NLG Cuba Subcommittee Press Release
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Lengthy Backlog of Cuba Travel Cases
By KEN GUGGENHEIM
copyright: The Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) - Nine years after Congress granted the right to civil hearings for anyone accused of violating the Cuba travel ban, no judges have been hired and no hearings have been held.
As of September, 357 cases were pending, some of which date to 1995, said a congressional aide, who provided the figure on condition of anonymity. Piano tuner Ben Treuhaft, for example, has waited for his day in court since being accused in 1996 of illegally traveling to the communist island.
The Treasury Department, which oversees the ban, did not respond to repeated requests for details about the backlog or how many cases have been resolved without hearings.
The department said its Office of Foreign Assets Control is trying to resolve the problem, but its efforts have been set back since the terrorist attacks.
In addition to enforcing embargoes, the office has a leading role in tracing terrorists' assets.
Treasury spokesman Tony Fratto said the terrorist attacks "clearly slowed down this process'' of addressing the backlog but " we are confident that a workable, cost-effective procedure will be put in place to address this issue.''
Most of those awaiting hearings are not complaining about the delay. People who negotiated settlements have paid fines averaging $7,500, while Treuhaft and others in his situation have not paid a cent.
"There haven't been people pounding on OFAC's door saying they want a hearing,'' said Tom Miller, Treuhaft's attorney.
But some lawyers say the delays could make it harder to defend their clients if hearings are held eventually.
``It is possible that critical evidence and critical witnesses will become unavailable,'' said Nancy Chang, senior litigation attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents many of those accused of violating the ban.
The ban is part of the four-decade old embargo aimed at forcing democratic changes in Fidel Castro's country. By prohibiting the spending of money in Cuba, the ban effectively bars travel by most Americans. Exceptions are made for working journalists, relatives of Cuban citizens and others.
Under a 1992 law tightening the embargo, Congress granted the right to an administrative hearing to anyone accused of violating the travel ban. A few years later, the Treasury office set up proceedings for hearings.
Treuhaft said he wants a hearing so he can take a stand against the embargo. The New York City man has helped send more than 100 pianos to Cuba through his ``Send a Piana to Havana'' campaign. He has held several licenses allowing him to visit Cuba, but didn't have one in 1994, when he got caught. He faces a $10,000 fine.
He is accused of illegally donating piano supplies, spending money in Cuba and accepting pay for tuning pianos. Treuhaft mocks the accusations, saying the United States is trying to bring Cuba to its knees by making Cubans listen to out-of-tune pianos.
In 1998, Treuhaft's lawyer told him the government had agreed to a $3,500 settlement. Treuhaft rejected the offer. Embargo supporters say the travel ban has been undermined by OFAC's lack of resources.
``The lack of enforcement of any law, I would certainly say in terms of the Cuba sanctions, invites lawlessness to take place,'' said Rep. Bob Menendez, D-N.J.
OFAC is a small agency whose responsibilities have grown in recent years as sanctions have become a more popular foreign policy tool. It has a central role in tracking terrorist assets.
Last year, OFAC director R. Richard Newcomb told a panel appointed by Congress that the lack of administrative law judges was ``an issue substantially relating to budget.''
In 1998, the office received permission to borrow administrative law judges from the Environmental Protection Administration. Permission was renewed in 1999 and 2000; no judges were assigned.
This year, the EPA didn't offer its judges. Treasury is now considering hiring its own, the government's personnel office said.
The backlog began during the Clinton administration, which had loosened the travel ban.
President Bush strongly supports the embargo and in July ordered increased enforcement. Cuban-American exiles are major supporters of both the president and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who faces re-election next year.
Even before Bush acted, OFAC had begun sending out more letters seeking fines from suspected violators and informing them of their right to a hearing.
During the summer, Congress considered suspending or eliminating the travel ban. Some lawmakers view it as an ineffective Cold War relic that only hurts Americans. But those efforts were set aside after Sept. 11.
On the Net: Treasury Department Cuba travel regulations:
Center for Constitutional Rights Cuba page: