Judge Delays Gag Decision for Lawyers in Maali Case

By Henry Pierson Curtis | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted January 30, 2003

A hearing to limit out-of-court comments by lawyers in the federal prosecution of gift-shop tycoon Jesse Maali ended Wednesday with a judge's promise to read up on the emotionally charged case before ruling.

The issue of what lawyers can say arose late last year when prosecutors accused Maali's defense team of inflaming the community with allegations of prejudice against Arab-Americans.

Maali's lawyers claim they were countering an unfair portrayal by the U.S. Attorney's Office of the Palestinian-born millionaire as a terrorist and crime boss.

The charges against Maali, 57, involve two counts of money laundering and 53 counts of luring and harboring illegal aliens to work in his Big Bargain World chain of gift shops in Orange and Osceola counties. Allegations of more-serious criminal behavior, including being the crime boss of International Drive, were made after his Nov. 14 arrest, but have not resulted in new charges.

"Mr. Maali believes he has the right to defend himself against uncharged conduct," said Robert Leventhal of Orlando, one of his lawyers.

Little limits what lawyers can say in court, but a local rule governing federal courts in the Middle District of Florida prohibits lawyers from saying anything out of court that likely would make a fair trial difficult or impossible.

Restricted topics for lawyers, witnesses and defendants include opinions on the quality of evidence and credibility of witnesses in a case.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Cynthia Hawkins Collazo filed the motion in November to restrict out-of-court comments.

On Wednesday, she told U.S. District Judge John Antoon II that she feared accusations of selective prosecution would taint the jury pool and inhibit fair trials for Maali and his co-defendants. In the case, three co-defendants have agreed to testify against Maali and partner Saleem Khanani, 51, and accountant David Portlock, 51.

Collazo said race, religion and ethnicity played no role in the investigation that began long before Sept. 11, 2001. Any reference she made to Maali at his bail hearing last year were matters that needed to be brought to the court's attention, she said.

Orlando lawyer Mark NeJame, the most outspoken member of Maali's defense team, claimed his previous out-of-court statements responded to allegations raised by the government in court. As such, they did not violate the rule, he said.

NeJame cited a government claim that Maali collected donations for a terrorist group, but bank records presented in court showed the money went to a U.N.-approved charity. A lawyer has a duty to defend a client against what he called "reckless disregard for the truth," he said.

Antoon declined to rule Wednesday, saying he needed to read transcripts of Maali's Novemberbail hearing before he could reach a decision that will balance constitutional rights to free speech and a fair trial.

Source: Orlando Sentinel