U.S. Seeks to Keep Fla. Man in Jail

 

By MIKE SCHNEIDER, Associated Press Writer
Posted November 19, 2002

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP)--A successful Palestinian-American businessman who owns T-shirt stores, gift shops and restaurants in Orlando has been jailed on charges of hiring illegal aliens, and federal prosecutors say he should be kept behind bars because he has provided money to terrorist groups.

Law enforcement agents last week raided several shops owned by Jesse Issa Maali, 57, near Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and other tourist spots.

The government said Maali, who counts Tiger Woods and Shaquille O'Neal among his neighbors, might flee the country. He is charged with hiring dozens of illegal aliens and creating shell companies to disguise payments to the workers.

Maali's lawyer said his client has done nothing wrong. ``His biggest crime is that he is a Middle Eastern man in 2002,'' said attorney Mark NeJame.

A federal magistrate was expected to decide Tuesday whether to allow Maali's release on bail. A two-day hearing was delayed by a bomb threat called into the federal courthouse in the morning. Nothing was found.

The U.S. government indicted Maali and four business associates last week. They were charged with immigration violations, conspiracy to commit money laundering and conspiracy to commit violations of immigration laws.

None of the charges accuse them of terrorist ties.

Federal prosecutor Cynthia Collazo said Maali, a naturalized U.S. citizen, should remain jailed because he has money and property overseas and has provided financial support to terrorist groups.

She cited a $50,000 check that he gave to a Palestinian charity two years ago that ended up in Al Aqsa Islamic Bank in Ramallah, which allegedly is an arm of the militant group Hamas. The bank has since been placed on a federal list of foreign terrorist organizations that U.S. citizens are prohibited from doing business with.

She noted that he has a passport from Jordan, which has no extradition treaty with the United States.

NeJame denied Maali has ever supported terrorist groups. He said that the charity is approved by the United Nations and that the bank was not put on a list of terrorist organizations until 1 1/2 years after Maali made the contribution.

Maali has generously supported Palestinian and U.S. charities but never has donated to groups linked to any terrorist organizations, said Sami Qubty, president of Orlando's Arab-American Community Center.

``It's a laughable accusation,'' Qubty said Tuesday. ``This is just a smokescreen.''

Maali came to New York in the early 1970s, opening supermarkets there, before moving to central Florida about a decade later. His next opened several Ponderosa Steak House restaurants, then started his Big Bargain World chain as well as many other stores. Maali's name is associated with more than 50 corporations, state records show.

Maali, and his business partner, M. Saleem Khanani, 51, were accused of recruiting 53 workers from Pakistan, India, Italy and Morocco, among other countries, over the past three years.