Saudi Arabia cites FBI’s Meese Commission in asking judge to toss 9/11 victims’ lawsuit

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

New York City’s annual 9/11 memorial tribute to the fallen.

Forced back into court by an act of Congress and faced with tens of billions of dollars in potential civil liability, oil-rich Saudi Arabia is asking a U.S. judge again to throw out a lawsuit brought against it by thousands of 9/11 victims.

Lawyers for the kingdom moved last week to dismiss the massive case pending in federal court in New York City, citing “baseless accusations that Saudi Arabia conspired to commit a horrific crime against its longstanding ally the United States by knowingly funding the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.”

The plaintiffs are survivors of the attacks, family members of the dead, businesses and insurance companies.

Saudi Arabia’s filing responded to their 100-page amended complaint brought in March against the kingdom and its official charity, the Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The complaint followed Congress’s passage last year – over a veto by President Obama – of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which allows Americans to sue foreign states for acts of terrorism that occur on U.S. soil.

Earlier, a federal judge and a U.S. appeals court had dismissed Saudi Arabia and the Saudi High Commission from the case after determining they were protected by the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. JASTA removed that protection.

The new court filings show the Saudis are relying heavily on the findings of the FBI’s secretive 9/11 Review Commission to discredit the plaintiffs’ claims that the kingdom is liable for the deaths, injuries and destruction caused by the September 2001 terrorist attacks. Nearly 3,000 people died in the attacks and thousands more were injured.

The 9/11 Review Commission – also known as the Meese Commission after its most prominent member, Reagan-era Attorney General Ed Meese – was authorized by Congress to conduct an “external review” of the FBI’s post-9/11 performance, and to assess new evidence. As Florida Bulldog has reported, however, the commission held no public hearings, had no subpoena power and was largely spoon-fed information by the FBI. Meese and the two other commissioners were chosen and paid by the FBI.

Meese Commission discredits report

The Meese Commission issued a 127-page report in March 2015, which among other things sought to discredit an April 2002 FBI report that said agents had found “many connections” between Saudis living in Sarasota and individuals involved in the 9/11 plot and requested further action be taken.

The April 2002 report, released to Florida Bulldog by the FBI in 2013 amid ongoing Freedom of Information litigation, corroborated a September 2011 Florida Bulldog story that disclosed the existence of the FBI’s Sarasota investigation and reported the FBI had kept it secret from Congress. The story was co-reported by Irish author Anthony Summers, who obtained the initial information about the Sarasota probe.

FBI Director James Comey, second from right, is flanked by 9/11 Review Commissioners Tim Roemer, right, Ed Meese and Bruce Hoffman, far left, on March 23, 2015. Photo: FBI

The FBI told the Meese Commission the 2002 report “was ‘poorly written’ and wholly unsubstantiated.” The commission’s report, however, offered no explanation of the basis for that conclusion. Likewise, the commission apparently never heard directly from the agent who wrote the report, relying instead on the FBI’s characterization of what he had to say.

“The FBI told the Review Commission that the (report) was apparently based solely on unsubstantiated reports from others and there was no documentation supporting its allegations,” the commission’s report says.

No other FBI records to support or explain the commission’s work were made public.

Florida Bulldog sued the FBI and the Department of Justice in June 2016 for access to all Meese Commission transcripts, reports and the like after the bureau failed to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request. 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.

Florida Bulldog and its attorneys believe the FBI has not acknowledged the existence of many additional pages of commission records.

Among the released records was a heavily censored Oct. 5, 2012 FBI report emblazoned with a logo that depicts the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers inside a pentagon against a backdrop of an American flag. The FBI considered the report so sensitive that even its title was classified “in the interest of national defense or foreign policy.”

The 2012 FBI report

Declassified portions, however, show that at that time federal prosecutors and FBI agents in New York were zeroing in on an apparent U.S. support network for Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, two of the five 9/11 hijackers who were aboard American Airlines Flight 77 when it crashed into the Pentagon. Among other things, the report discusses how in June 2012 a team of New York investigators traveled to London “to exploit evidence seized in 2001 in New Scotland Yard’s searches of Omar al Bayoumi’s residences and offices.”

At the time of its release in December, Sean Carter, a Philadelphia attorney for the plaintiffs, called the 2012 report “a powerful and important disclosure.” Carter appended a copy to the 9/11 victims’ amended complaint when it was filed March 17.

Attorneys Michael K. Kellogg, left, and Sean Carter.

The 91-page Saudi response memorandum filed last week by Washington, D.C. attorney Michael Kellogg attacks the 2012 FBI report as unreliable, noting that the names of its authors are redacted.

The memo says the FBI report “contains hearsay statements” about a pair of Saudis – Omar al-Bayoumi and Fahad al-Thumairy – who are identified as “main subjects” of the probe of  “individuals known to have provided substantial assistance” to Hazmi and Mihdhar in Southern California following their arrival in the U.S. in January 2000.

The FBI report says Bayoumi, a suspected Saudi agent; Thumairy, a Saudi diplomat and imam at the King Fahd Mosque in Los Angeles, and a third person whose name was kept secret on grounds of national security “provided (or directed others to provide) the hijackers with assistance in daily activities, including procuring living quarters, financial assistance, and assistance in obtaining flight lessons and driver’s licenses.” The investigation was seeking to prove the trio knew that Hazmi and Mihdhar “were here to commit an act of terrorism.”

“A statement that an investigator ‘seeks to prove’ a legal conclusion is neither an appropriate allegation nor competent evidence,” the Saudi memo says. “That is especially so here because the investigator’s attempt failed: the 9/11 Review Commission later found as of March 2015 that new evidence available to the FBI was ‘not sufficient’ to support the conclusion that plaintiffs advocate.”

But the commission did not release the 2012 report when it issued its report, nor does its report assess the 2012 disclosures except to note it said al-Thumairy “immediately assigned an individual to take care of al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar during their time in the Los Angeles area.”

Status of 2012 probe unknown

Likewise, the outcome of the 2012 investigation is not known. No other documents released by the FBI address it.

Said former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11: “If the decision was not to proceed, why? And if it was to proceed, what’s the status?”

From left to right: Dick Cheney, Prince Bandar, Condoleezza Rice, and George W. Bush, on the Truman Balcony of the White House on September 13, 2001. [Source: White House via HistoryCommons.org]

The Saudi memo also attacks as unreliable and insufficient two other documents about 9/11 the plaintiffs rely on, “the 28 pages” and “Document 17.”

The 28 pages refers to a long-suppressed chapter of the Joint Inquiry’s 2002 report about apparent Saudi support for the 9/11 hijackers. The 28 pages were ordered released last summer by President Obama. Among other things, they showed that Saudi Prince Bandar – who on 9/11 was his country’s ambassador to the U.S. – had connections to a major al-Qaeda figure now detained in Guantanamo Bay and others suspected of helping hijackers Hazmi and Mihdhar.

Document 17 is a set of 2002 work plans for staffers of the original 9/11 Commission detailing issues and outstanding questions regarding possible Saudi links to the attacks. It was declassified and released by the National Archives in 2015.

Among other things, Document 17 disclosed that when Guantanamo detainee Ghassan al-Sharbi was arrested in Pakistan in March 2002, FBI agents found a buried cache of documents that included “an envelope from the Saudi embassy in Washington that contained al-Sharbi’s (U.S.) flight certificate.”

Fraud and billing mistakes cost Medicare – and taxpayers – tens of billions last year

By Fred Schulte, Kaiser Health News 

Federal health officials made more than $16 billion in improper payments to private Medicare Advantage health plans last year and need to crack down on billing errors by the insurers, a top congressional auditor testified Wednesday.

James Cosgrove, who directs health care reviews for the Government Accountability Office, told the House Ways and Means oversight subcommittee that the Medicare Advantage improper payment rate was 10 percent in 2016, which comes to $16.2 billion.

Adding in the overpayments for standard Medicare programs, the tally for last year approached $60 billion — which is almost twice as much as the National Institutes of Health spends on medical research each year. (more…)

‘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.

The cash-rich pharmaceutical lobby and the rising cost of drugs for Medicare seniors

By Stuart Silverstein, FairWarning 

President George W. Bush signing the Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003.

President George W. Bush signing the Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003.

When the Republican-controlled Congress approved a landmark program in 2003 to help seniors buy prescription drugs, it slapped on an unusual restriction: The federal government was barred from negotiating cheaper prices for those medicines. Instead, the job of holding down costs was outsourced to the insurance companies delivering the subsidized new coverage, known as Medicare Part D.

The ban on government price bargaining, justified by supporters on free market grounds, has been derided by critics as a giant gift to the drug industry. Democratic lawmakers began introducing bills to free the government to use its vast purchasing power to negotiate better deals even before former President George W. Bush signed the Part D law, known as the Medicare Modernization Act. (more…)

U.S. Rep. Graham asks Gov. Scott to call special session on Lake O crisis

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Republican Gov. Rick Scott and U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, D-Tallahassee

Republican Gov. Rick Scott and U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, D-Tallahassee

In a sharply worded rebuke of Rick Scott, U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham (D-FL) urged the governor to call a special legislative session to deal with the toxic algae bloom discharges from Lake Okeechobee threatening the state’s ecosystem as well as the tourism and fishing industries.

In a July 13 letter to the state’s chief executive, Graham said a special session focusing on short-term and long-term solutions that prevent future algae blooms should be his top priority. She added Floridians are “hungry” for the Republican governor to show leadership on the issue.

“Your administration has ignored sea-level rise, weakened water-quality standards and dismantled environmental protections,” Graham wrote. “If you continue on your current course, your legacy will not be cutting taxes or creating jobs — it will be as the first governor in modern times, Republican or Democrat, who actively worked to harm Florida’s environment.”

Despite Graham’s criticisms, a Scott spokeswoman told Florida Bulldog there are no plans to call a special session. The North Florida congresswoman was responding to Scott’s written plea to Florida’s congressional delegation seeking support for a federal emergency declaration and funds to repair Lake Okeechobee’s Herbert Hoover Dike.

The Army Corps of Engineers has been opening the dike in recent weeks, releasing large amounts of harmful freshwater into nearby canals, lakes and rivers. The discharges are necessary to prevent the dike from rupturing and flooding populated areas in Martin, St. Lucie, Lee and Palm Beach counties.

In an email response to a reporter’s inquiry, Lauren Schenone, Scott’s press secretary, said the governor’s office is looking at all options at the state level to address the effects caused by the frequent discharges of water from Lake Okeechobee.

“Governor Scott’s number one priority is ensuring the safety of our families, visitors and Florida’s natural treasures,” Schenone said. “That is why he has called upon President Obama to declare a federal emergency… Although the President has failed to do what is needed to address this growing issue, the State of Florida will devote every available resource to find solutions for the families and businesses in this area.”

In a written statement, Graham told Florida Bulldog that Scott is wasting valuable time playing the blame game. “Republicans and Democrats across the state are heartbroken and angry seeing our waters covered in algae,” Graham said. “The time to act to solve this problem is now. We can’t afford to kick the can down the road until the next crisis hits.”

In her letter to Scott, Graham — who dropped her reelection bid and is considering a 2018 gubernatorial run — suggested he “use the bipartisan outrage over today’s crisis to work with the legislature, controlled by your own party, to pass real solutions to protect us from future environmental and economic disasters.”

Graham also called on the governor to fulfill the 2014 will of the voters to buy land south of Lake Okeechobee and restore the Everglades natural water flow; and replace his political appointees on the South Florida Water Management District with scientists, engineers and conservationists.

Study: New members of Congress rely on special interest money once in Washington

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

U.S. Reps. Gwen Graham and Carlos Curbelo

U.S. Reps. Gwen Graham and Carlos Curbelo

Nearly five-dozen newly elected members of Congress collectively raised $17.3 million in special interest money during their first year in office – increasing their reliance on contributions from single-issue political action committees, according to a new government watchdog report.

The fundraising analysis by Washington, D.C.-based Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics (CREW) found, too, that the 58 new members’ reliance special interest campaign contributions was especially true for those in “a vulnerable seat or serve on committees of particular interest to major industries.”

The $17.3 million in special interest PAC contributions was 16 percent higher than those members collectively raised as first-time federal candidates during the two-year election cycle for 2014, the report said.

The CREW report identifies Florida U.S. Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Gwen Graham as among the top money haulers.

“We think it is important for the public to know where their money is coming from and how much money is coming in,” said CREW spokesman Jordan Libowitz. In the case of Curbelo and Graham, “the floodgates certainly opened,” Libowitz added.

Curbelo’s press secretary Brittany Martinez did not return two phone calls and an email requesting comment. Graham declined to respond to the report via her spokesman, Matt Harringer.

CREW’s analysis found that Curbelo received $497,338 in 2015, representing a 228 percent increase in donations from special interests groups compared to the $151,550 he raised between 2013 and 2014 for his first congressional race. The report said Graham’s $582,147 in special interest contributions was the second-highest amount raised by a member of the freshman class in 2015. Compared to the 2014 election cycle, Graham’s contributions from special interests groups increased 42 percent after she went to Washington.

Libowitz said the campaign data CREW analyzed shows that new members who were considered vulnerable, including Curbelo and Graham, constituted nearly half of the freshmen members who received more special interest money in 2015 than they did as first-time federal candidates. The report also noted that Curbelo, a Republican, and Graham, a Democrat, were also put into programs by their parties meant to help vulnerable candidates with fundraising and organizational support.

In 2014, Curbelo beat incumbent Joe Garcia in a tight race despite being outspent by his Democratic rival, who at the time was being dragged down by election-fraud scandals involving a former campaign manager. However, a new map for Curbelo’s congressional district approved in December 2015 now favors Democrats even more than when Garcia held the South Florida seat. In the general election, Curbelo will likely face off against Garcia again or Annette Taddeo, a Colombian-American businesswoman who was Charlie Crist’s running mate in the 2014 gubernatorial race.

Last month, Graham, the daughter of former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, announced she was dropping her re-election bid now that her North Florida district is solidly Republican. She strongly hinted at a possible 2018 gubernatorial run.

“The money seems to flow most to representatives that are viewed to have tougher races to win re-election,” Libowitz said. “If special interests are targeting the most vulnerable in Congress, the public deserves to know what they are getting for supporting these members.”

CREW executive director Noah Bookbinder said in a statement that many of the freshmen members ran on a platform that they would curtail the influence of special interest groups. “But the truth is, as soon as they got into office, they were more than happy to be taking massive campaign contributions from special interests,” Bookbinder said. “What we found is a clear illustration of the special interest influence that is out of control in Washington right now.”

Rep. Lois Frankel’s endorsement of security guard firm may breach House ethics rules

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach. Photo: WPEC

U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach. Photo: WPEC

Congresswoman Lois Frankel’s endorsement of a private security guard firm whose owner poured $11,000 into her campaign after her support helped him land a sweet, no-bid government contract appears to have run afoul of House ethics rules prohibiting business endorsements.

Ethics principles restrict how members of Congress may interact with commercial enterprises.

“Members and staff must avoid becoming too closely affiliated with any commercial entity, in order to avoid any appearance that they are accruing benefits by virtue of improper influence exerted from their position in Congress, or are dispensing special favors,” the House Ethics Manual says.

As FloridaBulldog.org reported last month, however, records and interviews show that Rep. Frankel was actively involved last year in pushing a company called Professional Security Consultants (PSC) for the lucrative job of providing a team of unarmed “security ambassadors” to the Fort Lauderdale Downtown Development Authority (DDA) to enhance safety with foot and bicycle patrols in places like Riverwalk.

DDA minutes show that Democrat Frankel introduced the company to DDA officials, and later met with a DDA delegation about the matter.

The DDA soon hired PSC without seeking competitive bids. PSC’s contract continues this year with the program’s budget doubled to $200,000 with help from the city.

According to DDA board chairman Michael Weymouth, “Lois spoke highly of the work they had done for the West Palm Beach DDA when she was mayor.”

The company also featured Frankel’s official photograph and endorsement of PSC and its regional boss, Willie Perez, in a PowerPoint marketing pitch to the DDA’s board of directors before its unanimous June 12, 2014 vote to hire PSC without seeking competitive bids.

PSC literature also contains Frankel’s photo and endorsement quotes.

“TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN”

Frankel herself wrote a “To Whom It May Concern” letter of recommendation for Perez under letterhead that identifies her as “Representative Lois J. Frankel Member of Congress.”

“It was with his guidance and the use of his Security Ambassadors that West Palm Beach saw two important neighborhoods, our downtown and Northwood Village business district, transform from dangerous places to friendly and safe venues,” says Frankel’s Dec. 26, 2013 letter.

Frankel’s letter does not mention PSC by name. Still, the company used it less than a month later as part of its successful competitive bid package to Pompano Beach’s Northwest Community Redevelopment Agency for a $300,000-a-year contract to operate a security ambassadors program there. The contract is for three years, according to CRA records.

CRA director Nguyen Tran said he has never spoken to Frankel and does not recall her being actively involved in events leading up to the contract.

Frankel, whose coastal district stretches south to include downtown Fort Lauderdale, declined to be interviewed. Her spokesman Douglas Lyons, however, noted that Frankel obtained advance clearance for the Perez reference letter from House Ethics Committee staff.

“She loves Willie, obviously. She recommended him to the Fort Lauderdale DDA because of what he did when she was mayor,” of West Palm Beach, said Lyons. “They called the West Palm Beach DDA who connected them with Willie.

“She had no idea that PSC used her image and the quotes,” Lyons said. “She had nothing to do with putting that in their promotional material.” He said her office will be in touch with PSC to ask them to remove her image and statements from their promotional material.

A page from PSC's PowerPoint marketing presentation to the Fort Lauderdale DDA in June 2014. Rep. Frankel's office said Monday the congresswoman "had no idea" PSC was using her image or statements to market itself.

A page from PSC’s PowerPoint marketing presentation to the Fort Lauderdale DDA in June 2014. Rep. Frankel’s office said Monday the congresswoman “had no idea” PSC was using her image or statements to market itself.

DDA executive director Chris Wren said in an interview that the owner of a local security firm inquired about submitting a proposal before PSC was hired, but was told the job would not be bid. Wren said, too, that the board rejected his recommendation that bids be obtained.

ELIZABETH TAYLOR’S BODYGUARD

The contract with PSC was signed Sept. 30, 2014. Federal records show that one month earlier, PSC founder and owner Moshe Alon, of California, made two donations totaling $4,500 to Lois J. Frankel for Congress. Since then the former Israeli secret service agent and bodyguard for the late Hollywood star Elizabeth Taylor gave another $6,400 to Frankel’s campaign in seven contributions – the latest last September.

According to the Code of Ethics for Government Service, House members may help constituents obtain information regarding government contracts and deal with government regulations, but cannot “discriminate unfairly by the dispensing of special favors or privileges to anyone, whether for remuneration or not.”

House rules say members must also “avoid becoming too closely affiliated” with businesses to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

The Fort Lauderdale DDA’s security guard contract isn’t the first government contract involving PSC regional boss Perez to raise questions of favoritism by Rep. Frankel.

In 2010, the Palm Beach Post reported about police union anger toward IPC International, the security guard company where Perez was then regional manager, after city commissioners hired it to guard the city’s waterfront. The paper also reported that Perez was periodically serving “as Mayor Lois Frankel’s bodyguard.”

In an editorial several days later, the paper expressed concern about a “perception of favoritism from Mayor Frankel’s relationship with the security company’s regional manager.

“Mayor Frankel denies that Willie Perez gives her free bodyguard services, accompanying her to events downtown. Instead, she says, he is accompanying her on weekly inspection tours,” the editorial said. “Still the mayor gushes over Mr. Perez’s company, Chicago-based IPC International, and he keeps getting city contracts…to patrol downtown, city hall, the Northwood Business District, Broadway and now the waterfront.”

Universal Protective Service acquired IPC in 2013, and Perez soon went to work for PSC, bringing at least some of those government contracts with him.

Heavy-spending trucking industry pushes Congress to relax safety rules

By Brian Joseph, FairWarning trucking

Big rig crashes kill nearly 4,000 Americans each year and injure more than 85,000. Since 2009, fatalities involving large trucks have increased 17 percent. Injuries have gone up 28 percent.

Given these numbers, you might expect Congress to be agitating for tighter controls on big rigs. In fact, many members are pushing for the opposite – looser restrictions on the trucking industry and its drivers. (more…)

Rep. Alcee Hastings and 10 other House members implicated in alleged bribery scheme

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org alcee2016

Congressional ethics investigators will review allegations that South Florida Rep. Alcee Hastings and 10 other House members took bribes by accepting campaign contributions from the payday lending industry shortly before or after taking official actions in support of the industry.

The Campaign for Accountability, a Washington-based watchdog group, asked for the probe in a 17-page letter to the Office of Congressional Ethics on Monday.

“The timing of the official acts each of these 11 members took…suggests the campaign contributions were made in exchange for legislative assistance in violation of federal law and House rules,” says the letter by executive director Anne L. Weismann.

The official actions allegedly included sponsoring or co-sponsoring legislation to impair the ability of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to regulate the payday lending industry and eliminate consumer protections against certain payday lending practices.

“If, as it appears, these representatives accepted donations to their campaigns and PACs in direct exchange for specific action on behalf of the payday lending industry, they may have violated the bribery statute,” wrote Weismann. She noted that Sen. Robert Menendez, D-NJ is currently facing a bribery indictment “for allegedly performing official acts in exchange for a contribution to a super PAC that was earmarked for his Senate race.”

Other anti-corruption measures that Weismann said were possibly violated: honest services fraud and the illegal gratuity statute.

The letter was triggered by a recent report by a group called Allied Progress, which first connected the campaign contributions from payday lenders to the congressmen. Payday lenders generally provide short-term, unsecured cash advances to wage earners at high rates of interest.

Nine Republicans and two Democrats, including Hastings, are cited in the investigation request. They are: Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Tn; Rep. Scott Garrett, R-NJ; Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Tx; Rep. Blaine Leutkemeyer, R-Mo; Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-NC; Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-NY; Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Tx; Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Tx; Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio; Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Ks.

Many are members of the House Financial Services Committee, which oversees the financial services industry. They include Chairman Jeb Hensarling, Vice Chairman McHenry, Fincher, Garrett, Leutkemeyer, Meeks, Neugebauer and Stivers.

Sessions chairs the powerful House Rules Committee, of which Hastings and Stivers are also members. Yoder is a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

Here’s what Hastings, a 23-year House member whose district includes much of Broward and parts of Palm Beach and Hendry counties, is accused of in the letter:

  • May 21, 2013. Hastings co-sponsored HR 1566, legislation that Allied Progress said would “undermine oversight of payday lenders by allowing them to bypass the regulatory authority of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and stronger state laws.” On March 27, 2013, he received a $2,500 campaign contribution from payday lending executive Ian MacKechnie of Amscot Financial. MacKechnie contributed another $500 to Hasting’s campaign on June 28, following Hasting’s support for HR 1566. In all, Hastings and five other congressmen who supported the measure, or similar legislation, received a total of more than $72,000 in contributions from industry executives or PACs, the letter says.
  • July 10, 2014. Hastings co-sponsored HR 4986, a bill aimed at ending Operation Choke Point, a Department of Justice initiative investigating banks and their connections to payday lenders, payment processors and others at higher risk for fraud and money laundering. Three weeks earlier, Hastings accepted a $2,500 contribution from Cash America International Inc. PAC, a payday lending industry PAC. Industry PACs sent another $26,000 to the campaigns of four other congressmen.

The Office of Congressional Ethics is an independent, nonpartisan fact-finding body governed by a board of private citizens.

A spokeswoman declined to comment. But information on its website explains that complaints can trigger a two-phase review process that can take about 90 days. If the board finds substantial reason to believe the allegations, it must refer the matter to the House Ethics Committee with a recommendation for further review or dismissal.

Hastings’ office did not respond to requests for comment by email or telephone.

A stonewall of secrecy hides many 9-11 records on 14th anniversary of terrorist attacks

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Osama bin Laden, left, with his successor as al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri

Osama bin Laden, left, with his successor as al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri

Seven weeks after the end of the massive cleanup at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan in 2002, a legal investigator for the families of 9/11 victims requested a copy of an arrest warrant issued by Interpol for fugitive al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Here’s the reply she got from the Justice Department’s Interpol-U.S. National Central Bureau:

“Release of information about a living person without that person’s consent generally constitutes an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy in violation of the Freedom of Information Act. You must submit an authorization (privacy waiver) signed by Usama bin Laden, consenting to the USNCB’s release to you of any record that it may have pertaining to him.”

The Justice Department’s assertion of privacy rights for bin Laden is a small rock in the stonewall of official secrecy that continues to hide 9/11 documents held by the FBI, CIA and other government entities on the 14th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.

Lately, the public focus has been on the 28 blanked-out pages in Congress’s 2002 Joint Inquiry into the attacks regarding “foreign support for the hijackers” – read Saudi Arabia. The pages, withheld by President George W. Bush and kept hidden by President Obama, have been the subject of recent stories in The New Yorker, The New York Times and others. On Capitol Hill, pending bills in the House and Senate seek to open those pages to the public.

Yet hundreds, likely thousands, of significant records about what the 9/11 Commission called “a day of unprecedented shock and suffering in the history of the United States” remain off limits in whole or significant part. The result: an incomplete public understanding of events behind the attacks, and a denial of evidence to 9/11 victims still seeking a measure of justice in the courts.

‘LET OUR PEOPLE KNOW’

“Thousands of pages, photographs and tangible evidence have been withheld, much of which from my personal knowledge has nothing to do with keeping America safer but rather protects incompetence or relations with perfidious foreign governments,” said former Sen. Bob Graham, the Florida Democrat who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the attacks and helped write the 28 pages.

Bob Graham

Bob Graham

“The United States has paid a high price in justice to injured Americans, national security and confidence in government by this secrecy. It is time to let our people know,” Graham said.

Many hidden 9/11 records are years, even decades old. But some like the classified files and memoranda of the FBI’s secretive 9/11 Review Commission were produced in 2014 and 2015.

The Review Commission, charged with investigating the FBI’s performance and evaluating new information about the attacks, went out of business in March after issuing a 127-page report. The FBI has yet to release any other commission material – transcripts, memos and the like – sought in a Freedom of Information request filed by FloridaBulldog.org in April.

Perhaps the largest untapped source of information about events leading up to 9/11 is the raw intelligence files about al Qaeda and terrorist threats gathered by the eavesdropping National Security Agency.

In his 2008 book “The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation,” former New York Times reporter Philip Shenon said Commission investigators neglected to examine that “gold mine” of NSA 9/11 data until days before the commission’s final report was due.

Found in that limited time, and noted in the commission’s report, was “strong evidence that Iran facilitated the transit of al-Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11, and that some of these were future 9/11 hijackers…We believe this topic requires future investigation by the U.S. government.”

“There’s a massive amount of information,” Shenon said in an interview last week. “That’s always been on the top of my list of documents I’d like to see.”

Suppressed records are plentiful and easy to locate in the reports of the Joint Inquiry and the footnotes of the follow-up 9/11 Commission. Aside from the notorious 28 pages, the Joint Inquiry’s report contains numerous other blanked-out parts, including six heavily censored pages regarding covert action ordered against bin Laden by President Clinton.

The National Archives manages the 9/11 Commission’s files and maintains an online list of about 1,200 fact-finding interviews, nearly 200 of which the public cannot access because they are classified. Hundreds more released documents have redactions ranging from minimal to heavy.

911datasets.org, a group that makes available raw information obtained by 9/11 researchers, says the National Archives has released about a third of the commission’s files. Many records within those files are nevertheless withheld citing national security.

‘NO EVIDENCE’ AGAINST SAUDI GOVERNMENT

The 9/11 Commission reported finding “no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually” had funded al Qaeda. The official veil of secrecy over its records, however, continues to obscure how it reached that controversial conclusion.

Hidden from public view are commission interviews with White House staff, FBI agents, CIA employees and officials with other agencies including the Defense Intelligence Agency, State Department, Treasury Department and Federal Aviation Administration. Also secret: interviews with government officials from Great Britain, Canada, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia.

From left to right: Dick Cheney, Prince Bandar, Condoleezza Rice, and George W. Bush, on the Truman Balcony of the White House on September 13, 2001. [Source: White House via HistoryCommons.org]

From left to right: Dick Cheney, Prince Bandar, Condoleezza Rice, and George W. Bush, on the Truman Balcony of the White House on September 13, 2001. [Source: White House via HistoryCommons.org]

One intriguing 2003 interview was with Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. who met with President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney at the White House two days after 15 of his countrymen helped carry out passenger jet attacks on New York and Washington.

Bandar’s wife, Princess Haifa, made payments to a man the Joint Inquiry identified as a “Saudi extremist and a bin Laden supporter.” The man, Osama Bassnan, also apparently had contact with 9/11 hijackers Nawaf al Hazmi and Khalid al Midhar, who were aboard American Airlines Flight 77 when it slammed into the Pentagon.

Time Magazine reported that from January 1999 to May 2002 the princess made monthly payments of $2,000 to Bassnan’s wife, who was said to suffer from a severe thyroid condition. The payments totaled as much as $73,000, The New Yorker reported last year.

Key documents by the CIA and the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control relating to terrorist financing are also under wraps.

For example, while representing 9/11 victims, New York’s Kreindler & Kreindler law firm filed a Freedom of Information request for a copy of a May 2000 memo about a meeting OFAC officials had with two of Osama bin Laden’s half-brothers, as well as a subsequent letter about the meeting from the Saudi Binladin Group, the large construction conglomerate founded by Osama bin Laden’s father. Both documents are cited in the 9/11 Commission’s report.

OFAC denied the 2009 request saying, among other things, that the release of those records would constitute “a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” presumably of the bin Ladens.

OFAC also asserted personal privacy and national security considerations in 2006 when refusing to release nearly 700 pages of records about the International Islamic Relief Organization, a Saudi charity whose branches in Indonesia and the Philippines were specially designated by OFAC as terrorist entities for funding al Qaeda.

Another 600 OFAC pages were likewise withheld about the al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, a Saudi charity designated by the Treasury Department in 2008 for having provided “financial and material support” for al Qaeda.

IMMUNIZING FINANCIERS OF TERRORISM?

“The wholesale redaction of any relevant detail is a problem we’ve seen across the board when we’ve asked for documents that address specific details of Saudi-based support for al Qaeda in the pre-9/11 era,” said Sean P. Carter, a victim’s attorney with Philadelphia’s Cozen O’Connor law firm. “At the end of the day this is immunizing those people from the consequences of their actions.”

Al Rajhi Bank headquarters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Al Rajhi Bank headquarters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

The CIA took a different tack in its July 2013 response to a FOIA request by another plaintiff’s lawyer seeking intelligence reports about Saudi Arabia’s al Rajhi Bank that were cited in a Wall Street Journal story, “U.S. Tracks Saudi Bank Favored by Extremists.”

The front-page article said CIA documents described al Rajhi Bank, which describes itself as one of the world’s largest Islamic banks, as a “conduit for extremist finance” that once obtained a visa for a money courier working for Osama bin Laden’s second-in-command, Ayman al Zawahiri. The CIA replied that it “can neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence” of the requested records.

CIA documents cited prominently in the 9/11 Commission Report and requested by plaintiff’s lawyers have been released in recent years, often with heavy redactions and assertions that the information was exempt by presidential directive or U.S. law.

Examples include:

In June, the CIA released a 10-year-old report by the agency’s Inspector General regarding criticism leveled by the Joint Inquiry. The 490-page report is riddled with redactions, including nearly all of a 29-page section titled “Issues Relating to Saudi Arabia.” A sentence that remains states that the CIA found no “reliable reporting confirming Saudi government involvement with and financial support for terrorism prior to 9/11.”

The National Security Archive, a private research group based at Washington’s Georgetown University, has identified key 9/11 information that remains classified.

“Hundreds of cited reports and cables remain classified, including all interrogation materials such as the 47 reports from CIA interrogations of [alleged 9/11 mastermind] Khalid Sheikh Mohammed,” the group’s website says.

THE FBI’S MANY CLASSIFIED RECORDS

The FBI posts 72 documents about the 9/11 Commission on its website. Many contain extensive redactions and none involve allegations of Saudi financing for terrorists, the most controversial aspect of the 9/11 case.

The FBI’s sprawling 9/11 investigation, code-named PENTTBOMB, was the largest in its history. More than half of its agents worked the case, following more than half-a-million investigative leads, the FBI has said.

U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch

U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch

How many documents is that?

The FBI’s Tampa field office alone holds 80,000 classified pages in its 9/11 file, according to papers filed by the Justice Department in ongoing Freedom of Information litigation brought by FloridaBulldog.org.

The records include details of a once-secret FBI investigation of a Saudi family with apparent ties to the 9/11 hijackers who gained attention after they abruptly moved out of their Sarasota area home two weeks before the attacks, leaving behind their cars, clothes, furniture and other belongings. FloridaBulldog.org working with Anthony Summers, co-author of the 9/11 history “The Eleventh Day,” first reported the story in 2011.

Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Court Judge William J. Zloch is currently reviewing those 80,000 pages for possible public release.

The continuing secrecy about 9/11 has not sat well with the former leaders of the 9/11 Commission.

At an event last year marking the 10th anniversary of the release of its report, former Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton urged transparency, saying he was “surprised and disappointed” to learn that documents remain hidden.

“I assumed, incorrectly, that our records would be public. All of them, everything,” Hamilton said. “I want those documents declassified. I’m embarrassed to be associated with a work product that is secret.”

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