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New York boots Armor Correctional; In Florida, Armor boss named to powerful commission

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Dr. Jose Armas, owner and president of Armor Correctional Health Services, right, and Gov. Rick Scott

The company that provides health-care services to thousands of jail inmates across Florida, including Broward and Palm Beach counties, has been kicked out of New York for allegedly “placing inmates’ health in jeopardy.”

Armor Correctional Health Services paid $350,000 in penalties and agreed not to bid on or enter into any contract to provide jail health services in New York state for three years, settling formal charges brought in July 2016 by New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman. The lawsuit was filed after a dozen inmates died since Armor was hired, including five found to have received inadequate medical care, Schneiderman’s office said.

“For-profit jail providers must ensure that appropriate medical care is provided in jails, where many inmates suffer from complex medical needs,” Schneiderman said when the settlement was announced in October. “This settlement sends a clear message that companies who fail to provide the required health services to inmates won’t be tolerated in New York State.” Armor Correctional provided comprehensive medical services to the Nassau County Correctional Center.

Five months later, however, Florida Gov. Rick Scott appointed Armor Correctional founder and president Dr. Jose “Pepe” Armas to a coveted seat on the powerful Constitution Revision Commission that will recommend changes next year to the Florida Constitution.

Armas and companies he controls have contributed nearly $300,000 to Scott’s election campaigns, his Let’s Get to Work political committees and to the Republican Party of Florida.

“Armas is a distinguished physician and healthcare executive whose focus on patient-centered care has defined his career,” Gov. Scott’s office said in announcing his appointment to the commission in March.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman

A spokeswoman for Armas at Miami’s EvClay Public Relations sought to downplay Armor Correctional’s New York troubles, saying the company had made a “business decision” to pull out of New York three years before the settlement. Similarly, she described Armas as “solely” an investor in Armor and “not involved in its daily operations.”

Florida corporate records, however, have for years listed Armas as Armor’s president. And the company’s federal income tax returns from 2009 through 2013 state that Armas owned 100 percent of Armor. They also show that in 2012-2013 Armor paid Armas $9.6 million in dividends.

What happened in New York wasn’t the first time an Armas-led company has been in trouble.

In 2013, Armas’s MCCI Group Holdings LLC paid $1.6 million to the U.S. Department of Justice to settle a whistleblower lawsuit under the False Claims Act alleging that MCCI had violated the federal Anti-Kickback Statute and the Anti-Inducement Act. MCCI denied the allegations, but also paid another $300,000 in attorney fees to the whistleblower’s attorney.

“MCCI reached a settlement to avoid the delay, inconveniences and expense of litigation,” said Armas spokeswoman Melisa Chantres.

At the time, MCCI owned and operated medical clinics in Miami-Dade and contracted with Humana, which was also named in the qui tam suit, to provide care, including prescription drugs, to Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries.

The complaint, filed in federal court in Miami, did not allege any wrongdoing by Armas himself, but contended that MCCI broke the law “by providing to its current and potential Medicare beneficiaries free services and gifts, such as transportation, meals, beauty and salon services, massages and entertainment,” according to the settlement agreement. The illegal activities allegedly took place between 2000 and 2012.

Scott’s Medicare fraud case

Long before Scott became governor in 2011, he was the founder and CEO of health-care titan Columbia/HCA and at the center of a much larger Medicare fraud case. Scott quit Columbia/HCA amid an FBI probe in 1997, and the company he built later paid a record $1.7 billion in criminal and civil fines.

MCCI was named in another South Florida whistleblower case filed by Dr. Mario M. Baez in 2012 and made public last year. Baez accused MCCI, Humana and several Palm Beach County physicians of “upcoding,” a fraudulent billing scheme in which health-care providers charge Medicare, Medicaid and other insurance payers for more expensive services than were performed.

Last month, the U.S. formally intervened in the case to recover damages against only one of those defendants, Dr. Isaac Kojo Anakwah Thompson, and not against MCCI. Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Lavine did not explain in court papers why the government declined to intervene against MCCI or Humana. Thompson, Baez’s former partner, was sentenced to 46 months’ imprisonment in July 2016 after pleading guilty to health-care fraud.

Baez could have filed an amended False Claims Act complaint to proceed against MCCI in the name of the United States, but did not do so. MCCI spokeswoman Chantres said the company was never served legal notice of the lawsuit and called Baez “a complete stranger to MCCI.”

Fort Lauderdale attorneys Christina Currie and Greg Lauer

In Broward, Armas’ Armor Correctional, its doctors and Broward Sheriff Scott Israel are defendants in a federal civil rights lawsuit in the death of William Herring Jr., 22, a mentally ill inmate who starved to death in December 2012 while allegedly being deprived of treatment.

The lawsuit filed last December by Fort Lauderdale attorneys Greg Lauer and Christina Currie notes that Armor was being paid $25 million a year by the sheriff’s office to provide comprehensive health care to county inmates.

“However instead of holding true to its promise Armor chose to maximize profits. Armor knew that the result of putting profits before patients would be that some inmates with serious medical conditions would not get the care that they were entitled to,” the lawsuit says.

The complaint goes on to identify five other Broward inmates who it says died “slow, horrible and preventable deaths in the same jail” from 2011-2012 because of Armor’s decision to maximize profits. The five are identified as: William Campbell, arrested for DUI; Gary Joseph Smith, arrested for possession of cocaine; Calvin Goldsmith, arrested for trespassing; Raleigh Priester, arrested for throwing a rock at a city employee; Arthur Sacco, arrested for an unspecified misdemeanor.

Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein’s office represents many inmates under Armor’s care. He said what he’s observed about Armor is disturbing.

“If you have a family member who is in jail and their life depends on Armor for medical treatment, you’re in trouble,” Finkelstein said. “The name of the game with Armor is to withhold treatment until the inmate is released, sent to prison and it becomes someone else’s treatment, or dies.”

Chantres said Armor does not comment on pending legal matters, but noted the company “strives to deliver excellent patient care daily.”

Miami judge rules out FOIA trial, says FBI document on 9/11 funding to remain secret

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Miami U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga. Photo: Federal Bar Association, South Florida Chapter

Secret FBI information about who funded the 9/11 attacks will remain hidden indefinitely after a Miami federal judge reversed herself last week and decided that the FBI was not improperly withholding it from the public.

At the same time, Judge Cecilia Altonaga ruled out holding a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) trial to evaluate the need for such continued secrecy nearly 16 years after the 9/11 attacks. A trial would likely have included testimony from government witnesses in support of continued secrecy as well as others like Bob Graham, the former Florida senator who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11 and believes the FBI documents should be made public.

“The court sees no need for further facts to be elicited at trial,” Altonaga wrote in her seven-page order granting the FBI’s request to keep secret large portions of an FBI slide show titled “Overview of the 9/11 Investigation.” The FBI had argued the information was exempt from public disclosure because it “would disclose techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions.”

Altonaga’s decision reversed her May 16 order that the 60-page document – referred to in court papers as “Document 22” – that was shown to the 9/11 Review Commission on April 25, 2014, should be largely opened for public inspection. The commission is also known as the Meese Commission, after its most prominent member, Reagan-era attorney general Ed Meese.

Florida Bulldog attorney Thomas Julin said the judge “should have ordered the FBI to stand trial for its decision to withhold information about its investigation.” He added that an appeal is being considered.

“The order requires the FBI to release information that was illegally redacted. That information will shed light on 9/11, but we did not get everything we wanted,” said Julin. “Much of what we did get confirmed the Bulldog’s reporting about Sarasota has been 100 percent correct and the FBI lied to the public about that. This case may be headed to the Supreme Court.”

Graham disappointed by ruling

Sen. Graham was disappointed by the judge’s ruling. He said the FBI’s 9/11 overview likely contains “important information relating to the funding of 9/11 and presumably the role of Saudi Arabia in doing so. Knowledge of these facts could change public opinion and governmental actions as to the liability of the Saudis as allies and the wisdom of us supplying them with hundreds of billions of dollars of military armaments.”

Bob Graham

Graham said, “The court essentially accepted without detailed substantiation the FBI’s assertions that techniques and procedures would potentially be compromised. I believe a trial was needed at which those unsubstantiated statements would be challenged with questions such as, ‘Over the 16 years since the events of 9/11 occurred have these techniques and procedures which proved to be so ineffective in preventing 9/11 been continued?’”

Florida Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers, first reported in September 2011 about a secret FBI investigation into a Saudi family living in Sarasota who abruptly departed their home in an upscale, gated community about two weeks before the 9/11 attacks – leaving behind their cars, clothes, furniture and food in the refrigerator. A senior counterterrorism agent said authorities later found phone records and gatehouse security records that linked the home of Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji to 9/11 hijackers, including Mohamed Atta.

The FBI kept its Sarasota investigation secret for a decade. Former Sen. Graham has said the FBI did not disclose it to either the Joint Inquiry or the original 9/11 Commission.

An April 2002 FBI report released by the FBI during the litigation confirmed that account, saying agents found “many connections” between the Sarasota Saudis and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.” The FBI has since sought to discredit that report, saying the unnamed agent who wrote it had no basis for doing so.

The lawsuit forced the FBI to review 1,858 pages of records and to release parts of 713 pages. The FBI withheld 1,145 pages.

“The FBI violated FOIA by failing to respond to the Bulldog’s request for the Meese Commission records,” said Julin. “The Bulldog would not have gotten any of the records if it had not filed the lawsuit.”

The FBI PowerPoint pages Judge Altonaga has now ruled should remain under wraps include:

  • Two pages titled “Funding of the 9/11 Attacks” and “Early to Mid-2001 Additional Funding”
  • Pages titled: “Early to Mid-2000: Pilots/Intended Pilots Arrive U.S.”; “Investigative Findings” regarding hijacker “Identification” and “Financial. Ample Financing was provided”; “Early to Mid-2001: Non-pilots arrive U.S.”; “July-August 2001: Knife Purchases”; “August 2001: Reserving 9/11 Tickets”
  • Four pages titled “Ongoing Investigation”

Who bankrolled the 9/11 attacks is the central question at issue in complex civil litigation in New York in which 9/11 victims – survivors and relatives of the nearly 3,000 dead and businesses that suffered property damage – are seeking enormous damages from the oil-rich monarchy of Saudi Arabia. The country has denied any role in funding the September 11 attacks.

Seeking 9/11 Review Commission files

Florida Bulldog, through its corporate parent Broward Bulldog Inc., sued the FBI in June 2016, seeking records of the 9/11 Review Commission, a congressionally authorized body whose duties included reviewing new evidence not considered by Congress or the original 9/11 Commission. The Review Commission, whose members were chosen, paid and spoon-fed information by the FBI, issued its report in March 2015.

The FBI released a heavily redacted copy of its 9/11 Overview in February. The FBI cited national security, privacy and other reasons to withhold much information, including Exemption 7(E) of the Freedom of Information Act, which protects law enforcement “techniques and procedures.”

On May 16, Judge Altonaga ruled that the FBI had “failed to meet its burden in establishing Exemption 7(E) applies to the redacted information” in the 9/11 Overview because “much of it does not discuss any FBI investigative techniques and procedures; instead the material often encompasses facts and information gathered FBI suspects.”

In early June, the FBI asked Altonaga to reconsider her ruling, arguing that while the overview doesn’t “discuss techniques and procedures, the information contained in the document could still reveal” them. For example, the FBI said it had withheld a photograph taken by a security camera because its release “would disclose the location of the security camera,” possibly enabling future terrorists to circumvent detection.

Attorneys for Florida Bulldog countered that security measures have changed “immensely” since 9/11 and the government had not shown that security measures “that supposedly would be revealed would be of any utility to future terrorists.”

Altonaga’s new order doesn’t address that argument, but nevertheless sided with the FBI, saying the redactions are “necessary to prevent disclosure of FBI techniques or procedures.”

Former Sen. Graham said what’s happened, including the FBI’s resistance to disclosing classified information about 9/11 and who was behind it, is evidence that the Freedom of Information Act needs significant reform.

“The most fundamental question now is whether the Freedom of Information Act as currently written and administered is a barrier to Americans’ fundamental right to know what their government is doing,” Graham said.

Judge Altonaga’s order requires the government to draft a proposed final summary judgment order for the court’s consideration by July 11.

 

FBI asks Miami judge to reconsider, keep secret ‘sensitive details’ about 9/11

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

The 9/11 hijackers

The FBI is pushing back against a federal judge’s findings that certain classified details about the funding of the 9/11 attacks and the 19 al Qaeda suicide hijackers should be made public.

Specifically, the government is asking Miami U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga to reconsider her May 16 ruling that would largely open for public inspection a 60-page FBI slide show titled “Overview of the 9/11 Investigation.” The FBI showed the overview to the 9/11 Review Commission in secret on April 25, 2014.

The FBI released some of the overview’s pages in full earlier this year, but many more were either partially blanked out or withheld completely for privacy or other reasons. The overview and numerous other FBI records are the focus of an ongoing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit brought by Florida Bulldog one year ago.

Here’s what an FBI official told the court last week about four blanked-out PowerPoint slides regarding “the transfer of money prior to and funding of the attacks”:

“The release of this information would reveal sensitive details about how much money was being moved around, when it was being moved, how it was being moved, the mode of transfer and locations the FBI had detected movements in. Disclosure of this information would provide a playbook to future subjects on how much money one can move around in certain forms without attracting attention,” FBI record chief David M. Hardy said in his sixth declaration in the case.

Questions about who financed the 9/11 attacks are at the heart of sprawling civil litigation brought against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and others by survivors and relatives of the nearly 3,000 people who died that day. The plaintiffs and their lawyers contend that the kingdom, its official charities and others were responsible. Saudi Arabia has strenuously denied any wrongdoing.

Florida Bulldog’s Miami FOIA case seeks records of the 9/11 Review Commission. The Bulldog also sued the FBI in 2012 in federal court in Fort Lauderdale seeking records about its 2001-2002 Sarasota investigation of a Saudi family who moved abruptly out of their upscale home two weeks before 9/11 – leaving behind cars, clothes, furniture and other personal possessions. The probe was triggered by neighbors’ calls to authorities, but the FBI never disclosed its existence to Congress or the original 9/11 Commission.

Six months after that initial FOIA case was filed, the FBI released a small batch of records, including an April 2002 report that said agents found “many connections” between the Sarasota Saudis and the hijackers. In 2014, the FBI told the 9/11 Review Commission in closed session that the agent who wrote the 2002 report had no basis for doing so, but did not further explain or identify the agent.

Also in 2014, Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge William Zloch ordered the FBI to produce its records about the matter. The FBI turned over all classified records about 9/11 maintained in its Tampa field office — 80,000 pages. The judge continues to review those documents for possible public release.

Trial date sought

Judge Altonaga’s order last month granted in part and denied in part an FBI motion for summary judgment, notably on the lawfulness of the FBI’s redactions of certain information from several records that it has produced. The FBI, however, has not restored any of those redactions, and attorneys for the Bulldog have asked the judge to set a date for trial this summer.

“At trial, the FBI will be required to offer admissible evidence through witnesses – not through inadmissible hearsay by declaration – to attempt to sustain the redactions,” wrote attorney Thomas Julin in a June 2 “Joint Status Report” to the court. “The Bulldog will have the opportunity, in accordance with due process, to cross-examine any FBI witnesses presented.”

The government asked Judge Altonaga to reconsider her prior ruling the same day. The judge has not yet decided whether an FOIA trial is needed, but if one does happen it would be highly unusual.

Hardy, who heads the FBI’s Records/Information Dissemination Section (RIDS), went on in his most recent declaration to discuss other redacted pages in the 9/11 Overview. He said they were withheld to protect FBI “techniques and procedures not well-known to the public as well as non-public details about the use of well-known techniques and procedures.” Hardy’s descriptions shed some light on what’s in those records.

One page, withheld in full, “is a photo taken by a security camera.” The FBI does not identify the photo’s subject, the date it was taken or its general location.

“This was withheld because the release of this picture would disclose the location of the security camera at the site where the photo was taken. The disclosure would allow future subjects to know where to find the security camera so as to avoid the area in which the camera points, thereby circumventing detection or the ability for the FBI and law enforcement to try to obtain an image of the subject.”

Two more pages from the overview section about the FBI’s “ongoing investigation,” also completely withheld, contain “information about a conspirator and his actions taken in preparation for the attacks. This is sensitive information, which if revealed, would put at risk the collection techniques used to obtain such information. It also reveals sensitivities that future subjects could exploit in the future while planning and performing an attack.”

‘Under the radar’

Another page the FBI wants to remain hidden “contains specific factors deemed pertinent in the analysis of the actions of the hijackers’ concerning financial transactions before September 11, 2001. Disclosure of this information would reveal what the FBI already knows about the hijacker’s [sic] financial actions and how they were able to stay ‘under the radar.’”

The FBI’s Hardy similarly advocates for secrecy regarding:

  • The kinds of weapons and identification the conspirators carried.
  • Information about the arrival of the pilots, intended pilots and conspirators in the U.S.
  • Information about when the conspirators moved to their respective departure cities and the timing of their plane ticket purchases.
  • “A timeline of telephone records and money transfers between conspirators.”
  • Information about “previous flights the conspirators took before the attacks to include the collection and timing and locations of flights.”

Finally, Hardy said that information about “investigative leads derived from forensic analysis” and “leads and the sources of data the FBI finds useful to or significant in its analysis” should also remain veiled.

“The places the FBI does not look for information can be just as telling as the places it does look for information,” Hardy wrote.

In responding to Hardy’s assertions in court papers filed Monday, attorneys for Florida Bulldog noted that the “referenced techniques apparently are those techniques that the 9/11 hijackers evaded on September 11, 2001. One would hope that different techniques are in place today.”

“If anything, the PowerPoint slides might reveal outdated, failed law enforcement acts or omissions,” wrote attorney Julin. “The 9/11 attacks on the United States are a consequence, at least in part, of the failure of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to detect and halt them.”

The government has until Monday, June 19 to file a reply. The judge will then decide whether the case will go to trial.

Japan’s Teijin buys biggest asset in Scott’s blind trust; Governor pockets $200 million

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Florida Gov. Rick Scott

Gov. Rick Scott appears to have pocketed $200 million in January when the biggest asset in his blind trust – Continental Structural Plastics – was sold to a subsidiary of the giant Japanese conglomerate Teijin Ltd.

The proceeds would nearly triple Scott’s reported net worth of $119 million in 2015, the most recent year for which Florida’s wealthiest governor has filed a financial disclosure form.

Continental Structural Plastics (CSP), a manufacturer of lightweight composite materials used in cars, trucks and air-conditioning systems, was sold for $825 million in a deal that closed Jan. 3.

Gov. Scott’s exact windfall is not clear, and the governor and his representatives aren’t talking. The $200-million-plus estimate of Scott’s personal haul is based on numbers compiled from a variety of public records. The exact figure is difficult to discern, and could be less, because Scott’s assets are hidden in the blind trust and details are not made public.

First Lady Ann Scott had her own significant private investment in 3,300-employee CSP that was held outside the blind trust.

The governor’s apparent bonanza arose from his relatively modest investment in Michigan-based CSP 12 years ago via his then-private equity firm, Richard L. Scott Investments (RLSI). The purchase price in the leveraged buyout of CSP, as well as the governor’s initial investment, is not known. But public disclosure documents Scott filed later valued his personal ownership stake in RLSI-CSP Capital Partners LLC at $19.4 million at the end of 2009.

By April 2011, when Scott opened his first blind trust three months after his inauguration, Scott’s reported stake had dropped to $14,212,869.

But CSP shares exploded in value during Scott’s time in the governor’s mansion. At the end of 2013, the last year for which such information about Scott’s blind trust is available, Scott declared his RLSI-CSP stake to be worth $43.9 million. RLSI-CSP is the single-purpose limited liability company that Gov. Scott formed to facilitate his CSP investment.

Seeking ‘direct investment’ from Japanese

That same year, Gov. Scott led a high-profile mission to Japan to recruit more Japanese “direct investment” for Florida. Teijin, which boasts $8.6 billion in assets and twin headquarters in Tokyo and Osaka, struck its deal to buy CSP amid Scott’s continuing focus on that goal.

In papers filed with the Tokyo Stock Exchange when it bought CSP, Teijin identified RLSI-CSP as owning 66.7 percent of CSP, meaning that the 13 investor-partners in RLSI-CSP – as stated in Securities and Exchange Commission filings – were due about $550 million.

Jun Suzuki, left, president and CEO of Teijin Limited and Frank Macher, chairman and CEO of Continental Structural Plastics

A comparison of financial data filed in 2014 by Gov. Scott and, separately, by Scott Capital, valuing RLSI-CSP at $120 million, reveals that Rick Scott owned about 36.5 percent of RLSI-CSP. If he owned the same percentage when the company was sold, as it appears he did, it was worth about $200.75 million.

Scott’s aggressive push to convince Japanese businesses to invest and create new jobs in Florida began in earnest on Jan. 1, 2013. That’s the day Enterprise Florida, the state-supported business organization Scott chairs, opened its first economic development office in Tokyo. A phone message for director K. Sam Tabuchi was not returned.

That November Scott led a delegation of 20 Florida business leaders to Japan on an economic development mission. The group stopped in Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka. The governor later reported in a financial disclosure form that the value of his CSP shares had by then rebounded to $43.9 million.

Florida officials released few details about whom the governor met with during his Asian travels. Official statements say only that Scott met “with more than a dozen leading Japanese companies and spoke to more than 350 business leaders.”

But the governor’s six-day mission produced little benefit for Florida. Scott’s office and Enterprise Florida announced no new jobs or investments by high tech or other industries.

At a press conference, Scott highlighted a meeting with Aderans, a Japanese “hair-related business” that in 2012 purchased the Hair Club of Boca Raton for $163 million. The governor praised Aderans, saying it was next looking to invest “in in-house salons of cancer centers where patients undergoing chemotherapy will be able to receive custom styled wigs.”

No jobs for Floridians

While Teijin bought Gov. Scott’s company, it created no jobs for Floridians. Instead, Teijin announced in November 2016 that it would build a “state-of-the-art” carbon fiber manufacturing plant in Greenwood, S.C. State officials boasted the project would bring $600 million in new capital investment and 220 jobs. The plant, on 440 acres, is slated to begin production by early 2019.

Teijin said six states competed and South Carolina was chosen because of its “pro-business atmosphere and proactive support from Governor (Nikki) Haley and her team. Enterprise Florida communications director Nathan Edwards said Florida was not one of the six states that competed to land the project. The governor’s office declined to comment.

The Partnership Alliance for Greenwood South Carolina touts landing Teijin’s manufacturing plant.

A highlight of Scott’s 2013 Japan trip was a Tokyo luncheon hosted by the politically influential Japanese Business Federation (Keidanren), The group’s active members include top executives of Teijin and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, another reported bidder for CSP.

At the time, Gov. Scott showed a keen interest in Mitsubishi. He toured a Mitsubishi manufacturing plant in Nagoya followed by a luncheon with Mitsubishi executives. Four months earlier, Scott visited the New York headquarters of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries America “to promote further job creating partnerships in Florida.”

Scott’s interest in Japan has continued. He’s twice dispatched Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner to follow-up economic development missions arranged by the Japan-U.S. Southeast and Southeast U.S./Japan associations in Tokyo and Birmingham, AL. And in May 2015, the governor traveled to Broward to announce that Tokyo-based SATO Holdings had opened a subsidiary, SATO Global Solutions, in Fort Lauderdale and would create 35 jobs.

“Japan has been a great partner in our work to continue Florida’s economic growth and we are excited to welcome another Japanese business to the Sunshine State,” Scott said, according to a press release about SATO.

A representative of Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems serves today on the board of Enterprise Florida.

In March 2016, CSP and Mitsubishi Rayon Co. agreed to work together to research and develop innovative, lightweight carbon fiber structural components for the U.S. auto industry.

Did Gov. Scott discuss CSP with Mitsubishi? Did he meet with officials of Teijin, a major supplier of high performance composites, to discuss Teijin’s interest, expressed publicly in December 2012, to expand in the U.S. to meet growing demand?

Gov. Scott’s office says no.

Recycled statement

Scott, however declined to be interviewed. And his office would not discuss Scott’s CSP investment, his profit or his plans for re-investing. Instead, a statement that’s been released several times before was recycled:

“When Governor Scott took office in 2011, he put all of his assets in a blind trust so they would be under the control of an independent financial professional.  As such, the Governor has no knowledge of anything that is bought, sold or changed in the trust.”

Alan Bazaar, chief executive officer of the investment firm that’s the trustee of Gov. Scott’s blind trust

An independent professional, however, does not run Scott’s blind trust. Rather Hollow Brook Wealth Management, whose chief executive officer is longtime Scott crony Alan Bazaar, runs it.

Florida’s qualified blind trust law was enacted by the Legislature and signed into law by Scott in 2013. Its purpose was to eliminate conflicts of interest by “blinding” office holders to the nature of assets placed in a blind trust. Thus, public officials who place their assets in a blind trust can avoid disclosing them publicly.

But Florida’s blind trust statute has been ineffective in keeping tens of millions of dollars worth of Scott’s investments hidden from either Scott or the public. Florida Bulldog has for several years used SEC records to report about Scott’s large investments – those held in his blind trust and others beneficially owned by Scott but held in his wife’s name.

Teijin announced its purchase of CSP in a filing with the Tokyo Stock Exchange in September. Teijin said that by acquiring CSP, which had $634 million in sales in 2015, it “will benefit from CSP’s established sales channels in the North American automotive market.”

The filing identified CSP’s “major shareholder” as RLSI-Capital Partners, saying it owned 66.7 percent of CSP. Further, the filing identified the manager of that private equity fund as Gregory D. Scott, who runs the Connecticut-based private investment firm G. Scott Capital Partners, also known as Scott Capital.

Scott Capital’s SEC filings say there were 13 beneficial owners of RLSI-Capital Partners. They include Rick and Ann Scott. Greg Scott, who served on the board of directors of CSP, owned a maximum of one percent. Other partners are believed to be the governor’s family and a handful of his close associates.

Scott and Scott Capital

Scott Capital is closely tied to both Rick and Ann Scott. Greg Scott has said he is not related to Rick Scott, but he led RLSI’s private equity group from 2000 to 2012 when the governor, then a venture capitalist, created RLSI-CSP for the purpose of acquiring Michigan-based CSP.

SEC records show that First Lady Ann Scott is invested heavily in Scott Capital. She controls Tally 1, a limited liability company incorporated in Delaware that owns as much as 50 percent of Scott Capital.

Further, Scott Capital has an interlocking relationship with Alan Bazaar, who runs the governor’s blind trust. Bazaar is another former employee of Gov. Scott who is today chief executive officer at New York-based Hollow Brook Wealth Management. Hollow Brook’s SEC filings state that Bazaar “is an advisory board member of G. Scott Capital Partners.”

Attorneys for Gov. Scott have said Florida’s blind trust law is modeled on the federal blind trust statute and that “an independent trustee” controls Scott’s assets “to avoid the appearance of any conflicts of interest.” Florida Bulldog, however, has reported that the Florida law omits numerous safeguards found in federal law, including one that appears to disqualify Bazaar and his firm from serving as trustee for the blind trust.

Florida law says public officers who place assets in a blind trust “may not attempt to influence or exercise any control over decisions regarding the management of assets in a qualified blind trust” or “make any effort to obtain information with respect to the holdings of the trust.” Trustees face similar restrictions in their management of the trust. For example, Bazaar is generally prohibited from communicating with Scott about his holdings, but trustees are permitted to notify public officers when holdings like CSP are sold.

Under Florida law, blind trusts “may not contain investments or assets the transfer of which by the trustee is improbable or impractical without the public officer’s knowledge.”

The $825-million CSP deal was huge, significantly larger than the other sales of stock by the blind trust, including some that SEC documents show the governor was directly involved in despite statutory prohibitions.

Decision making

The intriguing scenario raises a question: Did Alan Bazaar and Greg Scott make the decision to sell Scott’s interest in CSP, the largest holding in the governor’s blind trust, without discussing it with Gov. Scott?

Bazaar declined to comment. Greg Scott did not respond to detailed phone and email messages. The governor’s office likewise did not respond to emailed questions.

Nine years ago, however, Rick Scott indicated he wanted to grow CSP over the long haul as part of an announcement that Continental Structural Plastics was not for sale despite overtures at the time.

“Our goal with CSP over the next 20 years is to continue to complete strategic acquisitions where our customers and suppliers believe our management expertise will be beneficial,” Scott said.

Gov. Scott has scored political points with voters over the years by refusing to accept the governor’s annual state salary that in 2016 was $130,273. Nevertheless, he’s had other large paydays while in office.

For example, Florida Bulldog reported in March 2014 that since Dec. 20, 2012 Scott and the First Lady made in excess of $17 million selling hundreds of thousands of shares of Argan Inc., a company whose subsidiary, Gemma Power Systems, does business in Florida. SEC records showed the blind trust sold many of those shares. Many other shares were sold by entities in which the governor has acknowledged a beneficial interest, such as his wife’s F. Annette Scott Revocable Trust.

Florida law does not require public officers to disclose assets held in the name of a spouse or certain other relatives.

Trial looms as judge denies FBI request to keep 9/11 records secret for privacy reasons

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

New York World Trade Center’s North Tower ablaze on Sept. 11, 2001

In a ruling that could lead to the release of significant new information about 9/11, including details about who funded the al Qaeda terrorist attacks, a Miami federal judge has rejected FBI assertions that many records should be kept secret due to privacy considerations.

At the same time, U.S. District Court Judge Cecilia Altonaga granted summary judgment in the FBI’s favor regarding more than 1,000 pages of classified records it withheld from public view citing national security and other exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Those records, about which little is known, will remain secret.

A trial could be needed to resolve outstanding issues in the case, the judge said.

Florida Bulldog’s parent, Broward Bulldog Inc., sued the FBI last June seeking records of the 9/11 Review Commission kept by the FBI. The commission, whose most prominent member was Reagan-era Attorney General Ed Meese, was authorized by Congress to take an “external” look at the FBI’s post-9/11 performance and to evaluate new evidence. Instead, Meese and two other members were chosen, paid and spoon-fed information by the FBI.

Among other things, Judge Altonaga analyzed the legality of FBI redactions in 28 partially declassified documents that were disputed by the Bulldog’s attorneys. Again and again, she declared as “unconvincing” FBI arguments asserting a need to veil the names of agents, suspects and others for privacy reasons – specifically citing FOIA Exemptions 6 and 7(c).

“Release of this information could further the public interest in learning about the September 11 attacks and may outweigh any privacy interest individuals mentioned in the document may have,” she wrote. You can read her order here.

Miami attorney Thomas Julin represents Florida Bulldog. “The FBI must stop being so secretive about the events of 9/11,” he said. “Excessive assertion of privacy is harming national security. The next FBI director should put a stop to this.”

Here’s what the judge had to say about numerous privacy deletions made to an Oct. 5, 2012 FBI memo about an active but previously unknown investigation by New York authorities, who were actively looking to indict an unidentified suspect with providing material support for the 9/11 hijackers:

‘Significant public interest’

“Plaintiffs have identified the significant public interest in information about who may have been involved in the September 11 attacks…Given the significant public interest in learning about possible suspects involved in the attacks, the FBI has not met its burden of showing Exemptions 6 and 7(c) apply to the selectively redacted names.”

The October 2012 document was also censored for national security and other reasons. Those redactions were upheld by Altonaga and will not be made public. Also not to be released: draft copies of the 9/11 Review Commission’s final report, which was released in March 2015.

The title page of the 9/11 Review Commission’s 2015 report.

Other partially-declassified FBI documents similarly appear to be chock full of deleted information about September 11th that Judge Altonaga determined is being improperly withheld from the public.

Among the most compelling is a PowerPoint presentation given to the 9/11 Review Commission on April 25, 2014 in a closed meeting. The title of the PowerPoint was “Overview of 9/11 Investigation,” and court papers say it “covers the hijackers, where they attended flight school, how they adapted to Western life and blended in, and known co-conspirators.”

The PowerPoint pages that Judge Altonaga now has identified as being improperly blanked out include these topics:

  • “Funding of the 9/11 Attacks” and “Early to Mid-2001 Additional Funding.” Two pages.
  • “KSM Non-Immigrant Visa Application.” KSM is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Guantanamo detainee identified by the 9/11 Commission as “the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks.”
  • “Early to Mid-2000: Pilots/Intended Pilots Arrive U.S.’’
  • “Investigative Findings” regarding hijacker “Identification” and “Financial. Ample Financing was provided.”
  • “Early to Mid-2001: Non-Pilots Arrive U.S.”
  • “July – August 2001: Knife purchases”
  • “August 2001: Reserving 9/11 Tickets”
  • “Al-Hawsawi Credit Card Statement Supplemental Card Activity.” Like KSM, Mustafa al-Hawsawi is one of 17 “high-value” Guantanamo detainees. The Department of Defense says he was a “senior” al Qaeda member who helped facilitate “the movement and funding of 9/11 hijackers to the U.S.”
  • “Standard Chartered Bank KSM Supplemental Visa Application.”
  • “Ongoing Investigation.” Four pages.

Questions about who bankrolled the 9/11 attacks are at the heart of massive litigation in New York against principal defendants, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia & Herzegovina. The consolidated lawsuits were brought by relatives of the nearly 3,000 people who died in the attacks, survivors and businesses that suffered property damage.

A future king’s involvement

Before he was crowned in 2015, King Salman “actively directed” the Saudi High Commission, an official charity whose funding was “especially important to al Qaeda acquiring the strike capabilities used to launch attacks in the U.S.,” according to court papers filed last year by lawyers for the 9/11victims and their families.

The Freedom of Information Act requires the FBI to conduct an adequate search for records that is “reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant (requested) documents.” Florida Bulldog attorney Julin argued, however, that the FBI’s search of 9/11 Review Commission records was inadequate and had intentionally concealed records that appear to remain missing. But Altonaga decided the government had met its burden of showing the search was “adequate and reasonable.”

Saudi King Salman presenting President Trump the Order of Abdulaziz al-Saud medal on Saturday at the Saudi Royal Court in Riyadh. Photo: Al Arabiya English

Likewise, the judge ruled in the government’s favor regarding a dispute over whether the FBI should be required to produce documents in the case file of “the Sarasota family.” The FBI previously included those records among 80,000 pages of 9/11 records submitted in a parallel FOIA case pending before Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge William Zloch, who since 2014 has been evaluating those records for possible public release. The FBI will not be required to produce those records in the Miami FOIA case.

The “Sarasota family” refers to Saudi citizens Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji and her parents, Esam and Deborah Ghazzawi. The al-Hijjis lived in an upscale home owned by the Ghazzawis in a gated community named Prestancia.

Neighbors called the police after 9/11 to report that the al-Hijjis had abruptly moved out of their home about two weeks before 9/11, leaving behind their cars, furniture and other personal belongings. The FBI opened an investigation that fall that an April 2002 FBI report says found “many connections” between the Sarasota Saudis and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”

For reasons that remain unclear, however, the FBI never notified Congress or the 9/11 Commission about what happened in Sarasota, according to former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the terrorist attacks.

Smoke rising after the crash of United 93 in Shanksville, Pa. on Sept. 11, 2001. Photo: Val McClatchey

Florida Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers, first reported about what happened in Sarasota a decade later in September 2011. A counterterrorism officer who spoke on condition of anonymity said agents found phone and gatehouse records that linked the al-Hijjis’ home on Escondito Circle to Mohamed Atta and Ziad Jarrah, who between June 2000 and January 2001 took flight training just 10 miles away at Venice Municipal Airport’s Huffman Aviation.

Atta was at the controls of the American Airlines passenger jet that crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Jarrah was the pilot who wrested control of United Airlines Flight 93, the jetliner that crashed into a Pennsylvania field after passengers rebelled against their hijackers.

After the Florida Bulldog story broke, the FBI confirmed that it had investigated, but said it found no ties to the 9/11 plot. It also said Congress had been told about its Sarasota investigation.

FBI tries to discredit own report

In April 2014, the FBI sought to discredit its April 2002 report during a private meeting with the 9/11 Review Commission. The FBI said then that the agent who wrote the report had no basis for doing so, but it did not elaborate or identify the agent. The assertion prompted Florida Bulldog to file a FOIA request for the commission’s files. After a year passed without a response from the bureau, the second FOIA lawsuit was filed.

Documents about that briefing include numerous sections withheld for privacy reasons that the judge said were improper. Several additional documents, including interviews with Florida witnesses who knew Atta and other hijackers, contain similar deletions about what went on in Sarasota prior to 9/11 that could be restored based on the judge’s findings.

One of those documents, titled “Alleged Sarasota Links to 9/11 Hijackers” has been released three times by the FBI, each time looking differently. The first release, in March 2013, was on stationery of the “Counterterrorism Division of the Guantanamo Detainee Prosecution Section, 9/11 Prosecution Unit.” The two-page memo, containing numerous privacy redactions, was written in response to the Bulldog’s initial story in September 2011 and says that “the FBI found no evidence that connected the family members” to the hijackers.

The FBI released the document again on Dec. 30, 2016. This time all mention of the Guantanamo 9/11 Prosecution Unit as the source of the memo was removed and more information that had been previously released was now deleted. In April, after the Bulldog’s attorney’s protested, the FBI released a third copy that restored some of the deleted information, but still removed mention of the Guantanamo 9/11 unit.

In her ruling last week, Judge Altonaga denied the FBI’s request for summary judgment “as to all redactions in this document.” Altonaga wrote “the court cannot fathom why the FBI would redact and claim a statutory exemption for information it has already released and which plaintiffs already possess.”

The FBI must now decide whether to make public the information for which summary judgment was denied or continue to oppose release.

Judge Altonaga’s order gives both sides until Thursday, May 25, to file a joint status report “advising how they wish to proceed to conclude the case, and if a trial is to be held, to propose a trial period.”

On Monday afternoon, the FBI requested an extension until June 2.

“The FBI is currently working to determine how to proceed with the information as to which the Court denied summary judgment, i.e., whether the information will be released to Plaintiffs or whether the agency must persist in defense of its claimed FOIA exemptions,” says the motion filed by Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Carlos Raurell. “This process, which is already under way, requires not only the FBI’s own internal analysis, but also consultation with the Justice Department’s Civil Appellate Division and with at least one other government agency.”

Gov. Scott doesn’t let politics get in way of investing in firm that believes in climate change

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Gov. Rick Scott and First Lady Ann Scott Photo: CNN

When Rick Scott ran for governor in 2010, he told a reporter he wasn’t convinced that global warming was real. In 2015, the Scott Administration was reported to have told state employees to lay off using “climate change” and “global warming” in official communications.

Today, the governor’s office dodges questions about Scott’s position on the use of those terms, saying instead, “Governor Scott is focused on real solutions to protect our environment.”

Still, the ultra-wealthy Scott hasn’t let his politics get in the way of making money. Through First Lady Ann Scott, the governor has a substantial financial stake in a sizable mosquito control company that recently declared on its Facebook page that “mosquitos will only get worse thanks to #climatechange” and “#globalwarming.”

The company is Mosquito Control Services LLC, and it had a banner year in 2016.

The Scotts’ big bet on the Zika fighter MCS is via G. Scott Capital Partners, a Connecticut investment firm in which Ann Scott is a major investor. The firm is run by Gregory Scott, no relation to the governor, and two other men who worked for the governor’s old Naples-based private equity firm Richard L. Scott Investments (RLSI) – and obscured that connection by omitting it from their online biographies until after Florida Bulldog disclosed it three years ago.

Gregory Scott has described Ann Scott, an interior decorator and owner of AS Interiors LLC, as a “passive investor” in G. Scott Capital Partners.

Mosquito Control Services’ Facebook page from April 27, 2017

Florida Bulldog first reported on Gov. Scott’s indirect and undisclosed ownership interest in MCS last August. Scott’s office would not comment on Ann Scott’s ownership interest in MCS.

Scott Capital, as it’s known online, manages several private funds and “family accounts” for a handful of extremely wealthy clients. The firm thoroughly vets potential company investments before negotiating a purchase. Likewise, the firm monitors the performance of the companies it acquires. Its investment program “aims to generate high financial returns by making direct control investments in established, U.S.-headquartered lower middle market companies” like MCS.

Taking control

As of January 2017, Scott Capital was holding approximately $102 million of its client assets.

GSCP MCS LLC was formed in Delaware in August 2014 to recapitalize and take control of MCS, according to reports filed by Scott Capital with the Securities and Exchange Commission. In March 2016, the fund was valued at just under $10 million. Twelve months later, the fund’s reported value had risen nearly 28 percent to $12,715,853.

Mosquito Control Services is an insecticide spraying company that’s based in Louisiana but does business across the Gulf Coast, including Florida, according to its website. It boasts a spraying “fleet of Beechcraft King Air turbine-powered twin-engine aircraft” and says the company’s primary customers are municipalities. MCS does not do business with the State of Florida.

MCS manager Steven Pavlovich did not return a phone message seeking comment.

The scientific consensus is that global warming and climate change will bring damaging sea-level rise that will create new mosquito breeding grounds and likely hike infection rates for mosquito-borne diseases like Zika, malaria and West Nile virus.

Like the Scotts and their advisors, stock market analysts see investor opportunity in the pest control services market, particularly the mosquito control segment. One recent report by Future Market Insights forecast solid industry growth over the next decade citing a variety of reasons including “prevalent weather conditions supporting insect growth.”

MCS, through its Facebook post, made clear its belief that global warming and climate change are very real concerns. It also shared an April 20 New York Times Magazine article with the ominous title, “Why the Menace of Mosquitoes Will Only Get Worse – Climate change is altering the environment in ways that increase the potential for viruses like Zika.”

Mysterious Saudi businessman in 9/11 puzzle surfaces – online

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

New York City, September 11, 2001

A mysterious figure at the center of the puzzle about an apparent Sarasota-area support network for 9/11 hijackers is a rich Saudi Arabian businessman with ties to the kingdom’s ruling House of Saud and international and American political leaders.

Esam Abbas Ghazzawi, son of a former Saudi ambassador, stepped from the shadows recently when he posted a website publicizing his extravagant design work for Saudi royalty and details about his background. He did not, however, respond to Florida Bulldog emailed requests for comment.

State records show that Ghazzawi, 66, and his American-born wife, Deborah, owned the home at 4224 Escondito Circle in Sarasota that became the focus of an FBI investigation after neighbors reported that its occupants — Ghazzawi’s daughter Anoud and his son-in-law Abdulaziz al-Hijji — had abruptly moved out and returned with Ghazzawi to Saudi Arabia about two weeks before the terrorist attacks – leaving behind their cars, clothes, furniture and other personal belongings.

Authorities later obtained security records from the gated community and determined that cars driven by 9/11 hijack leader Mohamed Atta and other terrorist figures visited the al-Hijjis’ residence. A heavily-censored April 2002 FBI report released to Florida Bulldog in 2013 amid ongoing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation says FBI agents found “many connections” to “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.” The FBI, however, kept those findings secret from both Congress and the 9/11 Commission, according to former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, co-chair of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the 9/11 attacks.

(The FBI disavowed its 2002 report in 2014, telling the 9/11 Review Commission that the agent who wrote it had no basis to do so. The FBI did not identify the agent or further explain the bizarre turn of events. FBI Director James Comey, fired Tuesday by President Trump, publicly mischaracterized the Review Commission as an independent body when in fact he chose its three members and the FBI paid them.)

A decade passed before the FBI’s Sarasota investigation became public when Florida Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers, reported it in September 2011. The FBI soon confirmed the existence of the investigation, but said it found no connection between the Saudi family and the 9/11 plot. Agents also said the Sarasota probe was reported to Congress.

The newly posted information shows that Ghazzawi is a commercial landscape and interior designer whose companies have handled multi-million dollar projects in Saudi Arabia. Until July 2001 he was also an advisor to Prince Fahd Bin Salman Abdul Aziz al-Saud (Prince Fahd), an ex-classmate and eldest son of King Salman, who died that month of heart failure.

Bush, Bhutto and John Major

His website, esamghazzawidesigns.com, features photographs of Ghazzawi’s luxurious designs that have “transformed homes into palaces.” Magazine articles from the early 2000s show him meeting world leaders, including former United Kingdom Prime Minister John Major, the late Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and ex-President George H.W. Bush. Bush signed his picture, “To Esam A. Ghazzawi Best Wishes, George Bush.”

Esam Ghazzawi shaking hands with George H.W. Bush in an undated photo signed by the former president. The photo was taken during one of Bush’s visits to Saudi Arabia, according to the Arab language magazine “The House”

An English-language article describes Ghazzawi as a father of five who graduated high school in Saudi Arabia and attended college in the U.S., obtaining a bachelor’s degree in 1975 from Chapman College in Orange, CA. “Mr. Ghazzawi maintains residences all over the world – the family’s primary residence (which is a sprawling beach house) is in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia on the Arabian Gulf. (He) also has a large city penthouse in Riyadh and other secondary residences” in London, Sarasota and Arlington, VA, says the article in On Design magazine. 

Ghazzawi was described as providing turnkey design services “primarily for grand scale residential interiors within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” His clients were said to be “well educated, well-traveled and very affluent. To date, most have been high-ranking government hierarchy in his home country.”

Ghazzawi, through his Esam Arabia Projects Est. and the Luxury Home Collection Ltd., boasted a “full-time staff” of architects, draftsmen, artists and CADD (computer-aided design and drafting) operators. “It is not unusual for Mr. Ghazzawi to have hundreds of workers on site at one time,” the article in On Design says.

An example is Esam Arabia’s 1998-2001work as the principal contractor on a $28-million landscape and lighting project to create a “paradise-setting” at Yamama Palace in Riyadh, the residence of Prince Abdul Azziz bin Fahd, son of then King Fahd. California-based Lee-Wolfe and Associates provided project management. Company co-owner Paul L. Wolfe said he knew Ghazzawi, but declined to be interviewed.

Former British Prime Minister John Major with Prince Fahd bin Salman, center, and Esam Ghazzawi in an undated photograph.

The FBI closely guards its files on Ghazzawi and has steadfastly refused to release even his name – except once in an apparent oversight while processing documents for release to Florida Bulldog.

The documents were a copy of a letter and a list of phone numbers received by the FBI on July 23, 2002. Details about the letter and the list were blanked out, but the “title” of the file into which they were placed – Esam Ghazzawi – was not.

The FBI’s interest in Ghazzawi, while cryptic, is longstanding. In 2003, according to Sarasota attorney Scott McKay, an FBI agent sought to enlist McKay’s help in convincing Ghazzawi to return to Florida to sign legal documents regarding his Sarasota property. The ploy failed.

Ghazzawi on FBI watch list

In 2011, a counter-terrorism agent told author Summers, who with Robbyn Swan wrote the 9/11 history The Eleventh Day, that Ghazzawi and al-Hijji had been on an FBI watch list and that a U.S. agency involved in tracking terrorist funds was interested in both men even before 9/11.

The government’s pre-9/11 interest in Ghazzawi likely included his ties to the corrupt Bank of Credit and Commerce (BCCI), or as it came to be known by law enforcement, the “Bank of Crooks and Criminals.”  Ghazzawi had three accounts at BCCI’s London branch worth about $400,000, according to a 1996 appeals court ruling published in The Times of London.

Bank liquidators contended Ghazzawi was a nominee owner of the funds and that the true owner was his employer at the time, Prince Fahd. The liquidators had claimed the funds pursuant to a guarantee the prince had given regarding an overdrawn account.

Esam Ghazzawi posing in an undated advertisement for his Saudi company, Luxury Home Collection, in the Arab language magazine, The House.

Ghazzawi is today a member of the board of directors of the London subsidiary of EIRAD, a Saudi company that sponsors multinational companies in Saudi Arabia, including United Parcel Service (UPS).

The investigative website Who.What.Why. has reported that Ghazzawi’s brother, Mamdouh, is the executive managing director the parent firm, EIRAD Holding Co. Ltd.

According to The House of Saud in Commerce, a detailed study of Saudi royal entrepreneurship published in 2001 prior to 9/11, EIRAD was headed by Prince Fahd until his death later that year.

EIRAD had ties to the U.S. intelligence community. “In June 1995, the U.S. government approved a business venture between Orbital Imaging Corp. of the USA and EIRAD International for the supply of satellite images to the government and commercial customers in the Middle East,” the book says.

Orbital Imaging, later known as GeoEye, had contracts to provide reconnaissance for the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. The company is now owned by Colorado-based DigitalGlobe.

Business ties to Bin Laden family

The book says Prince Fahd’s other business interests included Saudi Ceramics Co., whose “prominent Saudi partners” included the Bin Laden family. Today, EIRAD’s chairman is another son of King Salman, Prince Sultan bin Salman Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, the former pilot in the Royal Saudi Air Force who in 1985 was an astronaut payload specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery.

Court papers filed last month by attorneys representing Florida Bulldog in its FOIA litigation argue that it “is now clear that substantial evidence exists that Esam Ghazzawi was not just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill Saudi citizen, but rather was (and is) an uber-wealthy Saudi whose father, Abbas Ghazzawi, had been a Saudi ambassador and close associate of at least three Saudi kings.” Photographs of Abbas Ghazzawi in an article posted on his son’s website reportedly depict him with Saudi Kings Saud, Faisal and Fahd.

Abbas Ghazzawi in undated photos with Saudi King Faisal, left and King Fahd.

Abbas Faiq Ghazzawi, 84, is a Saudi diplomat who served in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and, as recently as a decade ago, was ambassador to Germany, according to Who’s Who in the Arab World. Declassified diplomatic cables posted by the State Department show that in 1979 Ghazzawi, was political counsel for the Ministry for Eastern Affairs, represented Saudi Arabia in sensitive discussions with U.S. diplomats regarding Soviet military units in Afghanistan, the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and terrorist incidents inside Saudi Arabia.

Esam Ghazzawi’s son, Adel Ghazzawi, 46, is also prominent. He is a prior board member at the East-West Institute, the New York think tank whose board members include ex-Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff. Adel Ghazzawi is the founder of Conektas, a company based in the United Arab Emirates that helps foreign companies establish businesses in the Middle East.

According to Relationship Science, which bills itself as the world’s “most powerful database of decision makers,” Adel Ghazzawi is on the board of directors of Arabtec Saudi Arabia LLC. Arabtec Construction, one of the world’s largest construction companies, set up its Saudi subsidiary in 2009 as a joint venture with CPC Services (Construction Products Holding Company), a member of the Saudi Bin Laden Group, and Prime International Group Services.

At the time, Emirates Business quoted an Adel Ghazzawi, whom it identified as Prime International’s chief executive officer. Ghazzawi told the news service that he began discussions with Arabtec. “We initiated discussions two months ago and have been working very closely with Arabtec Holdings on moving their business into Saudi along with the Bin Laden Group.”

Adel Ghazzawi could not be located for comment.

Panama Papers

Curiously, Prime International surfaced last year in the Panama Papers case, the trove of 11.5 million leaked documents detailing private financial information about hundreds of thousands of offshore entities. Such entities are legal, but have been used to commit fraud, tax evasion and other crimes.

The website of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists identifies Prime International Group Services Ltd. as having been established in 2004 in the British Virgin Islands, and as being beneficially owned by Saudi Prince Sultan bin Salman, the former astronaut. Its intermediary is listed as the Fahad Al-Nabet law office in Riyadh, and its overseas agent as the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. That firm’s founders, Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonesca, were arrested in February on money-laundering charges.

About two years after the al-Hijjis moved out their Sarasota home, Adel Ghazzawi tried to get a homeowner’s association lien removed so the house could be sold. The discussions proved to be contentious, according to then-property manager Jone Weist.

Abdulazziz al-Hijji in a photo taken when he lived in Sarasota

The Sarasota Herald Tribune has reported that while the al-Hijjis lived in the Prestancia development, Esam and Deborah Ghazzawi were frequent visitors to the home they shared with their small children. Florida Bulldog recently has learned that in the summer of 2001 Anoud al-Hijji’s 18-year-old brother, Salman Ghazzawi, also lived at the home.

In 2013, the newspaper interviewed Carla DiBello, who knew the al-Hijjis and met Esam Ghazzawi several times. “I remember him being very eccentric. He loved going to big dinners and always had a lot of security,” DiBello said.

Florida Bulldog’s court papers contend that evidence of contacts between Ghazzawi’s family and 9/11 hijackers provide “additional evidence…of possible Saudi support for the 9/11 attacks…and should have triggered a full-scale and thorough investigation by the FBI.” Instead, the FBI “deliberately concealed” those contacts from congressional investigators to protect the Ghazzawis or “negligently failed to conduct a proper investigation of the possibility of complicity of Ghazzawi family members in the 9/11 attacks,” the court papers say.

FBI records that have been released indicate that as of 2004, the FBI apparently had not interviewed Ghazzawi about what happened in Sarasota.

Florida Bulldog’s attorneys Thomas Julin, Raymond Miller, Kyle Teal and Anaili Cure of the Gunster law firm argued the FBI is today “improperly” withholding records “not because those records would harm national security” or otherwise cause harm, but “rather because disclosure…would result in valid, important public criticism of the actions that the FBI took in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.”

The lawyers asked Miami U.S. District Court Judge Cecilia Altonaga to set the case for trial “to determine whether the FBI has conducted an adequate search and whether it has properly withheld and redacted responsive records.”

The government, however, has asked the judge to rule on those issues without a public trial, which would likely include testimony by former Sen. Graham, who has accused the FBI of covering up for the Saudis.

Hollywood targets hundreds arrested for domestic violence, public defender cries foul

APRIL 12 – UPDATE WITH RESPONSES FROM HOLLYWOOD POLICE CHIEF. SEE ITALICIZED PARAGRAPHS BELOW.

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Hollywood Police Chief Tomas Sanchez, right, presents an award to Sgt. Rhett Cady last October recognizing his work implementing the department’s anti-domestic violence program

Hollywood police have sent letters to hundreds of residents arrested for domestic violence threatening to target them for enhanced “scrutiny and/or penalties” and “unannounced police checks on your residence.”

The letter, signed by Sgt. Rhett Cady of Hollywood’s Domestic Violence Unit, explains that the city is “taking a new focused approach in preventing future acts of domestic violence” by adding names to a watch list for so-called “C list” offenders.

“Your status as a ‘C’ list offender brings you closer to a possible prison sentence,” Cady wrote. A copy of the watch list obtained by Florida Bulldog contains 574 names.

The letters, dated the day of a suspect’s arrest, began going out last year after Hollywood implemented its “Offender Focused Domestic Violence Initiative (OFDVI).” The city’s website says it is the first program of its kind in the state and is intended “to stop the repeat cycle of violence… This style of policing is often referred to as ‘Focused Deterrence.’

Today, however, the program is drawing fire from the Broward Public Defender’s Office, which says the police department’s letter to domestic violence arrestees is “an abuse of police power.”

“There is no legal authority for the letter, thus it is nothing more than an unlawful threat of retaliation directed at individuals who were merely accused of a crime and who are entitled to a presumption of innocence in a court of law,” says an April 6 letter by Public Defender Howard Finkelstein to Hollywood Police Chief Tomas Sanchez.

Howard Finkelstein

“The letter smacks of police intimidation and threatens the illegal and unconstitutional entry of the arrestee’s home. This overreaching is offensive to civil liberty and completely ignores the law with respect to law enforcement’s authority to enter a person’s home.”

A Sanchez spokeswoman said Monday evening the chief was formulating a response to Finkelstein. The response was not ready when this story was published.

[On Wednesday, April 12, Sanchez’s office released the chief’s response letter to Finkelstein dated April 10: “As for your concerns about the presumption of innocence of offenders, I am certain your office will protect that presumption in court. As for your concerns about offenders’ civil liberties, this Department safeguards all citizens’ civil liberties. This initiative does not allow for illegal or unconstitutional searches for police action in any way.”]

Public Defender Finkelstein’s letter notes that “it is very telling” that a Hollywood police officer arrested for domestic violence in December “was not placed on the watch list and not sent the target letter. This is either evidence of favoritism and a double standard, or it is a tacit acknowledgement that the letter threatens illegal police action that would be easily recognized by a trained law enforcement officer.’’

Lt. Michael McKinney, 6-foot-4 and 280 pounds, was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of domestic battery on Dec. 28 after his wife told police he hit her twice on the head and kicked her in the rib after an argument turned physical. Officers observed swelling on the wife’s upper forehead and temple as well as redness and swelling on her upper right rib area.

Sgt. Cady arrested McKinney, a 23-year veteran, who spent a night in jail. A police report says McKinney’s wife did not “wish to pursue criminal charges.” Assistant State Attorney Stephanie Newman filed paperwork declining to prosecute on Jan. 24.

[Chief Sanchez’s letter thanks Public Defender Finkelstein “for your concern” for Lt. McKinney, who Sanchez says “was given notice of the Initiative face to face the night of the incident. He has also receive training on the Initiative in much greater depth than anyone else targeted by its focus. He has been held to a much higher standard than the average citizen even after the disposition of his case by the court system. Since the arrest the employee has been assigned to Administrative duties with no police powers as he still faces potential workplace discipline.”]

Hollywood began its “domestic violence initiative” in May 2015.

Lt. Michael McKinney

“The Hollywood Police Department has recognized a large amount of calls for police service have involved domestic related incidents,” says the city’s website. The department’s anti-domestic violence program “works to focus on repeat offenders” by “identifying the most repetitive and violent offenders and hold them accountable, while continuing to pursue justice through all of the investigative stages, including bond court, trial, sentencing and probation.”

The program classifies “domestic incident offenders” based on their “predisposition for violence. The initial domestic-related incident, along with the totality of the offender’s criminal history sets the classification in which offenders are ranked” on a list from A to D. There are 92 active offenders on the “A” list of those deemed the most violent, the website says.

“A provision of the OFDVI program is to take action BEFORE the offender re-offends by providing services and resources to offenders who receive the Hollywood Police Department’s OFDVI deterrence message,” the website says. Those resources include anger management classes, job placement, life coaching and treatment programs “available through a multitude of organizations.”

“The OFDVI deterrence message sets clear standards of expectation for City of Hollywood residents who have engaged in acts of domestic violence and is delivered by uniformed officers daily.’’ When those messages are violated, “the offender progresses into a higher category of the program gaining additional attention from officers and detectives,” the website says.

The city claims that since the program began police have seen a “26 percent (on average)” reduction in domestic-related incidents each month. Police attribute that reduction “to our police officers’ motivation in following up with offenders not initially arrested at the domestic incident – preventing further victimization of individuals, stripping the offenders of their anonymity and by making offenders accountable.”

Public Defender Finkelstein was skeptical of Hollywood’s claims, noting that crime is down across the board.

“When they say the reduction is in part because of their efforts, well maybe in part but I doubt it is statistically significant,” he said. “Checking in on victims is a good idea.  Showing care and concern.  But using threats intimidation and physical force and or presence directed toward the presumed innocent arrestee is wrong and illegal…The road to constitutional hell is always paved with good intentions.”

FBI boss Comey and ‘inexplicable’ delays in case of ‘highest national importance’

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

FBI director James Comey
Photo: CNN

The FBI’s renewed push to dismiss a Miami Freedom of Information lawsuit seeking records of the enigmatic 9/11 Review Commission and FBI activities “of the highest national importance” should be denied, court papers contend.

The filings last week by attorneys for Florida Bulldog also say that facts obtained to date indicate that FBI Director James Comey personally played a role in the FBI’s drawn-out response to records requests filed two years ago. The 9/11 Review Commission also is known as the Meese Commission, after its most prominent member, ex-Attorney General Edwin Meese.

“The facts here create an appearance that the director of the FBI maintained the Meese Commission records in his office; that he did not provide those records to the FBI personnel responsible for processing FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests in a timely fashion; and that when he finally did start to produce them, he made numerous mistakes and omitted critical documents,” wrote Miami First Amendment attorney Thomas Julin who represents Florida Bulldog. “Many records still appear to be missing.”

Julin, of South Florida’s Gunster law firm, also said the FBI has violated FOIA by “repeatedly” imposing “unreasonable and inexplicable delays” and censoring information in its records “without statutory or sensible basis for doing so.” He asked Miami U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga to hold a hearing on the matter.

Besides the missing and censored records, the government has said in court filings that the FBI withheld in full another 1,100 pages about the Meese Commission for a variety of reasons ranging from privacy to national security. Among the records withheld: draft copies of the Meese Commission’s final report.

The result: Many questions about the Meese Commission’s work and an apparent Florida support network for the 9/11 hijackers remain hidden behind a veil of official government secrecy.

“The Bulldog’s central concern: Whether the FBI is concealing evidence of Saudi government support for the 9/11 attacks on the United States but failed to conduct a proper investigation of it – either in a misguided effort to allow the Saudi government to get away with murder or due to negligence,” Julin wrote.

In a reply filed Tuesday afternoon in support of the government’s motion for summary judgment, a Miami federal prosecutor countered that the FBI’s document searches were reasonable and fair and its redactions records were lawful.

“Plaintiffs chief complaint is about the amount of time that it took the FBI to search for and produce records. However, delays in processing a FOIA request do not amount to a showing of agency bad faith,” wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney Carlos Raurell.

Lawsuit filed in June

Florida Bulldog’s parent company, Broward Bulldog Inc., sued the FBI in June 2016 – 14 months after its initial FOIA request for Meese Commission records produced no records. The commission, authorized by Congress to conduct an “external review” of the FBI’s post 9/11 performance and to evaluate new evidence, was chosen, paid and controlled by the FBI. It issued its final report in March 2015.

In early November, the FBI started releasing some records. Among other things, one FBI report showed that as late as October 2012 agents and prosecutors in New York were actively investigating a support network for 9/11 hijackers who crashed into the Pentagon. Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham and Philadelphia attorney Sean Carter, who represents clients suing Saudi Arabia, said the disclosure was contrary to the FBI’s previous public statements about 9/11.

Since then, the bureau has continued trickling out records, the latest 20 partially redacted pages released last week. Another 282 pages of responsive documents were withheld in full. The release was made nearly a month after a trial scheduled to begin in early March was delayed at the FBI’s request.

Judge Altonaga has called the FBI’s delays in producing records “shocking.”

Some of the latest released records are about Saudis Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his wife, Anoud, former Sarasota-area residents who came under FBI scrutiny after neighbors reported they had moved suddenly out of their upscale home two weeks before 9/11. An April 2002 FBI report obtained by Florida Bulldog says the Sarasota Saudis had “many connections” to persons involved in 9/11. The FBI has said publicly that it found no such connections and has disavowed the 2002 report to the Meese Commission – albeit without explaining why.

One heavily redacted interview report showed that in April 2004 a source told the FBI that al-Hijji knew some of the 9/11 suicide hijackers who trained at an airport in nearby Venice, showed the source a website about Osama bin Laden and also spoke of going to fight in Afghanistan. Another document shows that as of Aug. 31, 2004 the FBI had not interviewed al-Hijji.

The FBI’s point in redacting so much of that interview report, including the name of its source Wissam Hammoud, is unclear. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement released to the Bulldog its own report on the matter – containing virtually identical language – without any redactions in 2011. Here are copies of the FBI report and the FDLE report for you to compare.

Hammoud, 51, is currently serving a 21-year prison term after pleading guilty in 2005 in federal court in Tampa to weapons violations and attempting to kill a federal agent and a witness. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons has classified him as an “international terrorist associate.”

Red flags

Julin’s court papers cite a number of “red flags” regarding how FBI’s search and review of records suggest “that someone within the FBI or some other governmental agency had stepped in front of the orderly process being carried out by the FBI’s FOIA professionals” – notably that FBI Director Comey kept the Meese Commission records in his office and out of the FBI’s Central Records System.

The FBI’s Record/Information Dissemination Section, or RIDS, “apparently elected to defer to, and rely exclusively on the FBI Director’s Office to respond to the Bulldog’s request. This raised a red flag.”

When records turned up in late January that should have been made public earlier, the head of RIDS, David M. Hardy, filed court papers pointing the finger at Comey, saying they “were not initially identified because the Director’s Office had inadvertently mistaken these records as duplicates.”

“This gave every indication that the Director’s Office, not the FOIA bureaucratic professionals, had taken charge of this case,” Julin wrote in his response to the government.

The plot thickened in mid-March when the government announced that Comey’s office had identified for the first time “certain hard copy records held in storage” that might hold relevant information.

“This red flag suggested that FBI Director James Comey intentionally concealed responsive records,” Julin wrote.

“The director’s actions appear, in fact, to have been designed either to punish the Bulldog for shining a light on the FBI’s work through its initial FOIA action, which exposed the FBI’s public statements concerning its Sarasota investigation as outright falsehoods, or to interfere with its continuing investigation, or both,” Julin wrote.

In government paperwork filed Tuesday, the FBI called the allegations against Comey “baseless” and “outrageous.”

Prodded by federal judge, FBI finally identifies Sarasota Saudis by name in court

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Six years after news broke that the FBI found ties between 9/11 hijackers and a Saudi family who’d moved abruptly out of their Sarasota home two weeks before the terrorist attacks – and didn’t tell Congress – the FBI has identified the family publicly.

The disclosure is in a partially declassified Memorandum for the Record that recounts a briefing about the family given by the FBI to the 9/11 Review Commission on April 30, 2014. “Briefing Title: Al-Hiijjii Family,” the document says.

The FBI reluctantly disclosed the family’s last name – which is correctly spelled al-Hijji – in the wake of a Miami federal judge’s Feb. 27 order that it had failed to show that disclosure would invade the al-Hijjis’ privacy. The original version of the memo, released in November, blanked out the al-Hijji name, claiming privacy exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his wife, Anoud, came to the FBI’s attention within hours of 9/11 when neighbors contacted them to say the couple abruptly had moved out of their upscale home in the Prestancia development, leaving behind their cars and numerous personal belongings. Anoud’s father, Esam Ghazzawi, an advisor to a Saudi prince, owned the home.

Among other things, agents later determined that vehicles driven by 9/11 hijack pilots Mohamed Atta and Ziad Jarrah – who trained at nearby Venice Municipal Airport – had visited the al-Hijji home at 4224 Escondito Circle.

The FBI kept its investigation secret for a decade, not informing Congress or the 9/11 Commission, according to former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’ Joint Inquiry into the attacks.

Florida Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers, first reported about the investigation in September 2011. The FBI later confirmed the existence of the probe, but said it found no connection to the 9/11 plot.

The FBI’s disclosure of the al-Hijji name is a small but noteworthy milestone in FOIA litigation brought by Florida Bulldog last June that seeks the release of records of the secretive 9/11 Review Commission. The commission, paid and controlled by the FBI, spent a year conducting an “external” review of the FBI’s post-9/11 performance and evaluating new evidence. It issued a 127-page report in March 2015.

Was al-Hijji a snitch?

The unwillingness of the FBI to publicly identify al-Hijji for so long, even though his name was widely reported, raises questions about why.

“It makes you wonder if they’re going through all this because there’s an arrangement with al-Hijji and Ghazzawi,” said Florida Bulldog’s Miami attorney Thomas Julin. “It smacks of a confidential source agreement.”

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

The FBI filed court papers this month seeking again to dismiss the lawsuit. In them, the FBI said it had reviewed about 900 pages of classified commission records and declassified and released 328 pages in whole or in part. While some records containing new information about 9/11 were disclosed, many of those records were copies of the FBI’s personal services contracts with commission members and staff.

The government’s filings seek to explain to the court why, despite several ostensibly thorough searches, the bureau continues to report finding new Review Commission documents, as recently as March 7 and again on March 13.

Government court papers said the records, like others previously processed, were under the direct control of FBI Director James Comey, who kept the 9/11 Review Commission’s records stored in his office and not in the FBI’s Central Records System.

The March 7 documents were said to include four additional Memoranda for the Record and “a number of transitory records” the FBI thought it had purged last year. The records were being reviewed for possible release.

“In addition, on March 13, 2017, the FBI Director’s Office identified certain hard copy records held in storage, which had not previously been identified or searched, and which it believes may include material responsive to plaintiffs’ requests,’’ said another government filing. “The Records and Information Dissemination Section is currently retrieving these additional records and will review the same.”

Releasing “in context”

The release of the al-Hijji name, while notable, was not complete. There are clear references to the al-Hijjis elsewhere in the April 30, 2014 Memorandum for the Record, but the names remain redacted.

Here’s how the FBI explains it: “The FBI concedes to releasing the Al-Hiijjiis in this context. This is the summary of information released in a public article.”

The disclosure marks the second time that judicial prodding has caused the FBI to make public names in the memorandum that it previously withheld citing privacy concerns.

In February, the bureau identified Special Agent Jacqueline Maguire as the briefer who told the Review Commission that an explosive April 2002 FBI report stating that agents found “many connections” between the al-Hijjis and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001” was bogus.

The report flatly contradicted FBI public statements that agents had found no connection to the 9/11 plot.

The report “was a bad statement. It was overly speculative and there was no basis for the statement,” Maguire said, according to the memorandum. The memo, however, contains nothing to explain the basis for Maguire’s assertions.

The agent who wrote the controversial report is Gregory Sheffield. Judge Cecilia Altonaga has ruled that FBI disclosure of his name would not invade his privacy. Nevertheless, the FBI has not acknowledged his name.

The FBI kept Sheffield’s report secret for more than a decade before releasing a partially declassified version to the Florida Bulldog in March 2013 amid separate FOIA litigation in Fort Lauderdale. The document, censored on grounds of national security, confirmed previous reporting.

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