FBI’s attempt to water down judicial order denied; 9/11 documents begin to flow to judge

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers fbitower.jpg

A Fort Lauderdale federal judge Friday gave the FBI another week to produce tens of thousands of pages from its massive 9/11 investigation for his inspection, but forcefully denied government requests that he water down his own previous order requiring disclosure.

Hours after the order was filed, a government lawyer filed court papers saying the Justice Department had delivered “27 pages of classified material” to the court for the judge’s private, or “in camera,” inspection.

The legal developments are among a flurry of recent activity in the Freedom of Information case that was filed by BrowardBulldog.org in 2012. The suit seeks records from a once secret FBI investigation into apparent pre-9/11 terrorist activity in Sarasota.

“What’s important here is that the Justice Department was seeking wholesale reconsideration of the prior order and the judge instead issued a stern rejection of the idea that he undo what he had previously ordered,” said the Bulldog’s Miami attorney, Thomas Julin.

The investigation focused on a Saudi family with ties to the Royal family and apparent connections to some of the 9/11 hijackers and another terrorist figure who once lived in Broward. The investigation began after Abdulaziz al Hijji and his wife, Anoud, abruptly moved out of their upscale home in a gated community about two weeks before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, leaving behind cars, furniture, clothing and food in the kitchen.

NEIGHBORS CALL THE AUTHORITIES

Suspicious neighbors summoned authorities starting the day of the attacks. Sources have said agents later found evidence that 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta, several other hijackers and former Miramar resident Adnan Shukrijumah had visited the al Hijji’s home. Shukrijumah is now believed to be an al Qaeda leader and is wanted by the FBI.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement records obtained by BrowardBulldog.org show the FBI continued to investigate al-Hijji until at least 2004. Yet the Bureau never disclosed the existence of the Sarasota probe to either Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11, or the subsequent 9/11 Commission, according to former Florida Sen. Bob Graham who co-chaired the Joint Inquiry.

On April 4, U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch ordered the FBI to conduct a thorough search of its records for documents responsive to the news organization’s Freedom of Information request and produce photocopies to him by April 18. The order informed the FBI that it had failed to convince him that its prior records searches were adequate under the law.

The order included specific instructions to the FBI as to how it is to conduct the latest search, from requiring it to search using its new $440 million Sentinel case management system down to the names and words that are to be used in text searches.

Sen. Graham applauded Zloch’s order, saying it gave “a strong, clear directive to the FBI. He called it “the closest in 12 years that we’ve been to achieving” the release of government information that might shed new light on who was behind the terrorist attacks.

But the government pushed back.

GOVERNMENT SEEKS MORE TIME, LESS REQUIREMENTS

On Thursday, Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Dexter Lee filed a motion seeking a two-week delay – until May 2 – to turn over what he estimates is 92,000 pages of 9/11 records from the FBI’s Tampa field office.

Lee also told Zloch the FBI was scanning each of those pages, which fill 23 boxes and include some records labeled secret, and asked for permission “to deliver the Tampa (9/11) sub file to the court in a searchable CD format, in lieu of photocopies.”

The judge, however, signaled that he won’t tolerate much delay. He granted just a one-week extension of his deadline and told the government it must produce both the photocopies and the digitized version of the records in searchable format.  He gave the FBI until May 2 to turn over the digitized records.

Zloch denied outright the government’s request that it not be required to conduct a manual search of its records. Lee had proposed instead that the government be allowed to use an optical character reader to search the newly digitized records.

“Defendants may employ the OCR search capability, but not as a substitute for the manual review ordered by the court,” the judge’s order said.

Finally, Judge Zloch dismissed the government’s request that he reconsider his prior order directing the FBI to conduct additional text searches using the names of specific individuals, including Abdulaziz al Hijj and his father-in-law Esam Ghazzawi, once an adviser to a Saudi prince and the owner of the home apparently visited by the hijackers.

The government has contended the privacy interests of al Hijji, Ghazzawi and others outweigh the public’s interest in disclosure of records the FBI may have on them.

Dan Christensen is the editor of Broward Bulldog. Anthony Summers is co-author with Robbyn Swan of “The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden,” published by Ballantine Books, which was a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2012.

Judge awaits FBI’s Sarasota Saudi documents; Justice Department wants more time

By Michael Pollick, Sarasota Herald-Tribune september11

Relatives of 9/11 victims are eagerly watching the legal struggle over information held by the FBI concerning a Saudi Arabian family in Sarasota with possible ties to terrorists, even as calls in Congress ramp up for more disclosure about how the attackers were funded.

On Friday, a federal judge in Fort Lauderdale was expected to receive FBI documents pertaining to the agency’s investigation of the Saudi family that abruptly left Sarasota just before the September 2001 attacks.

Late Thursday, however, the government asked for more time to submit the records, saying the materials that need to be searched comprise 23 boxes totaling 92,000 pages in the agency’s Tampa field office – some of the documents carrying a “secret” classification.

Government lawyers proposed a May 2 deadline, but the judge did not immediately grant the government’s request.

On April 4, the judge ordered the FBI to turn over the materials in response to a lawsuit brought by BrowardBulldog.org that was joined by both the Herald-Tribune and The Miami Herald.

“Defendants’ eagerness to assert exemptions and wooden method of interpreting Plaintiffs’ (Freedom of Information Act) requests essentially deprives the Court of its role in examining any relevant documents and independently determining whether any exemptions may apply,” U.S. District Court Judge William J. Zloch wrote of the FBI, a defendant in the case.

Zloch ordered a more exhaustive new search, with the resulting documents to be delivered — uncensored — to him for review Friday. Additional documentation is due in June.

Family members have strongly denied any ties to the 9/11 terrorists.

If the judge eventually makes those documents public, the 16-month-old lawsuit could dovetail with a larger effort to shed more light on who financed the jet attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.

One effort is centered in New York federal court, where a 12-year-old case seeks $1 trillion in damages for the relatives of nearly 10,000 9/11 victims.

In that case, families are attempting to sue the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and charities that it established.

In Congress, meanwhile, there is a growing drumbeat to make public a censored 28-page chapter about the terrorists’ financing, pulled by unnamed government censors from the report of the “Joint Inquiry Into Intelligence Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 2001.” The joint Congressional report, minus the censored chapter, runs about 800 pages and was published in late 2002.

The classified section is believed by activists to be based on FBI and CIA documents, and to point fingers at Saudi Arabia, a longtime ally of the United States and a key oil supplier.

“It all ties together about financing power, leading back to the Saudis,” said Bill Doyle, a retired stockbroker who lives in the Central Florida community of The Villages, and whose youngest son, Joseph, died after being trapped in the World Trade Center.

Doyle is among the lead plaintiffs in one of three lawsuits against Saudi Arabia that have been combined into a single federal court action entitled “In Re: Terrorist Attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 (Saudi Arabia et al.)”

He said he also believes the Sarasota connection — in which a Saudi family abruptly departed the U.S. two weeks before the attacks, leaving behind many possessions — could answer questions about larger issues.

“You take off a week or so before 9/11 and go back to Saudi Arabia and leave dirty diapers, food, two brand- new cars and a house. And there is also evidence that some of the people who were training over at Huffman Aviation in Venice were visiting their house,” Doyle said.

“It all ties together.”

Saudi Arabia arguments

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court will likely soon decide if it will hear arguments from the kingdom’s attorneys, who want their client removed as a defendant.

If successful, it would mark the second time that those lawyers have convinced a court to drop Saudi Arabia as a defendant.

In the first case, they argued that U.S. law does not allow suits against sovereign nations for damages. But a federal appeals court reversed that decision in December.

“We anticipate hearing from the Supreme Court in late June,” said Robert Haefele, an attorney who represents more than half of the 10,000 plaintiffs in the combined suits.

Sharon Premoli, co-chairwoman of activist group 9/11 Families United for Justice Against Terrorism, is also pushing for all FBI documents to be made public.

“The 28 pages are part and parcel of the FBI documents,” said Premoli, who survived the terror attacks and narrowly escaped from the Trade Center’s north tower. “It is all one big cover-up.”

Doyle and Premoli’s efforts are in sync with those of retired U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired the joint congressional inquiry that published the 800-page report. The former Florida governor has battled for years to have the censored chapter about possible terror financing declassified.

Recently, a pair of congressmen have also called on President Barack Obama to declassify the censored pages, and written a form letter to other members of Congress urging them to review the missing chapter.

“The information contained in the redacted pages is critical to U.S. foreign policy moving forward and should thus be available to the American people,” said Rep. Walter Jones Jr., R-North Carolina.

Jones and Rep. Stephen Lynch, a Massachusetts Democrat, have also introduced a House resolution to declassify the 28 pages, which has drawn some bipartisan support.

Both had to go through a lengthy process to read the 28 pages, which are kept under tight security, and each was monitored by a federal agent making sure that notes were not taken and the pages were not copied or removed.

President Obama has publicly promised to make the chapter public, but thus far has not done so.

“We have a burning question,” Premoli said. “We would like to know if President Obama has read the 28 pages.”

Local connections to 9/11

What already is clear — and has been since shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon — is that three of the 9/11 terrorists paid for flight training at Venice Airport.

Unclear is how they paid for that training and other activities.

The terror cell living in Sarasota County was one of a number scattered around the nation. Others are known to have existed in Los Angeles and San Diego, and in Falls Church, Va.

In the Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by BrowardBulldog.org — joined as “friends of the court” by the Herald-Tribune and The Miami Herald — the Justice Department acknowledged that it has tens of thousands of documents related to the Southwest Florida portion of its overall 9/11 investigation.

To date, the Bulldog has received 35 heavily redacted pages. The pages that were released, however, said the Sarasota Saudis had “many connections” to “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”

In a 10th anniversary story by BrowardBulldog.org and published in the Herald-Tribune and The Miami Herald, the Fort Lauderdale news organization claimed that the same terrorists who trained in Venice visited a home in the gated Prestancia community owned by Saudi businessman, Esam Ghazzawi, who had close ties to the Saudi royal family.

For six years prior to 9/11, the home was occupied by Ghazzawi’s daughter, Anoud, and her husband, Abdulazziz al Hijji. “Phone records and the Prestancia gate records linked the house on Escondito Circle to the hijackers,” the Bulldog reported.

The FBI initially refused a Bulldog request to search for the family’s names in its archives, claiming that would amount to an invasion of privacy.

In his recent order, Judge Zloch described the FBI’s initial search as “preemptively narrowed in scope based on agency decisions that categories of documents are exempt, and thus, will not even be sought.”

Zloch then ordered the agency to use its most advanced document search system, and provided specific search terms — including the family’s names — that the FBI was required to use.

The Reagan appointee and former Notre Dame quarterback also ordered the original uncensored documents to be delivered to him for private review.

That is known in legal terms as “in camera.”

Broward prosecutors vilify BSO detective who alleged misconduct; ‘Bloody…not improper’

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org bsohomicide

A Broward Sheriff’s homicide detective who reported that Fort Lauderdale police unleashed a dog on a murder suspect who was in custody and no longer a threat should not be believed, according to a memo by local prosecutors closing the case.

“A violent, bloody, confused, quickly-developing, and unfortunate turn of events, but not improper action by the Fort Lauderdale Police Department officers and not a violation of Florida law,” concludes the 10-page memo signed by Timothy L. Donnelly, chief of the Broward State Attorney’s public corruption unit.

Jeffrey Kogan, a featured detective on the A&E channel’s police reality show The First 48, claims he was ostracized and demoted to road patrol in Pompano Beach for reporting what he saw. In July, he filed a whistleblower suit against Sheriff Scott Israel, claiming unlawful retaliation.

The state’s investigation began after a brief conversation between Kogan and homicide prosecutor Lanie Bandell three days after the April 4, 2013 arrest of murder suspect Walter Morris Hart. Bandell said Kogan had asked her whether the use of the dog would negatively affect the prosecution. When she asked why, Kogan said, “You know, they let the dog loose after we had him in custody.” Bandell alerted her colleagues in public corruption.

The inquiry that followed ended with the Feb. 26 close-out memo, written by Assistant State Attorney Nickolaus Hunter Davis, that castigates Deputy Kogan for giving sworn testimony that the memo says was “inconsistent” and “not credible.” Worse, the memo suggests Kogan deliberately lied – though prosecutors filed no criminal charge against him.

Broward Sheriff's Homicide Detective Jeffrey Kogan Photo: A&E Network

Broward Sheriff’s Homicide Detective Jeffrey Kogan Photo: A&E Network

The recommendation to State Attorney Mike Satz: take no action against Robert Morris, the city K-9 officer on scene who unleashed his dog “Grief” on murder suspect Walter Morris Hart in the early morning hours of April 4, 2013. The memo also recommended no action be taken against Fort Lauderdale Officers Jason Marcus and Craig Sheehan, who were also present.

Still, the state’s investigation offers no satisfactory explanation for why Kogan, a veteran BSO detective with a history of superior performance evaluations, would make such an unfounded accusation against his fellow officers.

The memo asserts the lawsuit gave Kogan a reason to lie – “a direct financial motive to testify in a manner that makes Officers Morris, Marcus, and Sheehan’s conduct seem as outrageous as possible.”

Yet the lawsuit wasn’t filed until three months after Hart’s capture and a month after Kogan gave a pair of sworn statements to state investigators.

Moreover, Florida’s Whistleblower Act is not a path to a windfall. Employees who prevail under the act are only entitled to reinstatement to the same or an equivalent position with full seniority and benefits, compensation for any lost remuneration and attorney’s fees and costs.

Kogan’s demotion cost him $75 from his biweekly paycheck, according to his lawyer.

“He doesn’t have a financial motive. Does anyone really think he’s going to taint his career for $150 a month?” said attorney Tonja Haddad Coleman.

Both the state’s investigation, and the ongoing whistleblower lawsuit, arose from the April 3, 2013 fatal stabbing of 20-year-old Keema Gooding in a residence at 3024 NW Eighth Court in unincorporated Fort Lauderdale. Hart, who lived there, was identified as the prime suspect.

Hart, now 20, was soon determined to be hiding out at another home within Fort Lauderdale’s city limits. BSO deputies and Fort Lauderdale police arrived at 1701 NW 15th Place about 1 a.m.  A short time later, Hart fled out the back door where city officers were waiting.

Murder suspect Walter Hart Photo: BSO

Murder suspect Walter Hart Photo: BSO

In his lawsuit, Kogan said that when he entered the backyard Hart was sitting on the ground with his hands behind his back and was not resisting or being combative. Then, the lawsuit said, the Fort Lauderdale K-9 officer “unnecessarily deployed his canine, who bit the suspect on his right arm.”

The memo says Hart’s injuries to his right arm later required “eight or nine stitches to close.”

Hart, who remains jailed while awaiting trial on charges of second-degree murder and resisting an officer with violence, refused to be interviewed by prosecutors, but gave a similar account to friends and relatives he telephoned from jail. The calls were tape-recorded by authorities, the memo says.

“I dropped on the ground and they still let the dog bite on me for five minutes…you know how city police is,” Hart said in one conversation on April 11, 2013, the memo says.

Prosecutors later dismissed Kogan’s testimony as “imprecise and impeachable.” Hart’s statements were discounted as coming from “a murderer.”

Instead, prosecutors credited the testimony of BSO Sgt. David Ellwood, Kogan’s supervisor and fellow star on The First 48, and BSO Sgt. Ian Sklar, a K-9 deputy who was on scene but kept his dog in his vehicle.

BSO Homicide Sgt. Dave Ellwood Photo: A&E Network

BSO Homicide Sgt. Dave Ellwood Photo: A&E Network

According to the memo, Ellwood stated under oath that he never entered the backyard and was thus unable to see how Hart was taken into custody. However, Ellwood testified that Kogan didn’t enter the backyard until after he heard Hart scream as the police dog was biting him.

“I’ve been a cop for 23 years. I know what that screaming sounds like. That is a person, a human being, being bit by a dog,” Ellwood said.

Sklar testified that he managed to “peek” over a six-foot wooden fence and saw Officers Marcus and Sheehan struggling with Hart on the ground while trying to handcuff him. As the struggle continued, Morris appeared with his dog. Marcus and Sheehan disengaged and then Morris released the dog.

Sklar said K-9 procedure is that a dog should not be removed until the suspect is handcuffed. He said, “they did not remove the dog until after the guy was handcuffed…that’s what [Kogan was] standing there witnessing.”

The memo concludes the testimony of Ellwood and Sklar “makes it seem very unlikely Kogan would have even had an opportunity to see whether Morris had cause to deploy the dog,”

A status conference in the homicide case is set for April 23 before Broward Circuit Judge Raag Singhal.

How many railroad crossings will close for new downtown passenger train service?

By Ann Henson Feltgen, BrowardBulldog.org allaboardflorida

New downtown passenger train service that will speed users from Orlando to South Florida and back may sound like a tourism dream come true, but there’s a potentially unexpected cost to local residents.

Local governments face increased costs to maintain the areas where their roads cross the tracks and some fear the closing of smaller crossings to vehicular traffic to save money.

Elizabeth Fulford lives west of Broward General Hospital and believes if crossings are closed, “it may turn into a life or death issue.”

“I am very concerned about the road closures. What happens if I need an ambulance and trains are blocking the tracks?” she asked.  “If they close the smaller crossings, how will this affect the police and fire” in their ability to quickly get to the scene?

So far, plans have been announced to close several streets in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach to make way for new train stations on land owned by the developer, All Aboard Florida. Downtown Miami is also slated for a new station; however, company officials say no road closures have been planned at this time.

“We are working with the city staffs to determine the appropriate traffic mitigation measures, like perimeter roads,” All Aboard Florida staff wrote in an e-mail.

HIGHER COSTS, MORE CLOSINGS?

But more crossings could be earmarked for closure if municipalities along the Florida East Coast Rail line balk at paying increased maintenance costs that could total between $6,000 and $8,000 per year per crossing, said Paul Calvaresi, transportation planner with the Broward Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO).

In all, there are 68 crossings in Broward.

All Aboard Florida, a subsidiary of Florida East Coast Industries (FECI), is seeking a federal loan for the $1.5 billion needed to upgrade its tracks and purchase other infrastructure. The company will build train stations in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Gov. Rick Scott recently pledged up to $215 million in state money to build a new Orlando rail station that would serve All Aboard Florida. FECI Executive Vice President Jose Gonzalez promises a three hour ride from Miami to Orlando.

Jose Gonzalez, executive vice president of Florida East Coast Industries, the parent company of All Aboard Florida Photo: Ann Henson Feltgen

Jose Gonzalez, executive vice president of Florida East Coast Industries, the parent company of All Aboard Florida Photo: Ann Henson Feltgen

“The [passenger] trains will average 79 miles per hour overall speed,” Gonzalez said. He added that speeds will be higher, up to 110 miles per hour, in rural areas. Freight trains also owned by FECI will travel along a second set of tracks, which will be restored, on the old Flagler Railroad bed at slower speeds, he told the Fort Lauderdale City Commission during its conference meeting on April 1.

“We plan to run 32 [passenger] train trips on the tracks from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. per day. The 14 freight trains will eventually be moved west,” to the state-owned tracks currently used by the Tri-Rail, he said.

That’s 16 round trips a day. All Aboard Florida’s website says it expects that about three of every four of its future customers will be leisure travelers, “whether that’s a couple taking a weekend trip, or a family of four visiting from an international destination.” It cites a 2012 ridership study found that people take more than 50 million trips between South Florida and Central Florida.

More than 350 roads cross the tracks between Miami and Cocoa, at which point the train will turn west to Orlando. Each crossing that remains open requires safety upgrades, which Gonzalez said his company would pay.

But the municipalities who control the roads will have to come up with funding for enhanced safety measures to create “Quiet Zones” where trains are to refrain from blasting their horns at every crossing.

Train horns produce a sound level of 110 decibels (human conversation is about 60 decibels, with the sound level doubling at 10 decibel intervals). Conductors normally must sound the horns for at least 15 seconds before each crossing, but in Quiet Zones the horns are mounted on the crossing gates to reduce the range of the noise.

A preliminary estimate for Broward County’s upgrades comes to $13.75 million for its 68 crossings, according to Broward’s MPO. The costs are to pay for beefed up gates, vehicle detectors, sidewalks, medians, additional lights and gate-mounted horns.

“Quiet Zones affect the train horn only,” said Broward MPO planner Paul Calvaresi. “They do not minimize the vibrations made by the train. And if conductors hear of danger ahead, they will sound the train horn.”

AN EARLY STUDY ON POSSIBLE CLOSURES

Calvaresi and James Cromar, the MPO’s director of planning, are working on behalf of Broward and Palm Beach counties with All Aboard Florida. When the project started, they conducted a study.

“We looked at the 68 crossings in Broward County and made a list of where quiet zones would be most needed if funding was limited,” Cromar said. Palm Beach County’s 114 crossings also were studied

They recommended that 41 crossings in Broward not be upgraded for Quiet Zones to save costs. They included:

• Nine crossings in Fort Lauderdale between Southwest Fifth Street and Southwest 24th Street;

• Six crossings in Oakland Park from East Commercial Boulevard to Oakland Park Boulevard;  

• Seven crossings in Dania Beach from Griffin Road to Sheridan Street; and

• Eight crossings in Pompano Beach from Northeast 48th Street to State Road 811/Dixie Highway.

“We got quite a bit a push back from the cities about that list,” Cromar said.  The draft plan was scratched and the planners began looking for ways to fund all of the crossings in Broward and Palm Beach counties, with Florida Department of Transportation working up the cost estimates.

All Aboard Florida officials concede that some additional crossings will be closed but say those decisions are local and have not been made.

Hollywood does not plan to close any of its railroad crossings at this time, said Raelin Storey, director of public affairs and marketing.

All Aboard Florida “requested us to look at different crossings that could be closed but we are not of the mind to do this as it doesn’t make sense for our residents,” she said.

Fort Lauderdale City Manager Lee Feldman said All Aboard Florida has not asked his staff about closing any crossroads other than Northwest Second Street.

“I don’t expect that they will ask,” he said. “But, we would look at them individually.”

APPLYING FOR FEDERAL GRANTS

The Broward MPO is in the process of applying for a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant for Broward and Palm Beach counties. The grant provides funding nationwide for road, rail, transit and port projects that encourage economic recovery. The grant would pay for the increased safety equipment at crossroads in the Quiet Zones.

Grantees must provide a 20 percent non-federal match, according to the agency’s website, and no more than $150 million can be awarded to projects in a single state. The grant pool for 2014 is $600 million. The deadline to apply is April 28.

Even if the full grant amount is awarded, some crossings may close, Broward’s Calvaresi said.

“With Quiet Zones comes additional safety and maintenance costs,” he said. “The municipalities must pay those costs and they might determine the costs are too high and close the crossing.”

Streets already set for closure are Northwest Second Street in Fort Lauderdale.  Crossings on Datura and Everinia streets in West Palm Beach also will close. In Fort Lauderdale a new perimeter road will run around the station.

Miami-Dade County, which has only 13 miles of track, has not taken up the issue yet, said Wilson Fernandez, transportation assistant manager for the Miami-Dade County MPO.

“We intend to bring this up but we have a different situation,” he said. “We have a different order of magnitude and more  opportunities to be able to get this done” on their own. He added that approval for the train station in downtown Miami is going through the county approval process.

The Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council is also seeking funding for the three other affected counties under its jurisdiction – Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties. Kim DeLaney, strategic development coordinator, said they are taking a different route.

“We are asking the legislature for a $10 million appropriation to offset costs,” DeLaney said. “We don’t have as many crossings and because the train speeds will be higher, more safety infrastructure will be required” in the upgrades.

Because All Aboard Florida’s parent company is seeking a federal loan for the project, an Environmental Impact Statement study must be conducted. The study looks at the project’s significant affects on the environment.

The document is expected to be available in mid-May, according to Gonzalez. A series of up to six public meetings along the rail corridor will be held and public comment can be provided at the workshops, in writing or by email.

SAFETY SHORT-CUTS?

Meanwhile, an engineer with the Federal Railroad Administration is concerned that All Aboard Florida is short-cutting safety requirements in 57 rural areas north of Palm Beach where the passenger trains run at speeds between 110 and 125 miles per hour.

A report by Engineer Frank A. Frey said such high-speed railroad crossings should be completely sealed off so that no vehicles can get onto the tracks when the crossing bars are down. In fact, he said federal guidelines require it.

Yet his report notes that All Aboard Florida officials oppose the sealed corridor idea, saying it is a suggestion, not a requirement, and arguing that such added safety measures would cost the company an additional $47 million.

“They are not exercising appropriate safety practices and reasonable care when designing for high speed passenger rail service,” he said.

A conservative judge rebukes FBI as he orders it to find and turn over 9/11 documents

 

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers, BrowardBulldog.org 

U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch

U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch

Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch has a reputation as a no-nonsense, conservative judge who can be short on patience, but is long on courtroom preparation and does not recoil from speaking his mind.

On Friday, after months of legal wrangling, Zloch spoke his mind for the first time on the FBI’s handling of a Freedom of Information lawsuit by BrowardBulldog.org that seeks records from the Bureau’s investigation into apparent pre-9/11 terrorist activity in Sarasota.

In a stinging, 23-page order, Zloch told the Department of Justice that it had failed to convince him that the FBI’s prior records searches had been “reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant documents,” as courts have said the law requires.

Zloch ordered the FBI to do something it had not done: use its sophisticated, $440 million Sentinel case management system to lead the search for relevant documents while adhering to various court-ordered conditions, including specific automated text searches. The judge gave the Bureau until April 18 – two weeks – to produce photocopies for his private inspection of all documents it identifies.

Zloch’s ruling is a “strong, clear directive to the FBI,” said former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who in 2002 chaired Congress’ Joint Inquiry into the 9/11 attacks and has pushed Washington to release the FBI’s files about what happened in Sarasota.

“Since 2002 many sources, including the U.S. Senate, have been attempting to get information such as that which is likely to be disclosed under Judge Zloch’s order made available. This is the closest in 12 years that we’ve been to achieving that objective,” said Graham.

A MANUAL REVIEW OF HUGE PENTTBOM FILE

Further, Zloch ordered the FBI to conduct a manual review of all documents in its Tampa field office regarding the Bureau’s investigation of the 9/11 attacks, code-named PENTTBOM. He gave the FBI until June 6 to complete that more time consuming task.

The Department of Justice has opposed any additional search. In court papers filed last August, it argued that a manual review would require “extraordinary effort, time and resources to conduct.”

“The manual review which plaintiffs are requesting is not reasonable; nor is it warranted,” the department argued in court papers filed in August. “The FBI’s Tampa office alone has more than 15,352 documents (serials), which together contain, potentially, hundreds of thousands of pages of records related to the 9/11 investigation.”

Zloch disagreed. He decided a more thorough search is necessary due to “inconsistencies and concerns” about the government’s searches to date, as well as his need to assure himself that “the documents in dispute exist.”

Zloch noted, too, that early FBI assertions that its initial searches had yielded no responsive documents were followed months later, after the lawsuit was filed, by the release of 35 heavily redacted pages. Those pages, some partially blacked out on grounds of national security, contained no investigative reports yet did include some summary information that contradicted prior FBI public statements about the findings of its Sarasota investigation.

AN INVESTIGATION WITH NO DOCUMENTS?

“An investigation took place during this time period that apparently resulted in certain findings, yet seemingly, the search yielded no documentation. This alone moves the court to believe that a further search is necessary,” the order says.

Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham

Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham

Miami attorney Thomas Julin, who represents the non-profit news organization, said it appears Judge Zloch “definitely wants to get to the bottom of this and doesn’t like the fact that the FBI put out public statements trying to discredit the Bulldog’s reporting…His order makes it sound like he believes the government may be deliberately covering up.”

Zloch’s order goes beyond instructing the FBI to search and produce its own investigative reports. It also requires both the Justice Department and the FBI to “advise the court of any documented communications between defendants and other government agencies concerning the investigation” of the Sarasota Saudis. Again, Zloch wants that information by June 6.

“He’s showing real sensitivity to the likelihood that the FBI is acting under the direction of the Central Intelligence Agency or the National Security Agency,” said Julin. “If the FBI is simply following orders then he is telling the FBI he wants to know what those orders are and from who they are coming, whether it’s the CIA, the NSA or the President.”

The lawsuit was filed in September 2012, after the FBI denied requests under the Freedom of Information Act for copies of the agency’s reports about its Sarasota investigation.

A year earlier, BrowardBulldog.org had first disclosed the existence of the investigation in a story that reported how Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji, a young Saudi couple, had abruptly moved out of their home in Sarasota’s Prestancia development and returned to Saudi Arabia two weeks before September 11, 20001.  Anoud’s father, Esam Ghazzawi, a longtime advisor to a senior Saudi prince, owned the home.

Law enforcement focused on the al-Hijjis after suspicious neighbors called following the attacks to report that the couple had appeared to depart in haste, leaving behind their cars, furniture, clothing and even food in the kitchen.

HIJACKERS AT THE GATE

The story reported that agents who later searched Prestancia’s gatehouse found evidence in logbooks and snapshots of license plates that vehicles used by the hijackers, including ringleader Mohamed Atta, had visited the al-Hijji’s home. A law enforcement source said an analysis of phone calls to and from the home also found links to Atta and former Broward resident Adnan Shukrijumah, a fugitive and alleged al-Qaeda leader with a $5 million bounty on his head.

Documents obtained by BrowardBulldog.org from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement stated that a now imprisoned terrorist figure, Wissam Hammoud, told the FBI in 2004 that al-Hijji was an acolyte of Osama bin Laden who prior to 9/11 had introduced him to Shukrijumah at a soccer game at a Sarasota mosque.

Al-Hijj was interviewed last year by the London Telegraph. He acknowledged knowing Hammoud, but denied any wrongdoing.

The FBI never disclosed the existence of its Sarasota investigation to either Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the terror attacks or the subsequent 9/11 Commission, ex-Sen. Graham has said.

In his order, Judge Zloch explained that his doubts about the quality of the FBI’s prior records searches was rooted in part in the “gaps and inconsistencies” he observed in the handful of documents the FBI has produced to date.

He noted, for example, that one FBI document written after the Sarasota story broke in 2011 states that the investigation found no evidence connecting the Sarasota Saudis to the 9/11 hijackers while another, dated April 2002, says authorities found “many connections” between the family and  “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks.”

“These statements seem to be in conflict, and there is nothing in defendant’s 35 produced pages that reconciles this stark contradiction,” the order says.

Skeptical U.S. judge gives FBI two weeks to conduct better search of 9/11 records

 

fbilogo

UPDATE 4/4/14 — Troubled by “inconsistencies” and the government’s sometimes “nonsensical” legal arguments, a federal judge on Friday ordered the FBI to conduct a detailed search of its records for information about apparent terrorist activity in Sarasota prior to 9/11.

Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch, saying the Justice Department had failed to show that the FBI satisfied the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act, gave the FBI precise instructions as to how the search is to be conducted, right down to the text terms to be used and the databases to be queried.

The judge also imposed a tight deadline. The FBI must conduct the search and produce photocopies of all documents it finds to him by April. 18, two weeks from the date of his order.

A full story about this significant development in BrowardBulldog.org’s FOIA lawsuit seeking information about a local Saudi family’s ties to the 9/11 hijackers will be published this weekend.

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers, BrowardBulldog.org 

April 1 - A federal judge Monday ordered the FBI to conduct a more thorough search of its vast files to identify documents about its once secret investigation of terrorist activity in Sarasota prior to 9/11.

Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch’s order also rejected a request by the Department of Justice to throw out the Freedom of Information case filed by BrowardBulldog.org in September 2012. Justice has argued that the release of certain information about the matter “would reveal current specific targets” of national security investigations.

The suit alleges the government has improperly withheld information about a local Saudi family’s apparent connections to terrorists including 9/11 hijack pilot Mohamed Atta and Adnan Shukrijumah, the former Broward resident and alleged al-Qaeda figure who’s got a $5 million federal bounty on his head.

“This is a huge step in the right direction,” said Miami attorney Thomas Julin, who represents the four-year-old news organization. “The decision tells the FBI that this federal judge wants to make sure that the truth comes out.”

In his four-page order, Judge Zloch said he would issue a separate order detailing steps the FBI must take to comply with his order requiring the additional records search.

BrowardBulldog.org asked the court in July to compel the additional document search. The suit was filed after the FBI denied the news organization’s record requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

FBI RECORDS CONTRADICT PUBLIC STATEMENTS

Six months after the lawsuit was filed, the Bureau unexpectedly released 35 heavily redacted pages, including four pages that were completely blanked out, and asserted it had no more responsive documents to produce. The declassified pages flatly contradicted earlier public statements by FBI agents in Sarasota and Miami that the decade-old investigation had found no evidence of terrorist activity.

In his order, Zloch noted the government has provided him with un-redacted copies of those pages “for the court’s inspection.”  Whether that information played a role in the judge’s decision is not known.

The Miami Herald and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, in a friend of the court brief last week, argued to the court, “The Broward Bulldog has provided this court with ample evidence establishing that the FBI could not have possibly conducted adequate (record) searches.

In the motion requesting a better search, attorney Julin proposed a number of measures the FBI could take to identify records: Use its $440 million Sentinel computer system, employ better word searches and conduct a manual review of all 15,342 documents about its 9/11 investigation, code-named PENTTBOM, said to be stored in the FBI’s Tampa field office.

The FOIA lawsuit seeks FBI records about its investigation of “activities at the residence at 4224 Escondito Circle in the Prestancia development near Sarasota, Florida prior to 9/11/2001 The activities involved apparent visits to that address by some of the deceased 9/11 hijackers.”

TIES TO TERRORISTS, TIES TO ROYALS

The address was the home of Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji until August 2001, when the couple quit their home and returned to Saudi Arabia –leaving behind cars, furniture, clothing, food and other items. Anoud al-Hijji’s father, Esam Ghazzawi, a longtime advisor to a senior Saudi prince, owned the home.

Within hours of the attacks on New York and Washington, the al-Hijji’s neighbors began calling the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to tell them about the couple’s abrupt departure.

BrowardBulldog.org first disclosed the FBI’s Sarasota investigation in September 2011. The story reported how agents who searched Prestancia’s gatehouse found logbooks and snapshots of license plates that provided evidence that vehicles used by the hijackers, including Atta, had visited the home. An analysis of phone calls to and from the home also found links to Atta and Shukrijumah, according to a law enforcement source.

An FBI informant later reported that prior to 9/11 al-Hijji had introduced him to Shukrijumah at a soccer game at a Sarasota mosque.

Records obtained from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement show the FBI continued to investigate until at least 2004, when the informant was interviewed. The Bureau, however, never disclosed the existence of its investigation to either Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the attacks or the subsequent 9/11 Commission, according to former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired the Joint Inquiry.

Graham has accused the FBI of impeding Congress’s inquiry into 9/11.

The 31 pages of FBI records released one year ago say that the Sarasota Saudis who “fled” their home before the attacks had “many connections” to “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”

The records list three individuals, including one identified as a relative of the al-Hijjis, but their names were blanked out. All three, however, were tied to the Venice, Fl. flight school where Atta and fellow hijack pilot Marwan al-Shehhi trained.

Attorney Julin said Monday’s federal court ruling could lead to a better public understanding of the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans.

“Maybe now we’ll get a chance to find out what the FBI knew about the Sarasota Saudis and why it did not tell Congress,” said Julin.

Anthony Summers is co-author with Robbyn Swan of The Eleventh Day, an account of 9/11 that was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for History.

Gov. Scott’s blind trust deviates from U.S. model; Florida law omits federal safeguards

 

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org 

Gov. Rick Scott

Gov. Rick Scott

When Florida’s Commission on Ethics OK’d Gov. Rick Scott’s blind trust last September it acted after being told by the governor’s lawyers that it was “modeled on the blind trust of the federal Office of Government Ethics.”

But the governor’s blind trust – packed with more than $70 million in Scott’s stocks, bonds and other financial assets – deviates substantially from the federal model.

BrowardBulldog.org compared Florida’s qualified blind trust statute, signed into law by Gov. Scott last May 1, with parallel federal regulations and found that Florida’s law omits more than a dozen federal requirements intended “to assure true blindness.”

“At first blush, the Florida qualified blind trust legislation appears to be a significant step forward,” said Jan Jacobowitz, director of the Professional Responsibility and Ethics Program at the University of Miami School of Law. “However, upon closer examination it becomes apparent that it lacks many significant federal safeguards. Without them, Florida’s law cannot render public officials fully accountable for potential and actual conflicts of interest.”

Perhaps the starkest difference between the federal and state rules is in who is allowed to serve as a trustee of a blind trust.

A QUESTION OF INDEPENDENCE

Federal law requires trustees and their employees to be “independent of and unassociated with any interested party so that it cannot be controlled or influenced in the administration of the trust.” Ex-employees are explicitly prohibited from administering a blind trust set up by their former employer.

Gov. Scott chose Hollow Brook Wealth Management and its chief executive, Alan Lee Bazaar, to manage the blind trust he created in April 2011, a few months after taking office. Before announcing his run for governor, however, Scott employed Bazaar for more than a decade as managing director and portfolio manager at Scott’s eponymous investment firm, Richard L. Scott Investments.

“Under this federal definition, the trustee in the instance you have described would not appear to qualify as independent given the past business association,” said Washington, D.C. attorney Robert L. Walker, former chief counsel and staff director of both the Senate and House ethics committees.

“A public official should not be able to circumvent or undermine the underlying public policy considerations for the law by appointing an institution as trustee where the CEO of that institution would fail to meet the requirements for being appointed,” said Jacobowitz.

First Lady Ann Scott

First Lady Ann Scott

Hollow Brook is similarly afflicted by its current and prior relationships with Scott and his family.

“Generally, a financial institution will be considered independent if you or your family has no relationship with it other than savings, checking or other types of similar accounts,” the Office of Government Ethics informs Executive Branch employees entering public service.

HOLLOW BROOKS ADVISES THE FIRST LADY, TOO

According to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission records, however, Hollow Brook also serves as investment adviser to other multi-million dollar Scott holding entities – a family partnership controlled by First Lady Ann Scott and a revocable trust set up for her benefit. Gov. Scott is a beneficial owner of those entities, the records show.

Attorney Walker called that relationship “problematic” under the federal statute.

Further, the governor’s general counsel, Peter Antonacci, told the Florida Times Union in September that Gov. Scott was a Hollow Brook client before he took office. Antonacci, with tax lawyer James T. Fuller of Williams & Connolly in Washington, D.C., requested the ethics commission’s opinion last year.

The governor’s office was asked to explain why Florida’s blind trust law – passed unanimously by a Legislature controlled by Scott’s fellow Republicans – does not include the missing federal level safeguards, whether Gov. Scott was aware of those omissions when he signed the bill, and whether he believes the law as written is adequate or should be changed.

“Senate Bill 2, a top priority for legislative leadership last session, made critical reforms to Florida’s Code of Ethics, including the first blind trust requirement in Florida’s history. Governor Scott gladly signed the bill into law,” said spokesman John Tupps.

Hollow Brook likewise does not appear to meet federal eligibility rules to serve as a trustee for Executive Branch employees because its ownership is too concentrated. Federal rules, which Florida did not adopt, say financial institutions may serve as an independent trustee if they are “not more than 10 percent owned or controlled by a single individual.”

Alan Bazaar, CEO of Hollow Brook Wealth Management

Alan Bazaar, CEO of Hollow Brook Wealth Management

Hollow Brook, based in New York City, is a nine-employee firm with four owners, including Chairman Edgar Wayne Nordberg who owns at least 25 percent of the firm, according to SEC records filed in January. Bazaar owns at least 10 percent, but not more than 25 percent of Hollow Brook, the records say.

“The public is not benefiting from the legislature’s blind trust law that allows officials to hide their stock holdings,” said Dan Krassner, executive director of the nonpartisan government watchdog group Integrity Florida. “The blind trust concept created in Florida definitely would not comply with federal law that requires the trustee to be more independent.”

BLIND TRUST LAW PROTECTS GOV. SCOTT

The ethics commission’s recent ruling that Gov. Scott’s trust complied with state law means that as long as the governor stays in compliance he is entitled to the law’s protections, namely immunity from prohibited conflicts of interest.

Yet the differences between the tougher federal regulations and Florida’s approach serve to undermine the purpose of Florida’s blind trust law. That is, to eliminate conflicts of interest, or the appearance of conflicts, by putting a public officer’s assets outside his knowledge or control.

Likewise, the governor’s trust itself has been ineffective in preventing the disclosure of Scott’s assets. Three weeks ago, BrowardBulldog.org reported that public records at the SEC reveal millions of dollars in recent stock sales by the blind trust and show that in the case of one company, Argan Inc., Scott’s trust continues to own nearly a million shares worth in excess of $27 million.

Argan does business in Florida through it’s principal subsidiary, power-plant builder Gemma Power Systems.

Federal and state blind trust laws share certain features such as prohibiting public officials from attempting to influence asset management decisions or seeking information about their trust’s holdings. Both also require the disclosure of a complete list of assets initially placed in the trust.

But federal laws and rules regulating blind trusts include additional safeguards not found in Florida’s statute. Under the federal rules:

  • Executed trust agreements and any amendments to them are public records. The Legislature rejected an effort to require those agreements to be made public when the law was enacted last year, and Gov. Scott’s trust agreement with Hollow Brook remains hidden. The governor’s office denied a request to release it.
  • The director of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) reviews and certifies federal qualified blind trusts, and has the authority to revoke approval of a trustee for violations of trust restrictions. In Florida, an eight-member ethics commission, five of whom were appointed by Scott, approved Scott’s blind trust. The commission has no statutory authority to remove a trustee for misconduct.
  • Federal trustees are required to send periodic reports about the trust’s performance to the OGE director, make the trust’s books available for OGE inspection, and file an annual certificate of compliance with the law by May 15. Florida law imposes no such requirements on trustees, nor does it authorize the ethics commission to review a blind trust’s books of account.
  • Within 30 days of the dissolution of a qualified trust, the interested party must file a current list of assets and values with the OGE. There is no such rule in Florida, despite a 2010 Statewide Grand Jury recommendation that any blind trust law include a rule requiring “full disclosure” when trusts terminate. Federal law defines an interested party as the government employee who established the blind trust, their spouse and dependent children.
  • Public officials, their spouses or independent trustees or other fiduciaries who violate obligations under the law or the trust instrument face civil penalties of up to $10,000 for knowing violations and $5,000 for negligent violations. Florida’s blind trust law imposes no penalties for violations.

“It’s interesting to note that Florida elected to pass a law without the additional federal requirements,” said Jacobowitz. “It would be interesting to know why so many of the federal requirements were discarded in the enacting of the Florida legislation and what role, if any, various lobbying interests might have played in influencing the final legislation.

TO DISCLOSE OR NOT DISCLOSE

Aside from the blind trust laws, a gulf continues to separate the U.S. and Florida about the proper scope of financial disclosure to be made by public officers. Florida does not require disclosure of the assets or income of a spouse or minor child. The federal government does.

In the case of Gov. Scott, that has led to a strange dichotomy.

In multiple documents filed at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Scott is identified as the “beneficial owner” of shares of stock worth many millions of dollars that are held by the Scott family partnership and the revocable trust for the benefit of Ann Scott, his wife of more than 40 years.

Back home in Florida, however, Gov. Scott is not obliged by law to publicly disclose his financial interest in those multi-million dollar entities, identify the specific investments they hold or say how much they’re worth.

Likewise, the public remains unaware of other assets those entities hold that may create conflicts of interest for Scott in his duties as governor.

Citing broad public interest, newspapers ask judge to deny U.S. bid to block 9/11 lawsuit

 

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers
BrowardBulldog.org 911weremember

Two Florida newspapers have asked a Fort Lauderdale federal judge to deny the Justice Department’s effort to shut down a Freedom of Information lawsuit seeking records from an FBI investigation into apparent terrorist activity in Sarasota shortly before 9/11.

BrowardBulldog.org filed the suit in September 2012 alleging the government was improperly withholding records on the matter. The government, after unexpectedly releasing 31 highly censored pages last spring, argued the court should end the case due to national security considerations and asserted that a “reasonable search” had determined “there are no agency records being improperly withheld.”

Court papers filed Tuesday by attorneys for The Miami Herald and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune say they were intervening “to stress that the outcome of this case is a matter of intense interest to the media and the public generally.” The newspapers also argued that “government officials charged with investigating terrorist connections in our state must also be held fully accountable.”

“The Broward Bulldog has provided this court with ample evidence establishing that the FBI could not have possibly conducted adequate searches in response to its federal Freedom of Information Act request,” said the joint brief filed by Tampa attorneys Carol LoCicero, Rachel Fugate and Mark Caramanica. “The stakes are simply too great to accept as a matter of law the government’s vague, often second hand conclusions as to the adequacy of its document searches.”

The newspapers’ friend-of-the-court brief asks U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch not to be “too quick” to accept an agency’s claim that it conducted “an appropriate search,” citing examples where records that should have been produced were not.

One cited case involves the conservative watchdog group, Judicial Watch, which sued in 2012 seeking records about the Obama Administration’s alleged coordination with the producers of Zero Dark Thirty, the motion picture about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Allegations had been made that the White House provided the filmmakers with access to highly sensitive national security records in order to burnish President Obama’s reputation prior to the 2012 election.

A judge ordered the CIA to produce records about the matter, “but it was only months later that additional ‘overlooked’ documents were produced that included illuminating correspondence among the White House, the Department of Defense and the CIA suggesting a coordinated effort to provide a heightened level of access to the filmmakers and a desire that the administration be portrayed positively.”

Broward Bulldog.org, represented in the suit by Miami attorney Thomas Julin,  first disclosed the existence of the FBI’s Sarasota investigation in September 2011.

The story reported how, a decade earlier, the FBI had found direct ties between 9/11 hijackers and a young Saudi couple, Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji, who appeared to have hurriedly departed their upscale home in a gated community in the weeks before 9/11 – leaving behind cars, furniture, clothing, a refrigerator full of food and an open safe in the master bedroom.

Anoud al-Hijji is the daughter of the home’s owner, Esam Ghazzawi, a long-time adviser to a senior Saudi prince. Ghazzawi was also a focus of FBI interest after 9/11 when agents sought to lure him back to the U.S. from Saudi Arabia to close the transaction when the home was sold, according to a lawyer for the homeowner’s association.

Agents searched gatehouse logbooks and license plate snapshots and found evidence that vehicles used by the hijackers, including ringleader Mohamed Atta, had visited the home, according to a counterterrorism agent who spoke on condition of anonymity. A sophisticated analysis of incoming and outgoing phone calls to the home also established links to Atta and other terrorists, including Adman Shukrijumah, the agent said.

FBI Director Robert Mueller  with wanted poster for Adnan Shukrijumah

FBI Director Robert Mueller with wanted poster for Adnan Shukrijumah

Shukrijumah, a former Miramar resident, is currently on the FBI’s “most wanted” list and the State Department is offering a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture.

The FBI publicly acknowledged its investigation but said it had found nothing connecting the al-Hijjis to 9/11.

Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who chaired Congress’ Joint inquiry into the attacks, has said the FBI never informed Congress or the subsequent 9/11 Commission about its Sarasota investigation.

The story has taken several twists since news of the investigation first broke.

In February 2012, Florida Department of Law Enforcement documents obtained using the state’s public records law showed that in April 2004 Wissam Hammoud, a now imprisoned “international terrorist associate” then under arrest in Hillsborough County, told the FBI that al-Hijji considered Osama bin Laden a “hero” and may have known some of the hijackers who trained at a flight school in Venice, about 10 miles from the al-Hijji residence. Hammoud also told the FBI then that al-Hijji had  introduced him to Shukrijumah at a soccer game at a local mosque prior to 9/11. Hammoud confirmed making those statements in an interview.

Al-Hijji was reached in London in 2012 where he worked for Aramco Overseas, the European subsidiary of Saudi Aramco, the state oil company. He told The Telegraph that he knew Hammoud, but denied any involvement with terrorists. He called 9/11 “an awful crime.”

Abdulaziz al-Hijji, right, in Sarasota prior to 9/11 and leaving his London office in 2012  Photo in London by Warren Allot for The Telegraph

Abdulaziz al-Hijji, right, in Sarasota prior to 9/11 and leaving his London office in 2012 Photo in London by Warren Allot for The Telegraph

One year ago, six months after the lawsuit was filed, the FBI suddenly made public 31 redacted pages about its Sarasota investigation. The records flatly contradicted the Bureau’s earlier public statements that it had found no evidence connecting the al-Hijjis to the hijackers. Instead, the FBI records said the family had “many connections” to “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”

The declassified documents tied three individuals, with names blanked out, to the Venice flight school where Atta and fellow hijacker Marwan al-Shehhi trained. One of those individuals was described as a relative of the al-Hijjis, whose names were also redacted.

Last June, the Justice Department moved to end the lawsuit, citing national security. A senior FBI official told the judge disclosure of certain classified information about the Sarasota Saudis “would reveal current specific targets of the FBI’s national security investigations.”

The FBI did not explain how an investigation that it previously said had found no connection between those Saudis and the 9/11 attacks involved information so secret that its disclosure “could be expected to cause serious damage to national security.”

Anthony Summers is co-author with Robbyn Swan of The Eleventh Day, an account of 9/11 that was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for History.

Gov. Scott chose a familiar face to manage his $72 million blind trust

 

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org 

Alan Lee Bazaar, left, and Gov. Rick Scott

Alan Lee Bazaar, left, and Gov. Rick Scott

Most Floridians have never heard of Alan Lee Bazaar. Yet as chief executive of the New York investment advisory firm that serves as trustee of Gov. Rick Scott’s blind trust, Bazaar is the keeper of an important public trust for Florida’s citizens.

Bazaar and the company he runs, Hollow Brook Wealth Management, oversee Scott’s $72 million portfolio of stocks, bonds and other investments on the governor’s behalf. Their duty is to decide when to buy or sell the governor’s assets without telling him – in effect “blinding” Scott to his holdings and, by law, immunizing him from prohibited conflicts of interest.

Trustees of qualified blind trusts in Florida are supposed to be disinterested fiduciaries. Relatives of the governor, his political allies, state employees or any “business associate or principal” need not apply.

The governor’s office describes Bazaar and Hollow Brook as “independent” of Gov. Scott. Bazaar and Scott, however, are intimate, longtime associates at Richard L. Scott Investments, according to a variety of public records.

Bazaar was a principal at the governor’s Naples-based investment firm for nearly 11 years, serving in positions of responsibility and trust until shortly before the governor announced his candidacy in April 2010. Bazaar joined Hollow Brook shortly after leaving Scott’s firm.

Bazaar worked for Scott from July 1999 to January 2010 as managing director and portfolio manager. He “co-managed the public equity portfolio and was responsible for all aspects of the investment decision-making process, including all elements of due diligence,” according to a biography on file at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

DEEPER TIES

Scott’s relationship with Bazaar is deeper than employer-employee, and he and his family’s financial ties to Hollow Brook go beyond the blind trust.

SEC records show that more than a decade ago the two men were members of a Delaware company that invested several million dollars in a small Deerfield Beach computer security company – an investment that later yielded tens of millions of dollars in returns.

SEC records also show that today Hollow Brook is “investment adviser” to two other large entities in which Gov. Scott owns a beneficial interest, – “a family partnership controlled by Richard L. Scott’s spouse (the Scott Family Partnership) and a revocable trust for the benefit of Mrs. Scott’s spouse (the Scott Revocable Trust).”

Bazaar declined to discuss Hollow Brook or his work, past or present, for Gov. Scott. “We don’t speak to reporters,” he said.

The governor’s office was asked why Gov. Scott chose Bazaar to oversee his blind trust given their long-standing business relationship. A spokesman cited the state ethics code’s definition of business associate: “Any person engaged in or carrying on a business enterprise with a public officer….as a partner, joint venturer, (or) corporate shareholder where the shares of such corporation are not listed on any national or regional stock exchange.”

“Mr. Bazaar does not fall within that definition,” spokesman John Tupps said in an email.

The past relationship between Gov. Scott and the man who oversees his blind trust is nevertheless troubling, according to Dan Krassner, executive director of the nonpartisan government watchdog group Integrity Florida.

“The relationship certainly stretches the concept of an independent third-party making disinterested investment decisions,” said Krassner. “When the legislature said don’t use business associates, you would think that would prohibit involvement of someone’s portfolio manager.”

BLIND TRUST CREATED TO HIDE THE GOVERNOR’S ASSETS

Gov. Scott’s blind trust was created in 2011 to place a veil over Scott’s many financial assets and any transactions involving them. Under a state law enacted last year, the arrangement immunizes Scott from any prohibited conflicts of interest because those assets are considered to be outside Scott’s knowledge or control.

Last week, however, BrowardBulldog.org reported that the trust has been ineffective in preventing disclosures of the governor’s assets. Information about stock purchases and sales by the blind trust are a matter of public record elsewhere.

For example, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission records show that since December 2012 the blind trust has sold millions of dollars worth of shares of Argan Inc., a company that does business in Florida through its power plant construction subsidiary, Gemma Power Systems. Scott continues to be the beneficial owner of approximately $27 million in Argan shares.

The law does not require Scott to make public the agreement he signed with Hollow Brook that created the blind trust, and his office declined BrowardBulldog.org’s request to release a copy.

Instead, Bazaar certified to Florida’s Commission on Ethics last July that the blind trust met the law’s requirements. There is no way to verify Bazaar’s assertion.

Gov. Scott picked Hollow Brook and Bazaar, who turns 44 this weekend, to manage his blind trust when it was created in April 2011. It was a comfortable selection for both men. Bazaar’s duties were similar to his former job at Richard. L. Scott Investments where he helped research and choose Scott’s investments.

SCOTT’S EYES AND EARS

At the firm, Bazaar was Scott’s eyes and ears when serving as a director on the boards of corporations in which Scott had taken a large investment stake.

A decade ago, for example, Bazaar was named to the board of directors of a company called Media Sciences International. Federal records state that Bazaar’s board membership was part of a deal in which Scott invested $1.25 million in exchange for a million shares of Media Sciences stock directly from the company.

Alan Bazaar, third from right, with other members of the board of directors of NTS communications

Alan Bazaar, third from right, with other members of the board of directors of NTS communications

As trustee of the governor’s blind trust, Bazaar continues to serve on boards of companies in which Scott is heavily invested.

One example is NTS, a broadband services provider. Bazaar joined the board of directors in 2012 in the wake of a settlement between management and dissident shareholders looking to make changes in order to maximize shareholder value.

Last month, Lubbock, Texas-based NTS merged with another company and its stockholders received $2 for each share they owned. SEC reports show that Scott’s blind trust owned 1.25 million shares worth $2.5 million. Scott was also the beneficial owner of an additional 3.7 million NTS shares held by the Scott Family partnership and the First Lady’s trust. The total value of the Scott’s NTS shares: $10 million.

In 2013, Bazaar also became a director at Wireless Telecom Group of Parsippany, N.J.

Two years before, Gov. Scott’s blind trust reported its initial assets included $434,000 in Wireless Telecom stock. When Bazaar joined Wireless Telecom’s board on June 12, 2013, the company disclosed that Gov. Scott was the beneficial owner of 1,872,265 shares, or 7.9 percent of the company. The market value of those shares was $2.26 million.

How many of those Wireless Telecom shares were assets of the blind trust is not known. The governor typically owns shares indirectly via trusts or partnerships and Wireless Telecom did not identify the entity or entities holding Scott’s shares.

Hollow Brook, whose employees also include Scott’s longtime corporate accountant Cathy Gellatly, charges its clients fees based on a percentage of assets under management and performance, according to SEC records.

SCOTT FAMILY’S ENORMOUS ASSETS

In the case of the Scott family, those assets are enormous. The governor’s blind trust alone holds assets valued at more than $70 million. The Scott family partnership and the First Lady’s revocable trust are worth upwards of tens of millions of dollars more, SEC records show.

SEC records reveal something else: an apparent coordination of transactions among those three entities, each of which owned huge parallel interests in some of the same stocks.

On more than one occasion, the blind trust, Ann Scott’s trust and the family partnership bought or sold large numbers of shares on the same day, at the same price and in the same or similar proportions.

Gov. Scott filed reports with the SEC disclosing two such transactions.

The first report states that on Nov. 2, 2011 the blind trust, Ann Scott’s trust and the family partnership each bought shares of NTS for which they paid a total of $750,000. The second filing reported proportional sales by those entities of 350,000 shares of Argan on Dec. 20, 2012. The sales grossed $6.3 million.

SEC records also disclose Bazaar’s personal investments in stocks that Scott owned.

For example, Bazaar was a member of Fernwood Partners II, a Delaware investment company that Scott and his wife, Ann, used in 1999 to invest $3.7 million in Cyberguard, a Deerfield Beach computer security firm.

As part of that deal, Cyberguard added Scott’s brother, William Scott, and former Columbia/HCA Healthcare executive David Manning to its board. Gov. Scott was Columbia/HCA’s chief executive until 1999 when he resigned amid a federal Medicare fraud investigation.

Others who later joined Cyberguard’s board included Gov. Scott’s longtime friends, Broward Sheriff Ken Jenne, who later went to prison for corruption, and Fort Lauderdale lobbyist William D. Rubin. For their board service, both men were granted Cyberguard shares worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Gov. Scott quietly rakes in millions from stock sales; Florida’s blind trust law ineffective

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org 

Gov. Rick Scott Photo: Joe Burbank, Orlando Sentinel

Gov. Rick Scott
Photo: Joe Burbank, Orlando Sentinel

Over the last 15 months, Gov. Rick Scott and his wife, Ann, through various entities, made more than $17 million selling hundreds of thousands of shares of Argan Inc., a publicly-traded company whose subsidiary, Gemma Power Systems, does business in Florida.

The Scotts’ Argan profits were magnificent, more than quadruple their investment.

Gov. Scott’s blind trust sold 140,976 of those Argan shares worth $2.54 million on Dec. 20, 2012. After the sale, the blind trust retained more than 520,000 Argan shares worth $9.43 million.

You aren’t supposed to know that. Gov. Scott isn’t supposed to know it either.

Not long after taking office in 2011, Scott put his personal portfolio of stocks including Argan, bonds and other financial assets into the blind trust that’s managed by others. The idea was to eliminate any appearance of a conflict of interest between the governor’s financial assets and his official duties by “blinding” him  – and the public – to the nature of his vast holdings.

Yet an investigation by BrowardBulldog.org has found that the governor’s blind trust, and Florida’s qualified blind trust law, have been ineffective. They have not prevented public disclosure of Gov. Scott’s personal riches.

MILLIONS IN BLIND TRUST ASSETS VISIBLE 

Millions of dollars of assets placed in the Richard L. Scott Blind Trust – securities, partnership interests and the like – are not veiled as the law intended. They are visible to Scott or anyone else who knows where to look. They are a matter of public record.

The reason: Florida’s blind trust law is trumped by the public reporting requirements of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

“The public is not benefiting from Florida’s so-called blind trust policies. It’s really not a blind trust. It’s more like a removable blindfold,” said Dan Krassner, executive director of the nonpartisan watchdog group Integrity Florida.

No one in the governor’s office, including General Counsel Peter Antonacci, would be interviewed for this story.

Gov. Scott and First Lady Ann Scott

Gov. Scott and First Lady Ann Scott

In response to emailed questions, Scott spokesman John Tupps said, “The governor’s blind trust is controlled by an independent trustee by law. He has no knowledge of any blind trust activity or transaction since his assets were placed in the blind trust on April 30, 2011.”

Still, publicly available SEC records show that just two weeks ago the governor and the First Lady cashed out another $10 million from the stock market when their five million shares in the publicly traded telecommunications firm NTS, held indirectly through several entities they control, were acquired in a merger. NTS changed is name from XFONE in 2012.

Gov. Scott’s blind trust accounted for a quarter of that total, or $2.5 million, the records show. Half of the Scotts’ stake, including the blind trust’s shares, were acquired at a bargain basement price directly from NTS on Nov. 2, 2011 – nearly one year to the day after Scott’s election.

The governor voluntarily created his blind trust about four months after his inauguration. Because public officials in Florida are not required to report spouses’ holdings, only financial assets owned directly in Scott’s name, or by the Richard L. Scott Revocable Trust, went into the trust.

Florida’s qualified blind trust law, signed by Gov. Scott last May 1, allows public officers to find legal safe harbor from prohibited conflicts of interest by using such trusts to hold their assets outside their knowledge or control.

Over the summer, Scott sought a ruling from the ethics commission that his blind trust met the new law’s standards and that he was entitled to its protection. In September, after Scott’s lawyers disclosed a list of initial assets placed into the trust, the ethics commission ruled that “under the circumstances presented,” Scott’s blind trust complies with state law.

So far, the extremely wealthy Scott is the only public official in Florida to create a qualified blind trust to shield his assets, according to the Commission on Ethics.

‘SECRECY APPROACH FAILED’

Today, however, the governor’s safe harbor seems in jeopardy because of the blind trust’s inability to keep his assets hidden from public view.

Dan Krassner, executive director of nonprofit Integrity Florida

Dan Krassner, executive director of nonprofit Integrity Florida

“The secrecy approach to accountability has failed and full disclosure is the solution. Lawmakers should repeal the blind trust law and instead have a policy of full disclosure of private financial interests of public officials,” said Integrity Florida’s Krassner.

The blind trust’s shortcomings would appear to create an immediate potential problem for Gov. Scott in his oversight role as chair of the State Board of Administration.

The SBA, with more than $176 billion in public money under management, invests widely on behalf of the Florida Retirement System and other funds, including the Lawton Chiles Endowment Fund, which manages the state’s tobacco settlement monies. The funds are run day-to-day by SBA staff and an executive director who serves at the pleasure of the SBA’s trustees – Gov. Scott, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Attorney General Pam Bondi.

The pension fund and the Chiles fund own stock in hundreds of corporations. We now know, however, that includes stock in companies in which the governor’s blind trust is also heavily invested. One example is Argan. At the end of 2013, the SBA reported the state funds owned $260,000 in Argan shares.

Do Scott’s large investments in corporations whose shares are also owned by the pension plan and the Chiles fund create a conflict for him as SBA chair?

“The interests in question were acquired prior to (Scott’s) holding office. Interests such as these, residing in an office holder’s blind trust, do not create any conflict of interest,” spokesman Tupps said in an email.

The SEC generally considers beneficial ownership of more than five percent of a publicly traded company’s shares to be significant enough to report to the public. Persons who acquire such a large stake must promptly disclose, then file updates to reflect material sales or purchases. Insiders who own more than 10 percent of a company are subject to additional reporting rules.

SCOTT’S NET WORTH $83.8 MILLION

Gov. Scott reported a net worth of $83.8 million in June. His stock holdings sometimes amount to hundreds of thousands, even millions of shares – stakes large enough to trigger SEC public reporting requirements.

Reports filed at the SEC detail a number of large transactions involving stock beneficially owned by the governor, including shares of Argan and NTS.

The reports bear Scott’s electronic signature as the person who filed them.

Asked about that, the governor’s office said Scott didn’t personally file those reports, adding they were filed by an authorized trustee on his behalf.

SEC regulations, however, require insiders and large beneficial owners like Scott who use an authorized representative to disclose. Representatives are instructed by the SEC to use their typed signature and then indicate that they are signing on behalf of the person they represent. Authorizing documents, such as a power of attorney, must also be filed publicly with the SEC.

SEC reports about the Argan and NTS transactions are signed by one person, Scott. And a review of related SEC records filed by Scott and his blind trust trustee, Hollow Brook Wealth Management, found nothing that authorizes others to sign government forms or schedules on the governor’s behalf.

$10.8 MILLION IN ARGAN SALES IN JANUARY

As recently as seven weeks ago, an ownership report filed under the governor’s electronic signature reported the sale of another 350,000 Argan shares in seven transactions from January 10 to January 22. The reported price per share was between $30 and $30.45. The gross sales price: $10.8 million.

The report lists Hollow Brook Chief Executive Alan L. Bazaar only as a “person authorized to receive [SEC] notices and communications.”

Scott’s report does not identify the specific accounts, trusts or entities involved in those most recent sales of Argan shares. But a prior insider report about the December 2012 Argan sales show the Scott family has used a trio of entities to buy and sell the company’s shares – the blind trust, the F. Annette Scott Revocable Trust, named for Florida’s First Lady, and the Richard L. and F. Annette Scott Family Partnership.

Together, those three entities grossed $6.3 million selling Argan shares at that time, Scott reported.

The Scotts remain large stakeholders in Argan. In January, following the latest sales, the governor disclosed that he remains the beneficial owner of 965,255 Argan shares, or 6.8 percent of the company. At Wednesday’s closing price for Argan stock of $28.10 a share, that’s $27.1 million.

While the federal government deems Scott to be a beneficial owner of his wife of 41 years’ revocable trust and her share of the family partnership, Florida does not require him to report that ownership interest or place it in the blind trust. To protect him back home, Scott’s reports to the SEC about his beneficial ownership include a small print disclaimer that they should not be construed as an admission that he is actually a beneficial owner.

According to its literature, Argan’s primary business is designing and building power plants through its wholly owned subsidiary, Gemma Power Systems.

In the early 2000s, before Argan acquired it, Gemma constructed plants in Bartow, Arcadia and Wachula for Progress Energy and El Paso International. After 2005, Gemma let its registration to do business in Florida lapse for several years. Gemma reinstated its registration with the Division of Corporations in March 2011.

NTS, recently acquired by affiliates of a Connecticut private equity firm, does not do business in Florida. NTS boasts obtaining $100 million in federal stimulus funds to bring its internet access services to rural areas in Texas and Louisiana.

THE SCOTTS DOUBLE DOWN

Records show that on Nov. 2, 2011, the Scotts doubled their substantial NTS stake by taking advantage of an offering to existing shareholders to buy additional shares directly from the company at a discount to the market. The blind trust, the First Lady’s revocable trust and the family partnership paid $750,000 to acquire more than 2.5 million shares, Scott reported. The shares cost 30 cents each. Open market trades of NTS shares that day ranged from 40 to 41 cents a share.

Last month, the Scotts received $2 a share for each of the five million NTS shares they began accumulating in 2007. Profit: $2.5 million.

But the Scott’s NTS gains are eclipsed by profits from their investments in Argan.

In February 2011, about two months before the blind trust was created, Scott reported he was the beneficial owner of 1,673,000 Argan shares. Records show he’d acquired those shares, about 14 percent of the company, in a half dozen transactions by a limited liability company called Argan Investments since 2006.

In the fall of 2010, Argan Investments was dissolved and its holdings distributed to its members: the First Lady’s trust, the family trust and the Richard L. Scott Revocable Trust, which was later placed into the blind trust.

The Scotts paid $9.5 million for their Argan shares. In little more than a year they’ve sold less than half their stake for $17 million while retaining nearly a million shares worth many millions more.

SEC files contain public information about other stocks that were listed as assets in the governor’s blind trust in 2011.

MeetMe is a social networking company known as Quepasa Corp. when it was based in West Palm Beach. It was registered to do business in Florida from 2007 until last September.

MRS. SCOTT BUYS A MILLION SHARES AS 2013 LEGISLATURE CONVENES

The blind trust document valued the governor’s Quepasa investment at $1.4 million. That translated to about 167,000 shares at the time the trust was established.

While no subsequent reports were filed with the SEC regarding Scott’s MeetMe investment, the New York City investment firm Scott hired to manage his blind trust, Hollow Brook, reported holding 331,628 MeetMe shares at the end of 2012.

Hollow Brook has other clients and its report does not identify the owner or owners of those MeetMe shares. Still, MeetMe reported a few months later that in exchange for $2.75 million Richard L. Scott Investments had acquired one million MeetMe shares on the first day of the 2013 Legislative session.

Richard L. Scott Investments, now run by Ann Scott, changed its name this year to Columbia Collier Management. Among its other assets: the nine-passenger Cessna Citation business jet Gov. Scott uses to fly around Florida at his own expense, according to Federal Aviation Administration records.

Hollow Brook’s quarterly holdings report for the period ending Sept. 30, 2013 listed 1,331,628 MeetMe shares. By year end, however, Hollow Brook reported holding no MeetMe stock.

What happened to the MeetMe shares owned by the governor’s blind trust and Richard L. Scott Investments, now known as Columbia Collier? Were shares sold, transferred or otherwise disposed of?

SEC records don’t say. Scott’s office said the governor doesn’t know, and Hollow Brook Chief Executive Alan Bazaar declined to comment.

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