By Jeffrey C. Billman
Posted July 17, 2003
At about 10 a.m. on Nov. 14, a federal SWAT team swarmed the 10,000-square foot, $3 million Isleworth mansion of Jesse Issa Maali, a 57-year-old, Palestinian-born entrepreneur who made a fortune selling T-shirts to tourists on I-Drive. Coincidentally, It was the same month that Maali's palatial, marble-floored home was featured on the cover of Orlando Home Design Magazine.
The raid was a decisive strike in the war against terrorism, and federal agents wanted the world to know about it. So they tipped the local media well in advance, which is why there were news helicopters hovering over the Maali home when agents knocked on the door. Jesse Maali's wife, Jihad Maali, answered. She said later that she thought it was a delivery from Federal Express. Instead, agents brandishing M-16 assault rifles rushed the house, pointed their weapons at members of the Maali family -- including a pregnant daughter-in-law -- and herded them into the family room. Jesse was interrogated and arrested. Agents searched the house and seized business-related documents.
The raid was the most visible aspect of "Operation Thunderdome," the federal crackdown on 13 of Maali's businesses and offices. Four of Maali's managers and business associates were arrested that day. His accountant, David Portlock, was collared a few days later.
It was high drama, seemingly out of proportion to the charges that resulted: 53 counts of encouraging illegal aliens to enter the country and work for him, and two counts of conspiring to launder money in order to pay the illegals off the books.
Maali's partner, M. Saleem Khanani, faced the exact same 55 counts, but no SWAT team showed up as his door. He was quietly arrested and posted a $150,000 bond.
The day of Maali's arrest, federal prosecutor Cynthia Hawkins-Collazo (who has since divorced and now goes by "Hawkins") announced that he had ties to "organizations that advocate violence," a way of saying he financed terrorism without really saying it. Hawkins asked that Maali be held without bond pending trial, saying he posed both a flight risk and a danger to potential government witnesses. His bond hearing wasn't scheduled until the following Monday, so the man who built an empire on the tourist trade spent the weekend in the Seminole County jail.
And a tumultuous weekend it was. The local Fox affiliate dubbed the case "Tourism for Terrorism" and superimposed Maali's face next to Osama bin Laden's. Other TV coverage was equally melodramatic, regurgitating the government's claims of terrorism ties. Mean-while, hundreds of Maali's supporters protested in front of the federal courthouse, telling everyone who would listen that he was being persecuted because he's a Muslim.
At the bond hearing, Hawkins and FBI agent Stephen Thomas painted Maali as "the boss of I-Drive," a gangster who dabbled in drugs and extortion, dictating what businesses could open along the tourist strip while raising money for terror groups. He was the head of a criminal family who, the weekend of his arrest, allegedly tried to have a government informant killed.
With talk like that from the prosecutor, it would surely only be a matter of time before charges far more serious than employing illegal aliens and laundering money came to light.
But the charges never came. Eight months later, Maali faces the same 55 counts he faced in November. Since then, the government's case against him has only grown weaker. Informants -- specifically two working for the DEA who claimed the Maali family acid bombed their apartment twice and tried to shoot them -- turned out to be liars, a fact the Orlando Police Department, not the federal agents who relied on the information, uncovered in January.
Allegations of Maali's nefarious dealings stemmed from information that was, at best, suspect. A judge turned down Hawkins' request that Maali be held without bail, saying the government didn't come close to proving Maali was dangerous. The judge, David Baker, did however make Maali post one of the largest bonds in Florida history: $10 million in cash and property.
After a three-year investigation involving the FBI, DEA, Central Florida Organized Crime Task Force, the U.S. Customs Service, the IRS, the Orange County Sheriff's Office, the INS and the Florida Highway Patrol, the government is now seeking a consolation prize -- catching Maali using undocumented workers in his stores.
Visit any construction site or corporate farm in Florida and you'll get a sense of how common Maali's alleged crime really is. In fact, in Maali's initial interrogation, he acknowledged almost dismissively that his stores hired illegals. He thought it no big deal.
And with good reason. The overwhelming majority of immigration cases are handled by the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, formerly the INS. Offenders are almost always slapped on the wrist, paying fines and receiving sanctions. Jail time is exceedingly rare.
From the time the specific laws under which Maali is charged were enacted in 1986, until May 2000, information from the Center for Immigration Studies' states that the INS opened 1,311 investigations into illegal employment in Florida. Of those, 28 came from Orlando. When penalties were meted out, they came in the form of sanctions, warnings and fines, not jail or criminal prosecutions.
In fact, when asked by Orlando Weekly, the U.S. Attorney's Middle District of Florida office -- Tampa to Jacksonville -- could list only five prosecutions using the immigration statutes. All occurred in Jacksonville in the last two years, and all involved defendants from eastern-bloc countries charged with smuggling or hiring illegals. If criminal prosecution for breaking these laws has ever occurred in Orlando, the U.S. Attorney's office doesn't know about it.
" There's a real willingness to use the heaviest hand of the law on anyone who has a minor violation if you're someone the government thinks has a connection to terrorism," says Philadelphia immigration attorney William Stock. "That's clearly what's going on here."
The case is set to go to trial in January. If convicted on all counts, Maali could theoretically spend the rest of his life in prison. Under federal sentencing guidelines, he is realistically looking at a decade behind bars.
Before his arrest, Maali was little-known outside of the I-Drive clique or the area's burgeoning Arab-American population.
His beginnings were humble enough. Born in Jerusalem in 1945, Maali moved to Venezuela with his family 16 years later. It was a chance to get away from the turmoil of the Middle East while still connecting with the large Palestinian population in Caracas.
Maali married Jihad in 1968, and four years later moved from Venezuela to the Bronx. He bought five grocery stores cheap from a national chain that was abandoning them, amassing a small fortune along the way. The family moved to Florida in 1986, looking for a safer place to raise their children. They settled on Orlando.
Maali's timing was perfect. He bought into I-Drive just as the tourist mecca was on its way up. Sixteen years later, at the time of his arrest, Maali had created an empire including seven Big Bargain World retail stores -- which sell cheap T-shirts -- two sports retail stores, five Ponderosa restaurants, a Dunkin' Donuts, a TGI Friday's and a Bennigan's, all in the tourism epicenters along I-Drive and U.S. Highway 192. When tourists come to town, the chances are very good that some of their money ends up in Maali's pockets.
State records show his name on 54 corporations. "I forget what I have," he told the Washington Post in January. (Maali and his attorneys refused to comment for this story.)
Since he immigrated, all of Maali's extended family have moved to Central Florida, court testimony states. He has some 200 relatives in the area.
Since his arrest, Maali's business has suffered tremendously. Suppliers and banks have canceled his six-and-seven figure lines of credit, the Orlando Business Journal reported earlier this month.
Maali told the paper: "I'm going to lose all my assets and come out with zero and still owe money. I am minus 20 percent of all that I did in 40 years. It would be ashes, all ashes."
What prosecutors got
Maali and Khanani are charged with 53 counts of harboring illegal immigrants from 1999 to 2001, and two counts of money laundering for constructing an "elaborate scheme" to pay the illegals off the books. Both are violations of federal law.
On the surface, the case against him appears strong. Maali admitted in an interrogation the day of his arrest that he knew he employed illegals, telling DEA agent Timothy Jones that it was his "charity" to them.
It's unclear what sparked the investigation into Maali's business practices, but we do know it started in 1999, a few months after the U.S. Department of Labor cited him for improperly filing forms that aliens use to prove their employment eligibility, and for not paying overtime properly. An affidavit detailing the investigation into Maali's businesses, submitted in November to obtain a search warrant for his home and businesses, doesn't say whether or not he was fined.
Hawkins, the prosecutor, declined to talk to the Weekly about the background of the case, citing fears of tainting the jury. Instead, she suggested reading the aforementioned affidavit, penned by INS agent Donald Brechner. Though submitted in November, at the government's request the 70-page document was sealed until March.
The affidavit avoids any terrorism-related language and sticks to the immigration and money-laundering charges included in the indictment.
Soon after the Department of Labor's inquiry, the affidavit charges, Maali and Khanani set up four shell bank accounts under fake company names to pay their illegals, which made up between 50 percent (post 9/11) and 80 percent (pre 9/11) of the workers at Big Bargain World. Over the next two years, Maali allegedly funneled $2.25 million into these bank accounts, but closed three of them in June 2001, after a federal grand jury subpoenaed the bank records. The fourth account went unused.
Between 1999 and 2001, Maali hired at least 53 unauthorized workers, many with expired visas, the affidavit says. Two of them later became "confidential informants," relaying much of the information that now makes up the government's charges.
In July 2002, Khanani fired all the stores' illegal workers, including one of the confidential informants. (The other left the store earlier for unknown reasons.) Both of them told federal authorities that though they were hired illegally, Khanani urged them to get their papers in order, and in fact told them they needed to get INS authorization to keep their jobs -- a fact that seems at odds with the government's charge that Maali "encouraged" or "induced" illegals to work without authorization.
Big Bargain World apparently had enough illegal workers to warrant an escape plan should the INS come calling. If an inspector came through, the affidavit says, someone would announce a call on "line seven" over the store PA, the signal to illegals to either exit the building or pretend to be customers.
Maali hasn't denied hiring illegals; instead, family members have told local media that he wasn't involved in the minutia of running the Big Bargain World stores. He focused his time on his steakhouses.
What prosecutors wanted
Though unmentioned in the indictment or the affidavit, Hawkins' claim that Maali had ties to "organizations that advocate violence" stole the show at his bond hearing. Hawkins sought to deny Maali bail, saying he was a threat to the community and that, with his vast wealth, he could easily flee the country to avoid prosecution.
The government's star witness, 20-year FBI counterterrorism specialist Stephen Thomas, described Maali as "the boss of I-Drive," who dictated what businesses could open and where along the tourist strip. His nephews -- particularly Husam Maali -- were enforcers and would enter restaurants brandishing handguns, Thomas testified.
He based his information on surveillance and three confidential informants, all of whom were businessmen in the I-Drive area. Upon cross-examination by Maali attorney Mark NeJame, Thomas admitted that one informant was a competitor of Maali's, and that the other two had no personal contact with him.
Thomas also tried to link Maali to Basem Awadallah, whom he called a car thief and drug dealer. In the early 1990s, Maali was Awadallah's business partner, Thomas said.
He was stretching the truth. In reality, Awadallah was an investor in a business run by one of Maali's 200 Orlando-area relatives, and a decade ago at that. Thomas based his contention on a statement Maali made that he was "partners with all my cousins."
Then there was the terrorism connection. In March 2000, Maali wrote a $50,000 check to the Society of In'ash El-Usra, a United Nations-sponsored human-rights group. The Society, by its own description, "provides emergency assistance to the victims of the Israeli occupation and hardship cases, which includes food packages, clothing and medication."
As a tenet of his Islamic faith, Maali is required to give 2.5 percent of his income to charity, and this $50,000 check is a small part of the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars Maali has given to Middle Eastern causes over his lifetime. The problem, said Thomas, was that the Society deposited the check at the Al Aqsa Islamic Bank, which has locations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In September 2002, the United States deemed the bank a front for Hamas -- 30 months after Maali wrote the check.
Thomas also sought to link Maali to Neal Abid, an alleged "collector of funds for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine." That group, again according to Thomas, advocates the destruction of Israel. In December 2001, Thomas says Maali drove "surreptitious(ly)" to a bank with Abid, walked in carrying several envelopes and came out empty-handed. The implication -- never explicitly made -- is that Maali and Abid were mailing checks to a terrorist group.
On an unspecified date, an employee of Maali's sent a package to the Chicago-based Benevolence International Foundation, which Thomas described as the "financial arm of Al Qaeda." In November 2002, the U.S Treasury Department labeled this group a "financer of terror."
In January 2002, Maali wrote an essay to an Arabic-language newspaper in London, Al Hyatt, allegedly voicing support for suicide bombers. "Does it indicate in there that [Israelis] will drown in the bloodiness of the historical massacre in which tens of thousands will be killed?" Hawkins asked Thomas.
"That's correct," he replied.
But Maali's lawyers disputed the translation and interpretation, saying the letter actually condemned the bombings as futile, but sought to understand the suffering that would drive Palestinians to such extreme acts.
Thomas also discussed a piece of trash taken from Maali's Sand Lake Road office, a torn-up Arabic poem eulogizing and glorifying martyrs who "sacrificed their lives for their homeland." Prosecu-tors couldn't tie it to Maali, but Hawkins said later the government wanted to show what kind of operation Maali was running.
And that, after a three-year investigation, is the totality of the government's case linking Jesse Maali to terrorism. Given the evidence, it's not surprising that terrorism-related charges have never been filed against him. By another pretrial hearing in April, in fact, Hawkins seemed to back off altogether any talk that Maali was funding terrorist groups.
The heaviest hand
The rules of evidence in a bond hearing are substantially more relaxed than a trial. If the government had to meet any substantial burden of proof, their allegations would have never have made it into court. Under the logic of the law, a judge should discern evidence from unsubstantiated accusations.
Baker did: "I find ... that the evidence has been neither clear nor convincing that Mr. Maali presents a threat," he said. Baker required Maali to submit to electronic monitoring and post the $10 million bond. The monitoring component was removed in April.
If Maali was a supporter of terror, three years of a multi-agency investigation should have produced some modicum of proof. Or, even giving the government the greatest benefit of the doubt, evidence produced by the search warrants the day of his arrest, or by the inquiries into his bank records since, surely should have lent some light on the subject.
Instead, the idea of Jesse Maali as a terrorist has simply evaporated like yesterday's headlines. Nonetheless, a high-publicity trial lies in Maali's immediate future, barring a plea bargain or a successful -- and based on the numbers, one would guess probable -- effort by his attorneys to get the case tossed beforehand on grounds of selective prosecution, meaning the government is using the law to prosecute Maali uniquely.
The Orlando Business Journal quoted an unnamed Maali attorney saying that of 675 cases similar to Maali's, none in the Middle District of Florida warranted criminal charges aimed at Jesse Maali. Maali's lawyers would neither confirm nor deny the report.
The five similar prosecutions cited by the Middle District all occurred within the last two years; the office didn't provide data going back to 1986 as the Weekly requested.
Of the five cases, one involved a Czech Republic citizen convicted of employing 350 illegals; a U.S. citizen married to a Hungarian national who was convicted of hiring and securing apartments for illegals; two more were Czech citizens employing illegals in Jacksonville restaurants; and two Estonians and a Russian convicted of encouraging immigrants to violate their tourist visas and work.
" It's not unheard of," says Middle District spokesman Steve Cole. He didn't return phone calls seeking information on sentences were levied in those cases.
Most civil cases referred to the INS result in warnings and fines that ranged from $250 to $2,000 per violation. In Maali's case, that might have meant a six-figure fine, but not the prospect of prison.
Which raises speculation that the government is either trying to justify a three-year investigation, or the U.S. Attorney's Office is convinced that Maali supports terrorism, evidence be damned. "It's not an unusual [tact], and I don't think it's an illegitimate one," says New York federal prosecutor Robert Groban.
In the late '70s, Groban convicted a Central Park restaurateur of hiring illegals both to send a message to the business community that the practice wouldn't be tolerated, and because state authorities suspected the restaurant owner of killing his wife but couldn't prove it.
" The ends justify the means," Groban says. "If
you're able to justify the criminal elements."
If Maali is a terrorist, the government has done a poor job of proving it. If he's not, he's being prosecuted for a crime many business owners commit with impunity, or pay a fine for when caught.
" I've never seen any criminal prosecution for a first-time offender like him," says Phillip Zyne, an Orlando-based immigration lawyer who has practiced in Florida for 29 years. "There are probably tens of thousands of people in Florida hiring illegal aliens.