$10 Million Bond Set for Orlando Businessman Accused of Terrorist Ties

 

By MIKE SCHNEIDER, Associated Press
Posted November 20, 2002

ORLANDO — A Palestinian-American millionaire businessman was ordered released from jail Tuesday on a $10 million bond after a federal magistrate dismissed FBI concerns that he had terrorist ties.

Jesse Maali, who heads an Orlando tourist shop and restaurant empire and counts Tiger Woods and Shaquille O'Neal as neighbors, must wear an electronic monitoring device and remain in central Florida until his trial on immigration violation and conspiracy charges, U.S. Magistrate David Baker ruled after a two-day hearing.

Maali's defense attorney said his client would probably not be able to post the bond until Wednesday.

Maali, 57, has denied supporting terrorist groups and his attorney has described the government's allegations as contributing to anti-Arab "hysteria."

The federal magistrate discounted claims by federal authorities that Maali had financially supported terrorist groups when he made donations to Palestinian charities and that an essay and poems he had written indicated a sympathy for suicide bombers in Israel.

"There is a very great danger in taking ... connections and associations that can be used with a very broad brush," Baker said. "Simply because someone knows someone, meets someone or shares characteristics, that doesn't make them responsible for everyone's actions."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Cynthia Collazo argued that Maali was a flight risk since he possesses money and property in Jordan. She also said that Maali's relatives had threatend the life of a government witness helping authorities build their case.

But Baker said Maali's ties to the community counter any flight risk. The federal magistrate also disregarded the government's argument that Maali was a threat to the witness.

"The evidence has been neither clear nor convincing that Mr. Maali poses a threat," Baker said.

Maali's attorney, Mark NeJame, called the government's allegations outrageous and praised Baker's decision as courageous. He said that Maali would commit economic suicide by supporting terrorism because it hurts tourism, which he depends on for his livelihood.

"This is a dangerous time in that the government has attempted to play on hysteria ... on headlines that say we may be in a war with Iraq or that Osama bin Laden may still be alive," NeJame told the judge. "The suggestions made by the American government against this American is frightening."

Before Baker's ruling an Arab-American community leader testified that the accusations that Maali supports terrorist groups are "laughable."

Maali, a pillar of central Florida's Arab-American community, has generously supported Palestinian and U.S. charities.

But he never donated to groups linked to Hamas, al-Qaida, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine or other terrorist organizations as federal authorities assert, said Sami Qubty, president of Orlando's Arab American Community Center.

"It's a laughable accusation. It's a stupid accusation," Qubty said during the second day of Maali's bail hearing. "This is just a smoke screen."

The hearing was delayed by a bomb threat called into the U.S. District Court late Tuesday morning. Nothing was found.

Maali, his business partner and three employees were indicted last week on 53 counts of violating immigration laws, a count of conspiracy to commit money laundering and a count of conspiracy to violate immigration laws.

No charges accusing them of having terrorist ties were filed.

They were accused of recruiting dozens of workers from Africa, Asia and Europe to come to Orlando to work in T-shirt and gift shops, creating shell companies to hide payments to illegal workers, evading taxes and failing to pay overtime.

An FBI agent on Monday asserted that Maali was "the boss" of International Drive and his permission was required for businesses to open on Orlando's most popular tourist strip.

Several witnesses, such as restaurant owner Rosario Poma, disputed that notion Tuesday.

"That's ridiculous," said Poma, who has owned several restaurants on International Drive. "Jesse's a good man. He's an honest man. He's an honorable man."