With help from investor-Gov. Scott, Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline looks to open in June

By Joseph A. Mann Jr., FloridaBulldog.org 

A protest in January against the Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline in Suwanee River State Park, Live Oak. Photo: WCTV CBS Tallahassee

The Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline, a giant interstate project whose tail reaches over 268 miles into Florida, has generated fierce opposition as its construction moves through the state from Georgia to its end-point in Osceola County, where it is scheduled to link up to an existing gas pipeline in June.

Starting late last year, hundreds of protestors picketed construction sites in northern and central Florida. Some of them handcuffed themselves to machinery, confronted police, set up a camp and organized sit-ins and meetings along the route, which passes through 12 Florida counties. A lawsuit also was filed by a non-profit to halt the project, but the action was denied.

The $3.2-billion project, called Sabal Trail Transmission LLC, is a joint venture among Houston-based Spectra Energy Partners, a major owner of pipelines and storage facilities that is now part of Enbridge Inc., a Canadian energy firm; NextEra Energy (parent of Florida Power & Light) and Duke Energy. FPL and Duke plan to use Sabal Trail’s natural gas to generate electricity in their Florida power plants.

Construction on Florida’s third major gas pipeline, which will run about 516 miles through Alabama, Georgia and Florida when completed, began in September 2016. The line also has two gas compression plants, one at each end, and plans to build three more by 2021.

Opponents – including environmentalists, residents and landowners along the route – warn of environmental harm. For example, they say that drinking water sources and surface water bodies are being damaged by problems like leakage of diesel fuel on land and in water around construction sites, spills of drilling mud used when running the line under the Suwannee River, the appearance of sinkholes near building sites, which could foreshadow damage to karst limestone bedrock in the region, and damage to wetlands and other parts of the countryside as crews clear a 75- to 100-foot swath to lay the underground pipeline.

Complaints also come from landowners whose property was split to accommodate part the pipeline route and from people worried about the long-term safety of the line, which carries large volumes of flammable natural gas under extremely high pressure.

Moreover, some opponents question whether the utilities building this pipeline will actually need the new volumes of natural gas for Florida, and say they may be planning to liquefy and export gas at a later date.

Sabal Trail pipeline route

“The construction of a natural gas transportation corridor threatens the state’s vulnerable fresh water supply and will leave Florida citizens having to deal with this forever,” Merrilee Malwitz-Jipson, an organizer for the Sierra Club in northern Florida told the Florida Bulldog. Projects like this will make Floridians dependent on fossil fuel for many decades “when its citizens continually vote for solar energy and renewables,” she said. “We’re not alone. This is happening all over the country.”

Sierra Club volunteers watching construction work proceed have seen heavy equipment tipped over in wetlands, leaking fuel, a lack of appropriate fencing for wildlife and drainage of some bodies of water along the pipeline route, she added. “The pipeline is impacting 700 bodies of water between here and Alabama, and we don’t know if they are being restored.”

Broad media attention

While not receiving national attention like protests over the Dakota Access oil pipeline or the Keystone XL, Sabal Trail has become a cause célèbre, receiving broad media attention, particularly in northern Florida.

More than a dozen protesters have been arrested and later released at different locations. In an incident apparently unrelated to the peaceful protests, a 66-year-old man was shot and killed by police after he used a rifle to shoot at the pipeline and equipment in Marion County and then fled the scene, according to media reports. Police are still investigating the case, but pipeline opponents said that they rejected violent acts and that the individual was not part of their movement.

Gov. Rick Scott also is a factor in the Sabal Trail story. The governor actively supported the project, signing two bills in 2013 that helped speed up the extended approval process.

Gov. Rick Scott

In 2014, Florida Bulldog reported exclusively that the governor owned a stake in one of the pipeline partners, Spectra Energy, and that he apparently still owns shares in the company through a blind trust. Florida ethics rules generally ban government officials from owning stock in companies subject to their regulation, or in companies that do business with state agencies. Scott also has holdings in other pipeline companies that produce or transport natural gas, some with Florida operations, the Bulldog reported.

In subsequent reporting, the Bulldog asked the governor’s office about potential conflicts of interest, but was told there are no conflicts since Gov. Scott has no knowledge of the current investments held in the blind trust, which is administered by third parties.

“Florida is swarming with protests, like an antbed stirred up by a 600-mile pipeline stick,” John A. Quarterman, president of WWALS Watershed Coalition and a key pipeline opponent, said in a recent interview. The coalition is the WATERKEEPER affiliate for the Suwannee River and its tributaries.

“I was the first to call for protests against the pipeline in 2014, and we’ve seen a big swell of support since the middle of last year,” said Quarterman, whose non-profit organization works for water conservation.

Hoping to derail the pipeline, WWALS filed a petition against Sabal Trail and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, seeking an administrative hearing. WWALS said that the pipeline poses a threat to native wildlife and that drilling in karst limestone along the pipeline would cause sinkholes. It also said that Gov. Rick Scott has a conflict of interest, since he has investments in Spectra Energy, part of Sabal Trail joint venture. This legal challenge was turned down.

In an interview, Quarterman also said that Florida utilities will not need the new volumes of natural gas to be provided by Sabal Trail, and suggested that they instead plan to liquefy and export a major share of future gas deliveries.

Pipeline needed?

“There is no need for this pipeline, and the approximately $3 billion being used would provide a lot of solar power for the Sunshine State,” he said.

In defense of the natural gas transmission project, Andrea Grover, a spokeswoman at Spectra Energy, pointed out the following:

  • Before construction work began, she said, the company successfully went through an extensive permitting process, obtaining approval from a variety federal and state entities, including the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and others. The need for new natural gas supplies in Florida and an additional pipeline were demonstrated in the planning, permitting and approval process.
  • Karst conditions exist in south-central George and northern Florida, the company spokeswoman said, and much larger infrastructure projects – highways, railroads, urban development have been built in these areas already.
  • Sabal Trail uses best practices for its construction work, and its safety programs often exceed regulatory requirements.
  • After completion, the pipeline will be monitored around the clock according to state and federal safety regulations.
  • According to outside analysts, Sabal Trail is having a significant economic impact on Alabama, Georgia and Florida. This includes the creation of more than 5,600 construction jobs, over $207 million paid to construction workers and about $1 billion spent directly and indirectly on construction activities. Once completed, the pipeline and compression plants will have more than 500 permanent jobs and will provide new tax revenues for local governments. In Florida, the pipeline is expected to create more than 2,700 jobs during construction, and 288 permanent jobs after completion. Aside from construction wages, tens of millions of dollars are being spent in Florida for items like trucking, security, fuel, gravel, equipment rentals, meals and lodging, as well as other supplies and services.
  • Pipeline representatives held public outreach meeting with landowners, community members and public officials. “Some stakeholders did raise concerns,” Grover said. “These have been vetted and addressed by Sabal Trail or federal and state agencies. No one had to be required to permanently relocate during construction.”

Asked if protests had significantly delayed construction, Grover said that the current in-service date (June 2017) was changed from May 2017 due to normal internal decision-making, planning (which began around 2013) and permit applications.

However, one section of Sabal’s website said that original in-service date would be March 2017.

Construction is still underway in several of the Florida counties in the pipeline’s path, and over 81 percent of the pipe is in the ground. The pipeline is installed in a type of “assembly line” process. Construction crews first clear an area up to 100 feet wide, grade the land, dig a ditch for the pipeline, string pipe sections together, weld and then lower the pipe into the ditch, which is filled in. The work area is then cleaned up and vegetation is restored.

“Following pipeline installation,” Grover said, “all disturbed areas will be returned as close as possible to their original contours. Temporary [construction] workspace will be allowed to return to its original state. The entire work area will be restored in compliance with all applicable federal, state and local permits.

“As part of our commitment, we want to establish a positive footprint in the communities along the pipeline route where [permanent] Sabal Trail representatives will live and work.” This means donations and community efforts from pipeline employees over the long run.

“By bolstering community vitality, Sabal Trail is supporting the communities where we will be working and operating for many years to come,’’ Grover said. “Sabal Trail operators and their families are part of these communities too.”

Ms. Book goes to Tallahassee, sees no conflict voting $ for Lauren’s Kids or dad’s clients

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Lauren and Ron Book in Times Square in March 2015 promoting her child sex abuse education book. Photo from the documentary “Untouchable” by David Feige

Freshman Broward State Sen. Lauren Book says she won’t abstain from voting on matters involving clients of her father, powerful lobbyist Ron Book. Similarly, she sees no conflict of interest in voting on measures to funnel millions of taxpayer dollars to benefit her non-profit charity and political launching pad, Lauren’s Kids.

Book, a Plantation Democrat, offered her thoughts on the issue of personal voting conflicts in an email exchange last week with Florida Bulldog.

“No,” she said when asked if she plans to abstain from voting on any matters involving Ron Book’s clients. “In ALL matters, I will vote my conscience and in what I believe is best for my district, for Broward County, and for the people of the State of Florida.”

Sen. Book also said that Lauren’s Kids would again seek significant state funding during this year’s legislative session that began March 7. Does that mean she will abstain from voting on bills to authorize funding for her organization?

“No. I have met with the Counsel of the Senate and have been advised that it is proper that I do not abstain on these matters unless the funding directly inures to my benefit, which it will not,” Sen. Book said.

Lauren’s Kids, however, pays Sen. Book a six-figure annual salary for serving as its chief executive. In 2015, her salary was $135,000 – a $20,000 increase from 2014, according to the charity’s federal income tax returns.

“My salary is not paid for with any state funds,” said Sen. Book. “I derive no personal benefit from public tax dollars except knowing that these monies are being used to save lives, raise awareness and prevent childhood sexual abuse.”

Sen. Book said that to make certain her salary includes no state dollars, she “restructured my employment to ensure that no public dollars were used to compensate me for my work” once she declared her candidacy. She declined to elaborate on how she accomplished that restructuring and that separation.

Ron and Lauren Book at a Tallahassee rally promoting Lauren’s Kids in April 2015. Photo from the documentary “Untouchable” by David Feige

Sen. Book did say, however, that she resigned from the board of directors of the Lauren’s Kids Foundation “to add an additional (but entirely unnecessary) layer between myself and the Foundation.”

Lauren’s Kid’s tax return for 2015 – the latest available – shows the charity received more than 83 percent of its $4.5 million in total revenue that year from the state. Since 2012, records show, the state has contributed more than $10 million to Lauren’s Kids.

The Florida Department of Education has requested another $1 million in funding for Lauren’s Kids for Fiscal Year 2017-18 “so we can continue to educate children and families to prevent abuse and help survivors,” said Sen. Book. “I might add, the DOE would only recommend funding if as experts they believed the curriculum was of significant benefit to our children.’’

Ron Book as landlord

Lobbyist Ron Book, the senator’s father, is the unpaid president of Lauren’s Kids. Yet he also makes money from Lauren’s Kids. According to the 501(c) (3) organization’s 2015 tax return, he paid himself $61,651 for renting space to Lauren’s Kids in his Aventura office.

Ron Book, who is also on the charity’s board, collected $63,175 in rent from Lauren’s Kids in 2014, according to that year’s tax return.

Ron Book declined to comment.

On Wednesday, March 22, Sen. Book will face one of the first ethical tests of her nascent political career. As a member of the Florida Senate’s health policy committee, she will be evaluating five bills to establish the rules and regulations for the state’s medical marijuana industry.

While some patient and industry advocates argue the state should open up the market to competition, four of the bills discourage participation by more cannabis providers beyond the seven companies already licensed to manufacture a non-psychoactive, non-smokable form of the drug under a restrictive medical marijuana program set up by the Legislature in 2014.

Among the Florida licensed providers is a joint venture between Homestead-based nursery Alpha Foliage and Surterra, an Atlanta-based medical marijuana company that employs the senator’s father Ron Book as its Tallahassee lobbyist.

While government watchdogs said Sen. Book should abstain from voting on any matters involving her father, she told Florida Bulldog she has no intention of doing so because Florida law and Senate rules do not prohibit it.

“As I stated above, I will follow the letter and spirit of the law in how I vote and how I conduct my business,” she said.

Conflict questions loom

Still, questions about Sen. Book’s potential vote conflicts involving both her father’s 100-plus clients and Lauren’s Kids loom large.

Ben Wilcox, research director for the government watchdog organization Integrity Florida, noted that because Florida has a citizen legislature that allows members to have outside employment, the bar is set low when it comes to ethical requirements.

Florida’s weak Code of Ethics for Public Officers and Employees says that state officers “may not vote on any matter that the officer knows would inure to his or her special gain or loss.” It does not prohibit such votes. Rather, the code says vaguely that officers who vote to benefit themselves or a relative “shall make every reasonable effort to disclose the nature of his or her interest in a public memorandum” that can be filed up to 15 days after the vote.

Integrity Florida Research Director Ben Wilcox

Sen. Book, nevertheless, could face questions when it comes time to vote on an appropriations bill that would include Lauren’s Kids, which advocates against child sex abuse.

“You are not supposed to vote on something that has a direct benefit to you personally,” said Wilcox. “That is where she may get into some trouble if her organization is getting an appropriation from the Legislature.”

Wilcox said Book should also be mindful about voting on matters favorable to her father’s clients. “She should be sensitive to the appearance of a conflict of interest,” Wilcox said. “Even if it technically is not a conflict, it raises questions in the public’s mind and causes the public to lose confidence in government.”

Since founding Lauren’s Kids 10 years ago, Book has seemed on a trajectory for public office. In addition to appearing before the Legislature to lobby in favor of laws that crack down on sexual predators and child abusers, Book has led an annual walk from Key West to Tallahassee to raise awareness for child sex victims that receives statewide media coverage. She’s also written two books, including one for children, about her own experience being sexually abused by her former nanny. Book and her father had a starring role in the recently released documentary about Florida’s sex offender laws called Untouchable.

Book, 32, decided to run for the Senate seat previously held by Eleanor Sobel, who left the Legislature in 2016 due to term limits. After raising more than $1.5 million through her campaign and her political action committee, Leadership for Broward, Book automatically won the seat when no one filed to run against her. A Bulldog analysis of her 2015 and 2016 campaign finance reports and her father’s client list show she received $35,000 from 15 entities that employ Ron Book.

Clients and contributions

Of that amount, her campaign received $1,000 apiece from two of Surterra’s owners, Michael Havenick and Alexander Havenick, who is also vice president and general counsel for Southwest Florida Enterprises, a company that owns several pari-mutuels in the state, including Magic City Casino in Miami. Southwest, four affiliated companies and four other Havenicks also each gave the $1,000 maximum to Sen. Book’s campaign.

According to 2016 lobbyist compensation reports filed with the state, Ron Book’s law firm was paid between $40,000 and $80,000 by Surterra to lobby the Legislature. Ron L. Book P.A. also received approximately $30,000 from Surterra to lobby the executive branch.

Lauren’s Kids has also been the beneficiary of millions of dollars in state funding. According to the organization’s 2014 tax return, Lauren’s Kids received $2.7 million in state grants. Its 2015 tax return shows the nonprofit got $3.4 million that year from Florida’s Department of Education. In 2016, records show, the Legislature awarded Lauren’s Kids $1 million.

A Lauren’s Kids insert in a Florida Department of Motor Vehicles registration renewal.

Florida’s Department of Motor Vehicles also contributes to Lauren’s Kids via the sale of specialty license plates approved by the Legislature. Lauren’s Kids, which got its specialty tag in 2013, received $294,653 from the DMV in 2015, tax records show.

Further, the DMV allows Lauren’s Kids to insert a brochure asking for donations in every auto tag renewal notice mailed to Florida residents. Lauren’s Kids is one of several nonprofits eligible to insert their brochures under the specialty tag program.

Beth Rosenson, a University of Florida political science professor who teaches a course on ethics in U.S. politics, said in an interview that Book might derive a benefit from her father’s earnings as a lobbyist. “Parents always help out their kids,” Rosenson said. “Let’s say she had a medical emergency or something in which she needed money so her father’s financial situation is not something that is totally separate from hers.”

Rosenson said Sen. Book’s potential for conflict is analogous to President Donald Trump and his sons, who have taken over the Republican billionaire’s companies while he’s in the White House. “In a perfect world, she would realize that her relationship with her father raises questions of conflict of interest,” Rosenson said. “So ideally, yes she should recuse herself.”

When it comes to Lauren’s Kids, Integrity Florida’s Wilcox said even if Book’s salary is not being paid with state funds, she should still abstain from voting on matters involving her nonprofit. “In an abundance of caution, that is something she may want to reconsider,” Wilcox said. “While technically it may be correct, I don’t think it will look good to the public.”

President Trump on witness list in Palm Beach lawsuit involving billionaire pedophile

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

President Trump and Jeffrey Epstein

President Donald Trump is on a list of witnesses for trial in a Palm Beach lawsuit that pits billionaire pedophile Jeffrey Epstein against a Fort Lauderdale attorney who represents Epstein’s victims.

The case appears bound for trial this summer following a Feb. 9 ruling by the Florida Supreme Court in another case that has allowed Fort Lauderdale lawyer Bradley Edwards’ claim of malicious prosecution against Epstein to proceed.

President Trump “has been identified as an individual who may have information relating to these allegations,” said Edwards’ West Palm Beach attorney Jack Scarola, who placed Trump’s name on a witness list on Aug. 31. “But it’s unlikely that he would ever be called” to appear at trial, especially now that he’s assumed the presidency.

Scarola said Trump is one of a number of high-profile individuals whose testimony might be relevant because they “had a relationship with Epstein that would have at least exposed them potentially to what was going on inside Epstein’s Palm Beach home … during the relevant period of time” between 2001-2007.

What was going on in Epstein’s mansion, court papers say, was an ugly child molestation scheme involving sex with “substantially more” than 40 girls, some as young as 12. A “statement of undisputed facts” filed by Scarola says Epstein used his staff and his victims to recruit more victims, employing “a pyramid abuse scheme in which he paid underage victims $200-$300 cash for each other underage victim that she brought to him.”

“There is no evidence the President was involved in Epstein’s schemes,” Scarola said.

Secretary of Labor nominee Alex Acosta

Still, the spectacle of a U.S. president being drawn into sordid litigation involving a notorious politically connected sexual criminal who got an apparent sweetheart deal from then-Miami U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta, now Trump’s nominee to become U.S. Secretary of Labor, represents a potential political nightmare for the White House.

The White House press office did not respond to requests for comment.

Epstein’s attorney, Tonja Haddad Coleman, declined to comment.

An affidavit about Trump

A little-noticed affidavit by Edwards recounting his knowledge of Trump’s involvement with Epstein is recounted further below in this story.

Investment banker Epstein, represented by a team of high-powered lawyers, pleaded guilty June 30, 2008 in Palm Beach Circuit Court to two felonies: procuring a person under 18 for prostitution and offering to commit prostitution. He served 13 months of an 18-month sentence. The Palm Beach Daily News has reported Epstein served his time in “a vacant wing at the Palm Beach County Stockade with liberal work-release privileges.”

Today, Epstein, 64, is a registered sex offender.

In exchange for his plea, U.S. Attorney Acosta agreed not prosecute Epstein or his employees on federal charges contained in a 53-page indictment. A 2007 federal non-prosecution agreement with Epstein states, among other things, that he “knowingly and willfully” conspired with others to use interstate commerce to “persuade, induce, or entice minor females to engage in prostitution.”

If convicted of that charge, and others cited in the agreement, Epstein faced possible prison for life.

Republican Acosta, dean of Florida International University’s Law School and chairman of U.S. Century Bank, is expected to be asked about his treatment of Epstein at his Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday.

In addition to the malicious prosecution claim against Epstein, attorney Edwards is also suing the government on behalf of “Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 2” and others under the federal Crime Victims’ Rights Act (CVRA). The lawsuit, filed in 2008, alleges the U.S. Attorney’s Office under Acosta violated the rights of Epstein’s victims by, among other things, “conspiring” with Epstein to keep them “in the dark’’ so the plea arrangement could be done without the victims “raising any objection.”

Wifredo Ferrer, who stepped down as Miami U.S. Attorney earlier this month

In February 2016, Edwards and co-counsel Paul Cassell filed a still-pending motion for summary judgment that says Acosta’s successor, Wifredo Ferrer, “has continued to fight” victims’ efforts “to have the court declare that their rights were violated.” The motion asks U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra to rule that the government violated the victims’ rights and explore possible remedies. Ferrer stepped down March 3.

Addressing a “terrible injustice”

“Both Brad and Professor Cassell undertook and have continued to prosecute the CVRA claim to address what they perceive to be a terrible injustice,” said Scarola. “There is no claim for money damages and there is no prevailing party provision in the CVRA” that would allow them to collect legal fees for their work on the case.

Attorney Edwards began representing several of Epstein’s victims while maintaining a solo law practice in 2008, settling a number of claims for undisclosed amounts two years later.

For eight months in 2009, however, he worked for Rothstein, Rosenfeldt and Adler, the law firm that spectacularly imploded in scandal in November of that year when it was discovered that founder Scott Rothstein was running a giant Ponzi scheme. Rothstein, now in prison, enticed investors by falsely claiming that they could buy into lucrative pending settlements in whistleblower, sexual harassment and other cases.

Edwards’ court papers say he knew nothing of Rothstein’s schemes, and federal authorities later determined Edwards to have been one of Rothstein’s victims. In 2009, however, Epstein sued Rothstein, Edwards and one of Edwards’ clients alleging, among other things, civil racketeering. Edwards’ court response: the suit was filed “for the sole purpose of attempting to intimidate” him and his client.

Epstein later dropped all his allegations, and Edwards since has turned the case back against him with his counterclaim of malicious prosecution. The case was on hold for two years pending last month’s Florida Supreme Court ruling, which reversed a lower court decision that dismissed the accusation on technical grounds.

Edwards won’t discuss either case. But in a little-noticed 2010 affidavit, given a year after the case was filed, Edwards explained why he thought Trump and other notables involved with Epstein, including former President Bill Clinton, might have relevant information to provide.

“If you’ve read Brad’s affidavit then you know everything there is to know regarding Trump,” Scarola said.

Does Trump have knowledge of Epstein’s crimes?

In his affidavit, Edwards suggests Trump has personal knowledge of Epstein’s criminality.

“I learned through a source that Trump banned Epstein from his Maralago [Mar-A- Lago] Club in West Palm Beach because Epstein sexually assaulted an underage girl at the club,” Edwards stated.

The affidavit notes that Trump visited Epstein at Epstein’s West Palm Beach home – “the same home where Epstein abused minor girls daily.”

Fort Lauderdale attorney Bradley Edwards

A “review of message pads confiscated from Epstein’s home” showed “that Trump called Epstein’s West Palm Beach mansion on several occasions during the time period relevant to my client’s complaints,” the affidavit says. Likewise “Epstein’s phone directory from his computer contains 14 phone numbers for Donald Trump, including emergency numbers, car numbers, and numbers to Trump’s security guard and houseman.”

The affidavit goes on to say that one of Epstein’s victims “Jane Doe #102” has alleged that she was initially approached at Trump’s Mar-A-Lago by Ghislaine Maxwell and recruited to be Maxwell and Epstein’s “underage sex slave.”

Maxwell, daughter of the late British publishing baron Robert Maxwell, is named in the affidavit as an Epstein associate of interest. She is described in court papers as Epstein’s “longtime companion” who helped run his companies and “recruit underage children” for the pleasure of both Epstein and herself. The affidavit says she attended the wedding of Chelsea Clinton, Bill and Hillary Clinton’s daughter, in July 2010.

The affidavit goes on to cite the 2009 deposition of Epstein’s brother, Mark Epstein, who “testified that Trump flew on Jeffrey Epstein’s plane with him (the same plane that Jane Doe 102 alleged was used to have sex with underage girls).”

Likewise, attorney Edwards cited in his affidavit a 2002 New York Magazine article about Epstein titled, “Jeffrey Epstein: International Moneyman of Mystery.”

“I’ve known Jeff for fifteen years. Terrific guy,” said Trump, then a prominent, wealthy New York developer. “He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side. No doubt about it – Jeffrey enjoys his social life.”

The subtitle of the article about Epstein: “He’s pals with a passel of Nobel Prize-winning scientists, CEOs like Leslie Wexner of the Limited, socialite Ghislaine Maxwell, even Donald Trump. But it wasn’t until he flew Bill Clinton, Kevin Spacey, and Chris Tucker to Africa on his private Boeing 727 that the world began to wonder who he is.”

A second U.S. president

While ex-President Clinton is not on the witness list for trial, Edwards listed a number of reasons in his affidavit to believe that Clinton might have relevant information about Epstein. They include:

·      Clinton’s “well known” friendship with Ghislaine Maxwell, an alleged enabler of Epstein’s sexual crimes with young girls.

·      Clinton’s highly publicized travel with Epstein and Maxwell aboard Epstein’s private plane to Africa. Flight logs for “the relevant years 2002-2005 showed Clinton traveling on Epstein’s plane on more than 10 occasions and his assistant, Doug Band, traveled on many more occasions.” The logs also showed Clinton traveled with other “employees and/or co-conspirators of Epstein’s that were closely connected to Epstein’s child exploitation and sexual abuse.”

·      “Jane Doe No. 102 stated generally that she was required by Epstein to be exploited not only by Epstein but also Epstein’s ‘adult male peers, including royalty, politicians, academicians, businessmen and/or other professional and personal acquaintances’ – categories Clinton and acquaintances of Clinton fall into.”

Ex-President Bill Clinton

·      “Clinton frequently flew with Epstein aboard his plane, then suddenly stopped – raising the suspicion that the friendship abruptly ended, perhaps because of events related to Epstein’s sexual abuse of children.”

·      Epstein’s computer contact list “contains e-mail addresses for Clinton along with 21 phone numbers for him.”

Attorney Scarola would not say why Clinton is not on the Aug. 31 witness list, stating he is “not at liberty to discuss our litigation strategy.”

Edwards initially sought to depose Trump and Clinton about Epstein, but never did. Scarola said there was no need to depose them after Epstein dropped his racketeering and other claims against Edwards.

While there are other notables on the witness list of those with knowledge of Epstein, including retired Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz and illusionist David Copperfield, there’s only one other politician. That’s ex-New Mexico Governor and Clinton Administration Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson.

The affidavit says Epstein’s personal pilot, Larry Morrison, testified in a 2009 deposition about “Richardson joining Epstein at Epstein’s New Mexico ranch” and that “there was information that Epstein had young girls at his ranch which, given the circumstances of the case, raised the reasonable inference he was sexually abusing these girls since he had regularly and frequently abused girls in West Palm Beach and elsewhere.

“Richardson had also returned campaign donations that were given to him by Epstein, indicating that he believed that there was something about Epstein that he did not want to be associated with,” the affidavit says.

Union ousts top officer for talking to reporter about union president’s big pay hike

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

A top union official has been suspended by his union for speaking out to a Florida Bulldog reporter and raising questions about the Miami-Dade school administration giving a huge pay hike to the union’s president two months before the School Board began approval of two contracts that outsourced lawn maintenance usually done by union workers.

That was one of the new developments spawned by the controversy. Others include new information that Union President Vicki Hall’s combined district and union salary is nearing $100,000; the school district administration is seeking to distance itself from the matter; some union members are considering addressing their concerns to the School Board at a public hearing on Wednesday, March 15.

On March 7, Hall, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 1184, persuaded the local’s executive board to back her move to suspend and remove Terry Haynes as the local’s senior vice president.

Members of the executive board, aside from Hall, who voted for the removal were Vannie Brown, Joan Jones, Charles Hepburn, Helen Huls, Michael Norman, Tanya Page, Sabrina Small, Theresa Storr and Bryon Houghtaling, according to Haynes.

The suspension came one day after Haynes, in story by the Florida Bulldog, questioned a district-approved $16,000 pay increase that raised Hall’s salary to $42,000 from $26,000; Haynes linked the hike to the two contracts that went unopposed by the union. The Miami-Dade County Public School Board approved the contracts on Nov. 18, 2015, and Feb. 3, 2016, totaling up to $1.8 million over five years for private firms to perform lawn service at district property.

Hall did not return calls for comment. Just before the meeting where Haynes was suspended, Hall called the Florida Bulldog to ask for an email address, saying she planned to respond to the article. She did not respond, nor did she respond to additional calls for comment on the last Tuesday’s suspension.

“She suspended me for talking to you about union matters without going through” her, Haynes said. Haynes maintained, however, that Hall had given him permission to speak to the media for a prior story about the controversy—and he continued to do so, questioning the pay increase and its relationship to the two contracts.

A testy meeting

The meeting at the union’s Miami Springs office got a little testy. Haynes said when he tried to remove his personal items, Hall insisted that he leave right away and then placed a call to Miami Springs police to make sure he left. Haynes said he left before any police officers arrived.

The suspension, Haynes said, requires him to refrain from involvement in his duties as a union official.

On the evening of the suspension, Haynes said he did not receive any written statements outlining the reasons for his removal. But on the following Friday he received certified mail at his Miami Gardens home. “As you were notified, you are no longer a Local 1184 Sr. Vice President and you can no longer handle any cases that involve AFSCME Local 1184.” Hall asked that Haynes return to the union all case documents he has in his possession by the end of Wednesday March 15. If not returned by then, the “property will be considered stolen” and the union will consider legal action to recover the material, Hall’s letter stated.

Hall also sent a letter notifying the school district that Haynes, who had been released from his district job duties as a custodian to perform full-time work on union business, should be returned to his district job responsibilities.

The suspension, however, might violate the union’s constitution, which requires the presentation of formal charges that specify recognized reasons for removal. Haynes said no such charges were presented. He also said the union’s constitution has a “bill of rights” that protects freedom of speech.

“I didn’t violate any rules,” Haynes said.  “I don’t think she has the authority [to suspend me].” Furthermore, he said he was planning to file an appeal to the national AFSCME union in Washington, D.C. and to reach union members to explain his actions.

Haynes said he will challenge Hall in May when the union presidency is up for grabs.

Meanwhile, it was learned that Hall’s salary from the union for 2016 was about $50,000. Her annual school district salary currently is $43,000 annually, which the union reimburses to the district, along with benefit costs. Union dues pay for her union salary.

Top district officials, including Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, Human Resources Chief Officer Jose Dotres and Assistant Superintendent Vivian Santiesteban-Pardo, in charge of Labor Relations, did not  return calls from the Florida Bulldog requesting comment regarding the outsourcing stories.

Santiesteban-Pardo told The Miami Herald that Hall was promoted from a 10-month to a 12-month bus driver when elected “in order to provide parity with the 12-month position of the previous union president.”

‘Unheard’ of pay hike

“That’s nonsense,” Haynes said, adding that he never heard of that occurring before. The union-school district contract provides that Hall’s salary should have been hiked by only $1,700 upon going from a 10-month to a 12-month bus driver, he said.

After being assigned to head Labor Relations in July, 2016, Santiesteban-Pardo told The Herald she began working to resolve grievances related to the outsourcing, with a settlement being reached in January “to ensure contractual procedures for outsourcing would be followed by all district entities.”

The settlement, Haynes said, provides what is already in the contract – provisions that were observed for many years – that the district notify the union when considering outsourcing, outline the scope of the work and give the union time to respond.

The school district followed these contract provisions for many years, until it ignored them in the awarding of the two contracts, Haynes said. “That’s not a settlement at all,” Haynes added. Haynes’ suspension may prevent him from pursuing two grievances he filed in connection with the outsourcing contracts that he maintained were not covered by the recent settlement signed by Hall.

“The District’s action and resolutions are unrelated and this issue may reside more appropriately under the union’s domain,” Santiesteban-Pardo told The Herald.

After school district officials helped create the problem by outsourcing contracts without notice to the union as required, Haynes said, they are now trying to push back from the controversy. “They are trying to get the heat off the district,” Haynes said. “They can’t distance themselves from this. This came from top management, backed by Carvalho.”

There has been talk, Haynes said, that some union members may attend the school board meeting this Wednesday to speak on the controversy and related issues.

FBI censored documents to protect privacy of accused 9/11 mastermind, accomplice

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed after his capture in Rawalpindi, Pakistan on March 1, 2003

Even as the FBI recently has made public more 9/11 records to satisfy the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act in advance of a possible trial, it continues to withhold untold documents that promise to cast new light on that terrible day in 2001.

Likewise, about 1,000 pages from the secretive 9/11 Review Commission that were declassified are shot through with blanked-out words, sentences, paragraphs, even entire pages – FBI deletions that undermine the act’s purpose as “a means for citizens to know ‘what their government is up to.’”

The FBI made public those pages in response to a Freedom of Information lawsuit filed in June by the corporate parent of Florida Bulldog after the bureau did not properly respond to lawful record requests. The Review Commission, also known as the Meese Commission after its best-known member former Attorney General Edwin Meese, was authorized by Congress to conduct an “external” review of the FBI’s post-9/11 performance and to examine new evidence. Its members were chosen and paid by the FBI. It issued its final report in March 2015.

National security and the need to protect informants were among the reasons the FBI cited to explain why certain information was kept hidden. In other cases, the reasons the FBI has asserted for redactions appeared arbitrary, even bizarre.

Take for example the 53-page FBI PowerPoint presentation titled “Overview of the 9:11 Investigation” that was shown to the commission during a briefing in April 2014. The PowerPoint included the “non-immigrant visa application” filled out by accused 9/11 architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who for the last 10 years has been held at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

The FBI withheld Mohammed’s entire visa application. Its reason: disclosure “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

The FBI further asserted the privacy rights of Mohammed and fellow “high-value” Guantanamo detainee Mustafa al-Hawsawi in its decision to withhold PowerPoint slides about their credit card information. Specifically withheld: al-Hawsawi’s “credit card statement and supplemental card activity” and Mohammed’s “supplemental Visa card application” to the United Kingdom’s Standard Chartered Bank.

Al-Hawsawi, a Saudi charged with war crimes, is an alleged senior al Qaeda member and organizer and financier of 9/11.

Nine other pages from the 9/11 PowerPoint were deleted. Also redacted was all information about these titles: “Funding of the 9/11 Attacks” and “Additional Funding Early to Mid-2001”; “Early to Mid-2000: Pilots/Intended Pilots Arrive U.S.”; “Early to Mid-2001: Non-Pilots Arrive U.S.”; “July-August 2001: Knife Purchases; August 2001: Reserving 9/11 Tickets.”

The FBI withheld each of those records citing exemption b7E to the Freedom of Information Act, which shields from disclosure “techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions, or would disclose guidelines for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions if such disclosure could reasonably be expected to risk circumvention of the law.”

In addition, four pages in the PowerPoint titled “Ongoing Investigation” were blanked out. A variety of reasons cited included privacy, inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums, and techniques and procedures – but not national security.

On the other hand, the bureau last month did release one tidbit that’s sure to fire up those who believe the destruction of the Twin Towers was an “inside job” or that the Pentagon was hit by a missile, not an American Airlines Boeing 757.

A partially declassified Memorandum for the Record (MFR) regarding an April 23, 2014 FBI briefing about its 9/11 investigation mentions a startling request for information to the FBI that day:

“The commissioners requested a list of evidence that shows it was actually a plane that crashed into the Pentagon,” the memo says.

Why did the Meese Commission make such a curious request? Did the FBI provide such a list?

The MFR’s declassified pages don’t answer those questions. Still, more than two pages of the six-page document were kept secret citing FOIA exemptions that prevent the disclosure of certain inter-agency or intra-agency memos and sensitive law enforcement techniques.

Miami-Dade schools gave union boss fat pay hike before outsourcing work

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

Miami-Dade Superintendent of Schools Alberto Carvalho and AFSCME, Local 1184 President Vicki Hall at a meeting in November 2016.

The Miami-Dade public schools administration gave a 60 percent pay hike to the president of the union that represents the district’s lowest-paid employees months before the school board approved one of two contracts that outsourced lawn maintenance work traditionally performed by union workers.

A top official of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1184 is questioning why president Vicki Hall got such a large pay increase and linked it to the two contracts that went unchallenged by the union before they were approved. The raise brought Hall’s annual school district salary from $26,141 to $42,000, records show.

“Why would they change her pay status … and give her a $16,000 increase? I tie it to the two contracts,” said union senior vice president Terry Haynes, adding that Hall’s pay raise exceeded promotion provisions of the labor contract by more than $14,000.  “She cut deals” related to the district’s outsourcing contracts, he said.

AFSCME officials have complained that the outsourcing, which could pay private firms up to $1.8 million over five years, violates the union’s labor agreement with the district and will result in loss of work for employees represented by the union. The controversy has exposed sharp differences between Hall, who was elected president of the local in May 2015, and Haynes, the local’s second in command.

Hall was asked to comment on her salary hike and how it came about. “You want me to incriminate myself,” she said before hanging up.

Re-contacted again a few days later, Hall declined to comment.

In an earlier interview several months ago,  Hall maintained that “no deals” were made and that she was “still a bus driver.” She also said that her annual salary increase was only from $36,000 to $42,000 – numbers different than those provided by the school district.

The union also provides Hall a separate salary stipend for her service as president, and reimburses the school administration for her school district salary so she can carry out union duties full time. The union represents about 7,900 employees, including custodians, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, maintenance employees and some staffers at WLRN, the public radio and TV station whose license is owned by the Miami-Dade School Board.

A comparison

By way of comparison, Haynes said the district never gave longtime union president Sherman Henry a large pay increase or a better pay grade. Instead, Haynes said, Henry got the same increases negotiated for all union employees. Henry retired from the school district two years ago after serving as union president for 24 years.

Superintendent of Schools Alberto Carvalho, who union officials say backed the two outsourcing contracts, did not respond to a call for comment. School Board Attorney Walter Harvey did not return calls for comment, or to an email asking him whether the outsourcing contracts violated the union’s labor agreement with the district, as union representatives contend. Chief Human Resources Officer Jose Dotres also would not comment.

School district Chief Communications Officer Daisy Gonzalez-Diego, however, maintained that the outsourcing contracts don’t violate the board’s contract with AFSCME, and that an agreement has been reached with the union to clarify outsourcing procedures. She added that the settlement resolves all grievances filed about the two contracts that outsourced lawn service.

The settlement, signed by Hall and district officials, calls for the district to do what the district’s labor agreement called for it to do: give notice to the union when it plans to outsource work, outline the scope of work and allow the union time to decide if it wants to challenge.

Union officials complained that had not been done. “I think downtown is in control’’ of the union, said Haynes, who disagreed with both the settlement and any claim that it resolves two grievances he filed about district outsourcing work.

School district officials refused to provide Hall’s annual salary on Jan. 1, 2015 and on July 1, 2015 when she and union members received a union-district negotiated pay increase. Andrea Williams, executive director in the Office of Labor Relations, said the district only provides hourly rates for 10-month school bus drivers; Hall’s official job with the district on those dates was that of a 10-month bus driver.

An analysis of school district information, however, shows that as of July 1, 2015, Hall’s salary was $26,141 a year. Three months later, Hall’s annual salary jumped 60 percent to $42,000 after the administration changed her status to a 12-month school bus driver. The change put Hall on a more lucrative salary schedule.

According to Haynes, Hall’s salary should have increased only by about $1,600 a year under promotion provisions in the district’s labor contract with AFSCME.

Outsourcing followed union president’s big raise

In November 2015, two months after Hall’s salary hike to $42,000, the first of the two lawn maintenance outsourcing contracts was approved by the School Board. The five-year contract authorized 11 companies to provide lawn services totaling up to $1 million. The type of work includes tree, palm and shrub trimming, pruning and stump removal, according to board records.

The contract was approved two days after the union withdrew a related previous grievance and a request for arbitration. The union filed the grievance in June 2014 after discovering that a private firm was doing lawn service work at Krop Senior High School in North Dade.

According to documents provided by the school district, the district paid about $273,000 to the companies it contracted with to outsource lawn services. the district contacted with as of Nov. 29, 2016. The union did not file a grievance at the time the contract was approved.

The other contract, for up to five years, was approved by the School Board on Feb. 3, 2016. Thomas Maintenance Service will be paid up to $800,000 to mow vacant lots and clear fence lines.

According to documents provided by the school district, nearly $82,000 was paid to Thomas Maintenance as of last November. The union did not file a grievance at the time that contract was approved, either.

Haynes accuses Hall of failing to take a strong stance against the district’s efforts on outsourcing. “It’s her responsibility to watch board items” and guard any actions detrimental to employees represented by the union, he said.

Haynes criticized the union’s withdrawal of the Krop High grievance. “She ordered the grievance pulled in a deal cut with Labor Relations,” he said.

“I told her not to pull it because it can result in a pattern,” Haynes said.”The grievance should never have been pulled because they may try to do it again.” And they did, he added.

In the interview months ago, Hall had a different version. She said that in November 2015 she ordered the Krop grievance withdrawn because she was given assurances from an official in Labor Relations that the union would be notified in the future of any outsourcing proposals.

It was “based on a good faith” promise, Hall said.

As some judges balk at Broward’s new high-rise courthouse, BSO has security issues

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Broward’s new 20-story courthouse tower

Broward’s juvenile delinquency judges have refused to move into the county’s new $276.4 million high-rise courthouse, while Broward Sheriff’s officials described the building as riddled with security issues, including a “serious escape risk.”

A Feb. 15 BSO internal memo obtained by Florida Bulldog lists 25 security issues or design flaws identified during a “thorough examination of the detention area” of the 20-story structure. Some might seem comical if they weren’t so serious.

For example, the report notes that light switches and thermostats for holding cells are located inside, instead of outside, the cells, giving inmates control.

BSO requested immediate corrective action to remove the switches and thermostats.

“The light switches should only be controlled by staff in the control room,” the memo says. “The temperature should only be controlled by staff in the control room.”

Further, the memo says lighting is adjusted by certain efficiency measures. Those measures “must be removed so that the cell lighting is strictly controlled by staff. Inmates in the holding cells must be visible at all times.”

Assistant County Administrator Alphonso Jefferson said juvenile courtrooms, like other courtrooms, were “built in accordance with approved design plans” signed off on by the court years ago. He nevertheless said the county is working with the sheriff’s office to make the desired fixes.d

Broward Assistant County Manager Alphonso Jefferson

“I’m aware of this and these are punch-list items,” he said. “There are punch-list items with any building, items you have that need to be addressed. We’ve had numerous walk-throughs with BSO and we’ve identified these items that are additional.”

BSO declined to comment, except to say that the memo, prepared by Captain Veronica Carroll, commander of the detention department’s Central Intake Bureau, was later updated. A request to see a copy of the updated memo was denied.

Juvenile delinquency judges say no thanks

Apparently not fixable, however, were matters of concern to enough of the county’s four juvenile delinquency judges that they decided recently to remain in or move to courtrooms in the courthouse’s modern North Tower on Southwest Third Avenue in Fort Lauderdale.

“Judge [Elijah] Williams and I went over there and it didn’t take us long to figure out that those courtrooms were not appropriate for juvenile delinquency court,” said Broward Juvenile Court Judge Carlos Rebollo.

Among other things, he said, the new juvenile courtrooms located on the tower’s ninth floor are “very small,” include no jury box where in-custody juveniles are kept while in court and have “holding cells that looked like a prison.”

“You’re dealing with juveniles and the last thing you want to do is put them in an environment in which it looks like they’re in prison,” said Rebollo.

The juvenile holding cells, which do not allow for the separation of male and female inmates, have open toilets.

“The way these things were designed was very institutionalized and the judges were very adamant that they didn’t want these kids to be placed in those holding cells,” said Chief Assistant Public Defender Gordon Weekes, whose office also opposed the new juvenile courtrooms. “They have an open toilet. You put four kids in there and if one has to use the bathroom they have to do it in front of the other three with no partition, and maybe even in front of an adult passing through.”

Fixes would be costly

Weekes said the cost to modify the juvenile facilities to make them acceptable for such work would have been great.

“It’s my understanding after speaking to the county that it would be millions of dollars to fix issues in the juvenile courtrooms,” Weekes said. The courtrooms will now apparently be repurposed.

To date, the new tower remains largely unoccupied. Those that have moved in include the clerk of courts, the state attorney, BSO and probate courts, Jefferson said. March 20 was set to be the date by which most of the judges would move in, but the date was said by two sources to have been abandoned amid an argument between the county and BSO on appropriate security staffing levels.

BSO’s memo addresses a variety of security deficiencies in the new courthouse, the most critical of which was in the sally port, the secure gateway between the jail and court. One issue cited in the report “poses a serious escape risk.” The underline is in the memo.

Other issues include “numerous blind spots” that pose life safety issues, fire sprinklers can be too easily tampered with by inmate, and “in-cell cameras are encased in cheap plastic that is easily manipulated.’’ The detention area also has no Self Contained Breathing Apparatus, a device that can provide breathable air in an emergency.

Of particular concern to Weekes was another holding cell deficiency: a handicap railing that’s “contrary to suicide prevention.”

“Most people think of a jail suicide as someone hanging from an overhead bar, but anyone can wrap a towel around their neck and lean forward. That’s just as effective. I don’t understand why they would allow that.”

U.S. judge cites ‘shameful’ FBI delays in making 9/11 records public

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Miami U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga

A Miami federal judge Tuesday excoriated the FBI for what she called its “shameful” delays in making public certain records about the bureau’s 9/11 Review Commission.

“It is distressing to see the length to which a private citizen must go” to obtain records under the Freedom of Information Act [FOIA],” said U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga. “It’s quite shocking frankly.”

At the same time, however, the judge gave the government two weeks to file a further summary judgment motion explaining why it believes the case brought by Florida Bulldog’s parent company should be dismissed. The ruling put off for now an unusual FOIA trial that had been scheduled to begin next week.

“The judge has done an excellent job moving this difficult case forward irrespective of the FBI’s stall tactics,” said attorney Thomas Julin, a partner in the Miami office of the Gunster law firm who represents Florida Bulldog. “This short delay will not put the Bulldog off the scent.”

Assistant U .S. Attorney Carlos Raurell represents the government. He declined to comment.

Broward Bulldog Inc. sued the FBI and the Justice Department last June, looking for records about the secretive three-man 9/11 Review Commission, whose most prominent member was Reagan-era Attorney General Edwin Meese. The group, also known as the Meese Commission, was authorized by Congress to conduct an “external” inquiry into the FBI’s post-9/11 performance and to assess new evidence. The commissioners were selected by FBI Director James Comey and paid by the FBI.

The Meese Commission, which began its work in 2014, went out of business after issuing a 127-page report in March 2015. The citizen’s 9/11 Commission released its findings in 2004.

In a related case, Bulldog is suing the FBI in federal court in Fort Lauderdale seeking records from the FBI’s 2001-2003 investigation of Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji, a Saudi couple living in Sarasota with ties to the kingdom’s royal family and apparent ties to the 9/11 hijackers. The al-Hijjis came to law enforcement’s attention after neighbors reported they’d abruptly moved out of their upscale home two weeks before the terrorist attacks, leaving behind their cars, clothes, furniture and food in the refrigerator.

U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch is reviewing more than 80,000 pages of classified 9/11 records produced by the FBI for his inspection and possible release.

The ‘many connections’ FBI report

One document the FBI did release six months after that initial FOIA case was filed in September 2012 was a copy of an April 16, 2002 report that said agents found “many connections” between the al-Hijjis and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.” The couple’s name was blanked out, but discernible.

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

The report flatly contradicted prior statements by the FBI that agents had found no connection to the 9/11 plot. The FBI, however, repudiated its report in a briefing given to the Meese Commission on April 30, 2014.

A memorandum about the briefing says FBI Supervisory Special Agent Jacqueline Maguire called the 2002 report “a bad statement. It was overly speculative and there was no basis for the statement.” The Meese Commission report said the agent who wrote it was “unable” to explain to his superiors why he wrote it as he did. The FBI has not identified the report’s author, but he is former Fort Myers Special Agent Gregory Sheffield.

At Monday’s calendar call, attorney Julin said the Bulldog was prepared to proceed to trial next week while prosecutor Raurell argued the government needed a continuance in order to file additional court papers asking the judge to dismiss the case. Judge Altonaga gave Raurell two weeks to file a new motion for summary judgment. If summary judgment is not granted on all remaining issues, a trial date will be scheduled.

Julin contends the FBI had no basis to keep Meese Commission records secret.

“The FBI started this fight by claiming it found nothing in Sarasota when it quite obviously did. We’re trying to get records which show why the Meese Commission continued this charade,” he said. “Did the FBI agree not to investigate Saudis who supported the 9/11 hijackers? That is what we’re trying to find out.”

Altonaga’s order

On Monday, Judge Altonaga issued a 37-page order in which she addressed the government’s initial motion for summary judgment, filed Dec. 30, and issues about the appropriateness of FBI redactions laced through four previously released documents. The FBI has cited various exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act to justify those deletions, but the news organization objected to many of those redactions as improper.

In a nutshell, the judge ruled the FBI improperly veiled the names of FBI agents, the al-Hijjis and others in the records it has released by repeatedly citing two exemptions intended to shield information that could result in “an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

The ruling could prompt the FBI to restore those names and re-release those documents, or the bureau could choose to try to persuade the judge of its position at a future trial.

The FBI fared much better with Altonaga regarding its other cited exemptions.

Specifically, the judge ruled the bureau had properly asserted exemptions intended to protect national security, confidential informants, law enforcement records or techniques and procedures and inter-agency or intra-agency memos or letters. The ruling means the FBI is not required to make that information public.

Altonaga saw un-redacted copies of the documents. In her decision granting summary judgment in favor of the FBI on matters of national security, she cited legal precedent that courts “should defer to an agency’s decision to withhold information” about national security matters.

Judges “must recognize that the Executive departments responsible for national defense and foreign policy matters have unique insights into what adverse affects [sic] might occur as a result of public disclosure of a particular classified record,” the court papers say.

‘Penttbomb 2.0’ and the FBI’s brush-off of reports alleging 9/11 ties to Saudi Arabia

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

September 11, 2001
Photo: Det. Greg Semendinger NYC Police Aviation Unit

FBI officials who briefed the 9/11 Review Commission on the bureau’s sprawling 9/11 investigation code-named PENTTBOMB steered the discussion away from Saudi Arabia by repeatedly disavowing or downplaying reports by agents alleging terrorist ties to the kingdom.

The FBI’s stance is similar to its repudiation before the commission of a startling April 2002 FBI report that said investigators had determined that Saudis living in Sarasota had “many connections to individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.” The memo, made public by the FBI in March 2013, flatly contradicted earlier FBI statements that its Sarasota investigation, kept secret for a decade, had found no ties to terrorism.

The FBI’s March 31, 2014 Memorandum for the Record (MFR) about the briefing, stamped “SECRET,” was partially declassified and released to Florida Bulldog last week along with other records. The news organization is suing the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for access to 9/11 Review Commission records it has not released. A trial is scheduled for next month in federal court in Miami.

The FBI, which for more than a year refused to disclose any documents about the 9/11 Review Commission, recently has dribbled out records to comply with FOIA requirements following a judge’s admonishment this month that she was not satisfied with the FBI’s explanations for withholding certain information.

Many other FBI records on the commission continue to be withheld in full, while the bureau has yet to acknowledge the existence of additional documents that appear to exist.

Former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat who served as co-chair of Congress’ Joint Inquiry into 9/11, reviewed the MFR and called it “just another chapter in the cover-up.”

Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham

“It sounds like the FBI was going through the original reports that were submitted and 10 years later they were trying to change the facts and discredit much of the information that was in their original reports,” he said. “There’s no indication of the basis on which they thought the original reports were inaccurate other than they were poorly written.”

The Review Commission was authorized by Congress to conduct an “external” review of the FBI’s post-9/11 performance and to evaluate new evidence, but was largely controlled by the FBI. Its three members, including Reagan-era Attorney General Edwin Meese, were chosen by FBI Director James Comey and paid $84,000 each by the FBI. The commission issued its final report in March 2015.

The March 2014 briefing was given by Jacqueline Maguire, supervisory special agent in the FBI’s Washington field office; Nikki Floris, director of the Analytical Branch of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, and an unidentified FBI supervisory special agent from New York.

Classified until 2039

The briefing’s title and much of its content was redacted from the three-page MFR on grounds of national security. The censored parts are to remain classified until Dec. 31, 2039.

The PENTTBOMB investigation is discussed in a less heavily redacted section. The document notes that PENTTBOMB, the FBI’s code-name for its Pentagon and Twin Towers inquiry was originally assigned to the New York field office, but that the investigation was later moved to FBI headquarters and the Washington field office.

“For 5 years,” the MFR states, “we worked from HQ and worked to prosecute (Zacarias) Moussaoui,” a French citizen who pleaded guilty in April 2005 to conspiring to murder U.S. citizens as part of the Sept. 11 attacks. “From 2006 to the present, it became Penttbomb 2.0 This was broken up into four teams for the four planes. This was the largest investigation in FBI history.”

The memorandum goes on to recount brief summaries of five cases involving individuals “who had interactions with the hijackers.”

9/11 hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar, right, and Nawaf al-Hazmi.

The first is Omar al-Bayoumi, a suspected Saudi agent who befriended 9/11 hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, both Saudis, shortly after their arrival in Southern California on Jan. 15, 2000. Here is what the MFR says about Bayoumi, though the wording is heavily garbled and confusing:

“The FBI found Bayoumi had role or at least not a role in terrorist activities, despite the 911 Commissions reporting that he was involved and a Saudi Intelligence Offices. The [FBI’s] 911 IG [Inspector General’s] report [written in November 2004 and made public in June 2006] cleared this individual. He came here for school and everything seems accidental with Bayoumi.”

Factual errors in FBI briefing

But the FBI’s briefing for the 9/11 Review Commission was seriously flawed.

The FBI Inspector General’s 9/11 report did not clear Bayoumi of involvement in 9/11. Rather, it found that a preliminary FBI inquiry of Bayoumi opened three years before 9/11 had been investigated and closed appropriately a year later. The inquiry was started after Bayoumi’s apartment manager reported several suspicious episodes.

Moreover, as Florida Bulldog reported on Dec. 19, a newly released FBI report from October 2012 identified Bayoumi as one of three “main subjects” of an active New York criminal investigation targeting an apparent support network for Mihdhar and Hazmi, who with three other terrorists crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon.

Among other things, the report said that in June 2012 a team of FBI agents, analysts and a federal prosecutor traveled to London “to exploit evidence seized in 2001 in New Scotland Yard’s searches of Omar al Bayoumi’s residences and offices” in England. The outcome of that 2012 investigation is not known.

The briefing memo also refers to a memorandum written by San Diego’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. The subject matter is blanked out for reasons of national security. It says, however, “This was based on early, bad FBI reporting, but it alleged a connection to Saudi Arabia. Subsequent investigations did not collaborate [sic] this.”

The MFR does not explain the basis for the FBI’s statement.

The name of another “individual with suspected ties to the hijackers” is redacted, but appears from other information in the report to be Osama Basnan, or Bassnan as it sometimes is spelled. The memorandum says he “hated Bayoumi” and was receiving money “for living, school and medical expenses.”

Prince Bandar, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S. from 1983-2005

“The FBI didn’t see any connection or money going to terrorists,” the MFR says.

Documents prepared by investigators for the 9/11 Commission in June 2003, however, identify Basnan as “a very close associate of al-Bayoumi” who was “in frequent contact with him while the hijackers were in San Diego.” Basnan was “a vocal supporter of Usama Bin Laden” and “received considerable funding from Prince Bandar [then Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S.] and Princess Haifa, supposedly for his wife’s medical treatments.”

A 9/11 Commission investigator interviewed Basnan in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in October 2003. “The interview failed to yield any new information of note. Instead, in the writer’s opinion, it established beyond cavil the witness’ utter lack of credibility on virtually every material subject.”

The MFR also briefly recounts two other matters involving Saudi nationals.

The first states how FBI briefers told the 9/11 Review commissioners about a pair of Saudi naval officers who had contact with the San Diego-based hijackers. The first several words about the matter were censored citing national security, but the MFR contains no other information about the naval officers.

Saudis on a plane

The second involves “a situation that happened when 2 Saudi individuals were on a plane asking questions about the aircraft. The plane ended up making an emergency landing and [blank]. We do not know what these individuals were doing and we do not have any additional bad information on them.”

In fact, the FBI had plenty of additional information about the Saudis that the briefers appear not to have shared with the 9/11 Review Commission.

The Saudis were Hamdan al Shalawi and Muhammad al-Qudhaieen.

The 9/11 Commission Report published in 2004 says that in November 1999 the pair were detained after the crew of a cross-country America West flight reported that Qudhaieen “had attempted to open the cockpit door on two occasions.”

Both men told investigators that Qudhaieen “was only looking for the lavatory on the plane,” the report says.

The FBI chose not to prosecute the two men who were traveling to Washington to attend a party at the Saudi embassy with tickets paid for by the government of Saudi Arabia.

After 9/11, however, FBI agents in Phoenix “considered whether the incident was a ‘dry run’ for the attacks,” according to the 9/11 Commission report.

Authorities later received information that both men had trained in al-Qaeda training camps.

As trial date draws near, FBI releases more about secretive 9/11 Review Commission

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

FBI Director James Comey, center, announces release of 9/11 Review Commission report on March 25, 2015. Flanking Comey from left to right are commissioners Bruce Hoffman, Edwin Meese and Timothy Roemer. At far right is Executive Director John Gannon

In moves aimed at heading off an unusual Freedom of Information Act trial in Miami next month, the FBI has released new information about the secretive work of its 9/11 Review Commission.

In one disclosure, the FBI made public how much it paid Reagan-era Attorney General Edwin Meese and two other men who served on the Review Commission, and staff. In another, the FBI put a human face on its effort to discredit a dramatic April 16, 2002 FBI report that said agents had found “many connections” between Saudis living in Sarasota and the 9/11 hijackers.

The FBI withheld the 2002 report from both Congress and the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, more simply known as the 9/11 Commission.

Late last year, in response to FOIA litigation brought by Florida Bulldog, the FBI made public copies of its personal services contracts with Meese, former ambassador and congressman Timothy Roemer and Georgetown professor Bruce Hoffman, but blacked out their pay.

On Friday, however, after U.S. District Court Judge Cecilia Altonaga told a trio of government lawyers she wasn’t satisfied with the FBI’s explanations for withholding such information, the bureau relented and restored those contract details in documents re-released to Florida Bulldog.

The contracts show that Meese, Roemer and Hoffman were paid $80,000 apiece plus $4,000 for travel expenses for 11 months of work.

Payments to staff

The FBI also provided new information about payments to more than a half-dozen staffers for the 9/11 Review Commission.

Executive Director John Gannon, a former CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence, was paid $134,000 plus $4,000 for travel. The FBI’s biggest payout, however, went to Barbara A. Grewe, whose contract shows she was detailed to the 9/11 Review Commission by The MITRE Corporation to serve as a senior director for eight months starting in April 2014. Grewe was paid $163,000 and given $20,000 more for travel. She was hired under an agreement involving the Intergovernmental Personnel Act.

MITRE, with principal locations in Bedford, MA and McLean, VA, is a not-for-profit company that operates federally funded research and development centers to address national security and homeland security and other matters. Grewe’s Linked In profile describes her as a “trusted advisor to senior government officials across a variety of MITRE programs.” She is a former federal prosecutor in Washington who also served as senior counsel for special projects on the 9/11 Commission in 2003-2004.

FBI Director James Comey

The 9/11 Review Commission, also known as the Meese Commission, was authorized by Congress to conduct an “external review” of the FBI’s performance in implementing the original 9/11 Commission’s recommendations and to assess new evidence. FBI Director James Comey picked the Meese Commission’s members, who operated in virtual secrecy, holding no public hearings and releasing no records about its work beyond its March 2015 final report.

Florida Bulldog’s corporate parent, Broward Bulldog Inc., sued the FBI in June for access to Meese Commission records, including those regarding the April 2002 FBI report that says agents found “many connections” between Saudis living in Sarasota and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”

The 2002 report, released to Florida Bulldog in 2013 amid a separate and ongoing FOIA lawsuit in Fort Lauderdale, corroborated earlier reporting by the Bulldog in collaboration with Irish author Anthony Summers that disclosed the existence of the FBI’s Sarasota investigation. That reporting showed that the FBI began its probe after being summoned by neighbors who told them that Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji had moved abruptly out of their upscale home about two weeks before 9/11 – leaving behind cars, clothes, furniture and other personal belongings. The home was owned by Anoud’s father, Esam Ghazzawi, an advisor to the late Prince Fahd bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, a nephew of former King Fahd, and eldest son of Saudi Arabia’s current monarch, King Salman. The prince died in July 2001 at age 46.

In September 2011, Bulldog reported that agents had found evidence that Mohamed Atta and other 9/11 terrorists had visited the al-Hijjis’ home. The bureau, however, did not alert Congress or the subsequent 9/11 Commission to its probe. After the story broke, the FBI acknowledged its investigation, but said it had found no connection to the 9/11 plot. It declined to explain.

The Sarasota Family

The Commission addressed the matter briefly in a section of its 2015 report titled “The Sarasota Family.” The commission’s inquiry consisted of obtaining copies of the case file and being briefed by an agent who discredited the 2002 report, calling it “wholly unsubstantiated” and “poorly written.” The commission took no other testimony about what happened in Sarasota, and its final report does not explain how the FBI came to its conclusion.

The FBI has not released the name of the agent who wrote the report citing privacy considerations. He is Special Agent Gregory Sheffield, who at the time worked in the FBI’s Fort Myers office.

The FBI recently filed a motion for summary judgment that asks the court to dismiss much of the lawsuit. This week, bureau attorneys are expected to file additional court papers seeking dismissal of the entire case. The matter is set for trial in early March.

Tuesday’s hour-long hearing before Judge Altonaga focused on whether the FBI had made an adequate search for records of any discipline given to the agent who wrote the allegedly bogus 2002 report, and whether it had properly redacted portions of records previously released to the Bulldog.

Representing the government at Tuesday’s hearing were Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Carlos Raurell and two FBI lawyers from Washington, Assistant General Counsel Jonathan Fleshner and Paul Marquette of the FBI’s Record/Information Dissemination Section.

Miami attorney Thomas Julin represented the Florida Bulldog. He argued that a trial would be the proper forum to resolve questions about the FBI’s withholding of information. He told the judge that the news organization’s principal concern was that the FBI had found significant evidence of Saudi government support for the 9/11 attacks and then failed to disclose it to Congress or conduct an adequate investigation.

Joining Julin at the plaintiff’s table was former Florida governor and Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the 9/11 attacks. Graham has strongly criticized the FBI for, among other things, failing to notify Congress about its Sarasota investigation.

A heavily redacted Memorandum for the Record

This past November, the FBI released in heavily redacted form a four-page, April 30, 2014 Memorandum for the Record describing the FBI’s briefing about the Sarasota family for the Meese Commission. Among the information the FBI kept secret was the name of the briefer for privacy reasons.

But on Jan. 30, 2017 after Florida Bulldog attorney Julin argued that the Meese report itself had named certain FBI personnel who it said provided “invaluable access to key people and relevant data,” the FBI identified the briefer as Supervisory Special Agent Jacqueline Maguire. Among other things, Maguire told the Meese Commission that the April 2002 report “was a bad statement. It was overly speculative and there was no basis for the statement.”

FBI agent Jacqueline Maguire testifying before the 9/11 Commission June 16, 2004

(The FBI also identified Agent Elizabeth Callahan as the Technical Point of Contact for the Meese Commission members and staff. The FBI has asserted privacy exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act to shield the names of other agents, including the agent who wrote the April 2002 report.)

The memorandum, however, offers no explanation for Maguire’s assertions. On Thursday, attorney Julin asked Miami U.S. Magistrate John O’Sullivan for permission to depose Maguire, but the request was denied.

Maguire previously said in court that she was assigned to the FBI’s New York field office after graduating from the FBI Academy in June 2000. A month after 9/11 she was assigned to a team of agents in Washington working PENTTBOMB, the code-name for its Pentagon, Twin Towers investigation.

“Specifically, I was assigned responsibilities in the investigation into the crash of American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon,” she said in a declaration in another FOIA action in 2005.

In November 2011, Maguire accompanied FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce to a Washington, D.C. meeting with former Sen. Graham. The White House arranged the meeting after Graham expressed concern about FBI documents he’d seen that contradicted the bureau’s public assertions that it had found no ties to terrorism during its Sarasota investigation. One of those documents was the April 2002 “many connections” report that the FBI provided the Senate Intelligence Committee in the wake of Bulldog’s reporting.

In a sworn declaration, Graham said Joyce sought to allay his concerns by saying that while the documents he’d reviewed did appear to contradict the FBI’s public statements about Sarasota, other FBI files he could review would provide context to show that the FBI’s public statements were correct.

Maguire was to provide Graham with those documents at a follow-up meeting. Joyce, however, soon changed his mind and declined to let Graham see anything else. Graham said Joyce also told him, in so many words, to “get a life.”

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