to gather tax deductible contributions for his intelligence activities.

According to federal tax filings, Loftus is the registered agent of the International Holocaust Education Center, a tax-exempt charitable organization founded over 11 years ago in St. Petersburg. Its purpose was to educate the public about the Florida Holocaust Museum, of which Loftus is the vice chairman.

But by 2005 members of the board of directors of both organizations decided the job was being done sufficiently by the museum and the education center was no longer necessary.

Loftus, with the blessing of three board members of the Holocaust education center, was allowed to continue to use the center's name. This allowed him to preserve the center's tax-exempt status.

Walter Loebenberg, who founded the Holocaust education center and approved of turning the name over to Loftus in 2005 because of his high regard for him, says that he knew Loftus was doing intelligence work at the time.

"But," said Loebenberg, "we agreed he would change the name if he did his intelligence work under the name of the Holocaust education center."

"It has gone farther than we expected," said Loebenberg. "We never would have organized or sponsored an intelligence conference."

Board members say Loftus is "greatly admired" because of his work for Holocaust education, especially since he is not Jewish. However, several say they are "not happy" that he never changed the name of the organization in IRS filings.

Jay Snyder, who was the registered agent for the Holocaust Education Center until Loftus took over the name, says he holds Loftus in high esteem but is "surprised that John did not change the name of the organization in IRS filings to reflect the new intelligence direction."

"I didn't know he hadn't already done that," said Snyder.

Loftus abbreviated the full name of the International Holocaust Education Center to IHEC in the 2004-2005 tax filings. On the Web site for the Intelligence Summit, he said that IHEC stood for Intelligence and Homeland Security Education Center. But the intelligence organization does not exist in IRS records.

"What's the difference?" asked Loftus. "Both organizations are charities fighting terrorism. Both are for the good of America."

IRS spokesperson Gloria Sutton says there's a big difference: "If a tax-exempt charitable organization changes the name, the purpose or the structure, it must let IRS know by corresponding with us. And, it must remain neutral and nonpartisan."

Florida IRS investigator Norm Meadows: "We are scrutinizing exempt charitable organizations because abuse is occurring that often has to do with charities misrepresenting their purpose."

The Intelligence Summit and the affiliated Secular Islam Summit are billed as "non-partisan, non-profit," forums that "use private charitable funds."

The Intelligence Summit, which costs $425 to attend for private citizens, continues through Wednesday. The Secular Islam Summit, which was covered by CNN commentator Glenn Beck, ended Monday. In promotional literature it claimed to "feature the courageous voices of those who stand against radical Islam and speak against the violence of Islamist jihad."

Experts on Islam question the summit's nonpartisan status.

"Legitimate scholars are horrified by the lineup. The speakers are extreme in their views. Basically, it's everyone known for damning Islam," said Yvonne Hadad, a Georgetown University professor who teaches "the history of Christians and Muslims."

During a phone conversation with the St. Petersburg Times, Loftus offered this preview of the kind of "sensational disclosure" that will be revealed at the Intelligence Summit:

"At the end of the Iraq war in 2003, the Bush administration covered up finding four huge storehouses of weapons of mass destruction under 25 feet of water because the stuff was moved and then looted and the administration was embarrassed."

The State Department would not comment on this claim. But Gary Schmitt, former staff director of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and a security and defense scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said he had never heard Loftus' version of events.

"I know nothing about that or the Intelligence Summit," said Schmitt. But he said he had heard of Loftus: "I don't recall him as an intelligence person, but as someone who gives opinions to the press."

According to IRS documents, the main donor to the International Holocaust Education Center from 2004 to 2005 was Michael Cherney, a Russian aluminum tycoon who gave the organization $100,000 that year. Loftus has not yet made the 2005-06 IRS records available to the St. Petersburg Times. He says they show that Cherney donated another $50,000 last year.

Cherney, who Loftus agrees was the summits' main contributor, was invited by Loftus to be the "distinguished guest of honor" at this year's event. But the United States has denied Cherney a visa since 1999 because of alleged ties to the Russian mafia.

Loftus acknowledges the U.S. government's view of Cherney, but says, "He was framed by Negroponte and never committed a crime." John Negroponte, now deputy secretary of state, is the former director of national intelligence. The State Department would not comment.

One named sponsor of the summit has sought to distance itself from Loftus' conference.

Konica Minolta was listed as a sponsor on the summit's Web site. That information was removed last week after Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations in Washington, D,C., asked the corporation why it was sponsoring "an event that is apparently linked to and hosting individuals who promote anti-Muslim bigotry and hatred."

A spokesperson for Konica Minolta told the St. Petersburg Times that it had never consented to being a sponsor. "We have never heard of this conference and never agreed to be a part of it," James Norberto said. "We're not sure how we got pulled in."

Neither is retired pediatrician and Florida Holocaust Museum board member Bruce Epstein, who says that the Holocaust Education Center "never was supposed to have anything to do with intelligence work or homeland security."

But, says Epstein: "John has been so active in Holocaust education in the past, we have to believe his heart is in the right place."

Staff writers Kris Hundley and Sydney Freedberg and researchers Caryn Baird and Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this story. Meg Laughlin can be reached a mlaughlin@sptimes.com.