Friday, August 1, 2008

The Patient Terrorist

Was American-born Hassan Abujihaad plotting to attack a San Diego military base? A federal judge is deciding that now.
Thursday, December 06, 2007
By Betsy Yagla

Hassan Abujihaad calmly listened to recorded phone conversations in federal court last week, in which he offered assistance in an ill-conceived plot to attack a San Diego military base and then snipe off soldiers trying to escape the attack.

Abujihaad, an American born Paul Hall, was arrested March 7 in Phoenix, and indicted March 21 in Bridgeport on charges of material support of terrorism and disclosing previously classified information. In 2001, while in the Navy, Abujihaad allegedly emailed classified information about ships' locations in the Middle East to Azzam Publications, a pro-jihad website hosted by a Connecticut company. This was months before 9/11. Abujihaad's email said the U.S.S. Benfold, a Navy destroyer, would pass through the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf on the night of April 21, 2001, when the ship would experience a communications blackout. During the blackout, Abujihaad wrote, "they have nothing to stop a small craft with RPG etc." In another email he praised the 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole, saying "psychological warfare [was] taking a toll."

In U.S. District Court in New Haven last week, government lawyers played dozens of recorded conversations between Abujihaad, his friend Derrick Shareef and an FBI informant, William "Jameel" Crisman.

Recorded conversations between the three are a curious mixture of American slang (dude, man, ol' boy) and Islamic phrases that were translated for the judge and court reporter. (After the first day of testimony, the court reporter asked: "Sounds like enchilada?" The answer: Insha' Allah, or God willing.)

Quirks aside, those conversations are alarming: They paint Abujihaad as a disgruntled Muslim American considering "defensive jihad." He laughs at the thought of killing American soldiers and admires an Iraqi sniper video. There's no real smoking gun in these conversations (although there is a semi-confession), but they reveal a paranoid would-be terrorist with a "consciousness of guilt." The government's lawyers are asking federal Judge Mark Kravitz to allow them to use these 2006 recordings in a jury trial about the 2001 email.

Evidence should keep the jury's eye on the ball, says Jeffrey Meyer, a former federal prosecutor and Quinnipiac University law professor. That means the prosecution can't introduce evidence unrelated to the offense, in this case the 2001 email of classified information. Kravitz will have to make a decision as to how far the prosecution can go: Do these taped conversations from 2006 illuminate Abujihaad's mind-set and motivations or do they unnecessarily make him look like a scary guy? These tapes could strike fear in the jury and Kravitz will decide whether or not the public will get to hear them again.

In 2006, the FBI asked their informant, Crisman—a white Muslim—to befriend Shareef. They met and Shareef moved into Crisman's Rockford, Ill., home. Right away Shareef began speaking against the government and alluding to jihad; Crisman began taping their conversations.

Shareef had an unstable childhood and moved to Phoenix in 2003 to be near his father. A recent and young convert to Islam, he was taken in by Abujihaad, who had been discharged from the Navy a year earlier. Abujihaad mentored the young Shareef: He helped Shareef get a GED, find a job and encouraged him to get his life in order. They also spoke about jihad.

In 2004, Shareef moved back to Illinois and fell out of touch with Abujihaad until 2006 when he wanted to revive their nebulous plan to attack a San Diego base.

Shareef, now 23, seemed eager and impatient; he wanted jihad now. Abujihaad—hesitant to participate in a hasty plan—repeatedly complained about Shareef's inexperience and his talkative nature. Those complaints give Abujihaad's attorneys a chance to question whether Shareef played up Abujihaad's importance in the terrorism underworld to make himself look more tough.

Abujihaad, 31, has two children; he's divorced and according to the FBI, he's threatened to kill his ex ["You wanna fuck with my life?...I'll fuckin' make sure you die. Believe that."]. Abujihaad is African American with very short hair and an equally short beard and mustache. Born Paul Hall, he legally changed his name to Abujihaad—literally, father of jihad.

In the recordings, amidst coded talk of jihad and buying illegal weapons, children are heard playing in the background. Abujihaad often cites his kids as one reason he needed to be cautious.

Soon after moving in, Shareef began telling the informant about his friend Abujihaad, his stint in the Navy and contacts with people connected to al Qaeda.

Abujihaad's lawyers would like the judge to believe these conversations show Shareef, repeatedly described as a "loose cannon," wanted to puff himself up. "[As an informant,] you're lying to Mr. Shareef and you don't know if he's lying to you, isn't that right?" defense attorney Robert Golger asked the informant. "You don't know if he's telling the truth or trying to impress you."

Shareef spoke as though he and Abujihaad were "really tight," Golger continued. "He led you to believe that he had this guy out in Phoenix and all he had to do [to carry out a terrorist attack] was call him." But the two had barely seen each other in two years.

The FBI recorded conversations in which Shareef repeatedly called Abujihaad to ask for assistance for the San Diego attack. Shareef had nothing to lose; he was in his prime, he said. It would be better to attack now while young and without responsibilities. But Abujihaad was trying to support a family and stay off the government's radar. After Shareef made a quick visit to Arizona to supposedly speak about their plans, he called Abujihaad to ask for planning help.
"Like I said, I'm suspect of the phone," responded Abujihaad, who continued the conversation in

Abujihaad said he couldn't provide a "hot meal"—recent intelligence—because by 2006 he'd been out of the Navy for four years. But Abujihaad mentioned a friend who'd recently left the military who "can give himself a hot meal ... where he can eat a whole lot." Then Shareef and Abujihaad both laughed like giddy kids.

Shareef became frustrated and impatient with Abujihaad. Shareef hatched his own plan to attack a suburban Chicago mall in December of 2006, during the Christmas shopping season.
Abujihaad's lawyers claim Shareef's frustration proves Abujihaad wasn't serious about the San Diego attack (even though in recorded conversations Abujihaad asked for a left-handed AK 47 and said "patience" is a sniper's heaven). The informant claims Shareef said, "waiting for Hassan and them, I'll be waitin' 20 years for jihad."

For his mall plan, Shareef used the informant as a go-between to buy what he thought were illegal guns from an undercover officer. On Dec. 6, 2006 Shareef bought the guns and was arrested. (He pleaded guilty last week and could face life in prison.)

Two days later, the informant called Abujihaad to say Shareef had been arrested. Abujihaad immediately played dumb: "Look, I don't even know nothin'. I'll ditch your number or whatever." Then Abujihaad said, "This is what I'm gonna say...Look, he came at me with some bullshit, I told him to get outta my face."

The informant and Abujihaad worried that Shareef's big mouth would get them in trouble. "Why the hell he still runnin' around talkin' shit?" wondered the informant. "'Cuz he's stupid," replied Abujihaad. "Somebody just got paid off his dumb ass."

Listening to himself in court, Abujihaad seemed to realize how prescient that comment was. He smiled, leaned toward one of his attorneys and pointed at Jameel Crisman, the informant who was sitting across from him, on the witness stand. Crisman was the one who'd been paid. For the two-and-a-half months he'd informed on Shareef and Abujihaad, Crisman says he received $8,500.

Police and Politics

East Haven cops and politicos cross the thin blue line.
Thursday, November 22, 2007
By Betsy Yagla

If East Haven's new mayor, April Capone Almon, wanted to make things more uncomfortable for East Haven's police chief, she may have found a way.

Capone Almon has tapped local attorney Patricia Cofrancesco to serve as town counsel. Cofrancesco's representing disgruntled East Haven cops in at least two lawsuits against the department for what the suits characterize as poor decision-making on Police Chief Leonard Gallo's part.

Cofrancesco sued Gallo on behalf of Officer Bob Nappe, who was denied a year's leave of absence to train Iraqi police officers. Nappe resigned to go to Iraq and won his job back in court. Nappe was also vice president of the police union and didn't always see eye-to-eye with Gallo.

Cofrancesco's also representing 89-year-old Ralph Accurso, who got into a fender-bender with the wife of Maturo's town attorney, Larry Sgrignari. Gallo caught wind of the accident and, according to the lawsuit, ordered officers at the scene to arrest Accurso (the officers refused), even though Accurso was not at fault. Accurso's suing Gallo for interference.

Cofrancesco's appointment capped off a dramatic week in East Haven politics that culminated in Capone Almon being crowned mayor (again) after a third and final recount of ballots from Nov. 6. The intrigue appeared to deepen when Democratic Party boss Gene Ruocco discovered six trash bags full of shredded documents in a Town Hall basement and called in the cops to investigate. Cops hauled the bags off to the police station where Gallo moved them from the evidence room to the property room, limiting access to the bags.

Gallo asked New Haven State's Attorney Michael Dearington's office to investigate, but Dearington says there's not enough evidence to warrant an inquiry.

East Haven police were already the front and center in the close and contentious mayoral election: The police union endorsed and ran Capone Almon's campaign, following a vote of no confidence in Gallo in 2006. Gallo's been serving under an indefinite appointment by Maturo, but Capone Almon says things are going to change.

"I'd definitely like to make that a contract position," she says. "Things are going to be changing at the police department because we have to do something. The [police] department and officers know I have their best interest at heart. I want to see their work environment improved."
Get it? Gallo's gone as soon as Capone Almon's got a chance to kick him out. While cops dig up dirt on their boss to secure his dismissal, she's trying to make his job uncomfortable. Enter attorney Cofrancesco, who it seems will have to hand off the Nappe and Accurso cases now that she's town attorney. She can't sue herself.

Cofrancesco's last gig as a municipal attorney, as New Haven Mayor John DeStefano's corporation counsel, didn't end so well. DeStefano fired Cofrancesco for signing off on an illegal, interest-free lead-abatement loan to one of his City Hall aides. Cofrancesco, along with another dismissed city attorney, Martin Echter, has since become an aggressive litigator against the city.

A call to Confrancesco's East Haven law office went unreturned.

New Haven's Public Housing Vacancy Problem

Public housing apartments are breaking faster than New Haven can repair them.
Thursday, November 15, 2007
By Betsy Yagla

Motasha Leaks's home at Westville Manor is surrounded by vacant apartments. That's frustrating because Leaks, a mother of four, has been waiting for months to move into a different apartment in the same public housing complex.

Leaks, 31, can't get to her upstairs bedroom and bathroom since suffering from a stroke in September. A hospital bed takes up most of her living room. Plus, two of her four kids have disabilities: Her son needs a liver replacement and her daughter has bad asthma, but Housing Authority of New Haven (HANH) regulations won't allow an air conditioner in her one-window bedroom.

"She needs that air conditioner," says Leaks. Leaks needs a new apartment.

The Housing Authority wants to give her one, but can't offer one in Westville Manor. Leaks was offered a "tiny" apartment at Essex Townhouses on Quinnipiac Avenue, on the other side of town, but Leaks has come to depend on her neighbors in Westville, and doesn't want to leave. "If I can't get my kids to the school bus, my neighbors will. They all know me and they help me—they know I had a stroke," she says.

Of the 151 units there, at least 22 are boarded up. Citywide, there are 383 vacant HANH units awaiting repairs. Leaks lives between three boarded up units.

HANH's "vacancy team" is charged with turning over 20 units each month, says HANH chief operating officer Karen Dubois-Walton. In addition, units are put into the capital improvement plan—homes needing new kitchens, bathrooms or asbestos tiles removed—"when there's money appropriated for that project," says Dubois-Walton. "There's always more needs than funding available."

At Westville Manor, some units have been vacant for months; another has been empty for at least three years, say neighbors. That's not to say there's no activity there: Five units are being fixed up under HANH's partnership with a city program training HANH residents in the construction trade.

It's not moving fast enough for Leaks and her family. Also impatient is HANH watchdog Shelley White, a New Haven Legal Assistance Association lawyer who is pressuring HANH to build and buy more properties to house more families. "There's a financial cost to vacancies," says White.

She's talking about the $50,000 HANH is paying Vacant Property Systems for perforated steel window and door covers for vacant Westville Manor properties. Apartments not being fixed up are shuttered with plywood; those being repaired get the anti-burglary VPS covers. Westville Manor is the Housing Authority's only property using VPS covers meant to keep out vandals.

"It's partly because of how removed and remote the location is—Westville has much more vandalism into vacant properties," says Dubois-Walton. To illustrate her point, she adds: "One unit has become a poster child for this problem. Staff has turned over the unit six times. They go in, do all the work, put wooden boards up and within days folks have come in and damaged the unit."

Vacancies frustrate HANH, too. While HANH is paying and re-paying for units to be fixed, people like Leaks wait. New Haven has the distinction of having more subsidized housing units (about a third of all homes) than any city in the state, and its portfolio of housing projects, though far smaller than it once was, is still almost 2,000 units. But with so many units offline for redevelopment or repair, it's not uncommon to spend a year on a waiting list to get into a family development unit, says Dubois-Walton.

"There's a human cost [to vacancies]," says attorney White. "There are people who need to move in because they're under-housed or they need a more appropriate-sized unit and there are people on the waiting list."

Aside from units sitting vacant, HANH has taken hundreds of units "offline," transferring residents because their homes will eventually be torn down and rebuilt. Eastview Terrace, a 142-unit family development in Fair Haven Heights, was taken offline six years ago, displacing dozens of families. Last week, HANH broke ground for a new Eastview Terrace with plans to build and redo 127 units in addition to a meeting room, recreation space and learning center. The new Eastview is due to be done in 18 months, and should free up units for people on HANH's long waiting list. But that's come at a high cost too: The price of construction has more than tripled from $13 million in 2003 to $44 million.

Garbage Bail Kid

Ex-Lt. Billy White says he took bribes from bail bondsmen for a few months. The bondsmen say it was five years.
Thursday, November 08, 2007
By Betsy Yagla

Former New Haven Police Lt. Billy White claims he only began taking bribes to do part of his job—hunt down and arrest fugitives—in 2006, when the FBI and an undercover state police investigator began cracking White's web of corruption in the department's narcotics squad.

But the men who were bribing him say it began years earlier. Four years earlier, actually.
The Jacobs bail bonds family—father Robert and his two sons, Philip and Paul—pleaded guilty in federal court last week to paying illegal bribes to White and others (officers not necessarily employed by New Haven) since 2002.

That four-year discrepancy could mean thousands of dollars in restitution to the city. White's been asked to forfeit $10,200 he made from bribes taken during the eight months he was under investigation. Imagine the amount White pocketed during those earlier four years.

White's guilty plea—essentially an agreement between him and the government—stipulates he won't be charged with additional crimes by the FBI. But that doesn't preclude other government entities, like the city, from going after him for those four years. The city was paying White to do narcotics work, but White was spending a chunk of that time—city time—working for the Jacobses and himself instead.

Rob Smuts, the city's chief administrative officer, says the city can't look into those four years until the U.S. attorney's office gives them the nod. "After the U.S. attorney's office is done with their investigation, we'll certainly look into it," says Smuts.

Mayor John DeStefano's withholding judgment too. "We don't preclude any possibilities," says Jessica Mayorga, reading from a statement by DeStefano. "This case has just been adjudicated and his sentencing, including restitution and fines, has not yet been set."

Friday, July 25, 2008

"You Get Angry Sitting Here 24-7"

Keith Gaither is stuck inside, missing his freshman year of high school because there's no wheelchair ramp at his home.
Thursday, October 11, 2007
By Betsy Yagla

Just four steps separate 14-year-old Keith Gaither from the world.

Keith's mom, Rhonda, used to carry him up and down those stairs, but the petite woman—just 5-foot-2—can't manage the stairs anymore with Keith and his wheelchair in her arms.

Keith has cerebral palsy and would have started his freshman year at Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven this fall. Instead, he's spending the year at home with a public school tutor because he can't get out of his house with his wheelchair. Keith missed all of eighth grade last year because he was stuck inside an apartment that's not handicapped accessible.

Rhonda Gaither has four kids, a grandson and a Section 8 voucher worth $1,400 toward a four-bedroom apartment. The family was on a waiting list for 12 years before finally scoring a Section 8 voucher in 2003 from the Housing Authority of New Haven (HANH). Rhonda had 60 days to find an apartment before the voucher would be rescinded. The family couldn't find a four-bedroom, wheelchair-accessible apartment, so they settled for a first floor, three-bedroom on Ridge Street in the Cedar Hill neighborhood.

"We just needed something," says Rhonda, sitting in her living room with Keith beside her, aimlessly channel surfing. "I'm still looking."

Keith's dilemma illustrates a larger problem plaguing HANH: Rapid turnover, poorly kept records and a lack of affordable handicapped accessible apartments throughout the city have left some disabled tenants with unsuitable housing. The Housing Authority was reprimanded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (its funding source) this year for non-compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and for not doing enough to help non-elderly, disabled Section 8 tenants. HANH has 213 handicapped accessible units in its portfolio, but 150 of them are "elderly only."

That leaves few options for the non-elderly disabled, like Keith. Keith's family has brought a federal fair housing lawsuit against HANH in the hope that a judge will force the agency to either hire an assistant to get Keith to and from school, or provide a larger Section 8 voucher to find a bigger apartment.

HANH refused to install a ramp at the Gaithers' home, but that's a moot point now anyway. Ramps are not an option on most old properties, like the Gaithers', because the homes' stairs are too close to the sidewalk.

"They're asking for much more than HANH has ever done," says Housing Authority Chairman Bob Solomon. "They're saying the Housing Authority has more obligations, and that's not the law as I know it."

The Gaithers' three-bedroom apartment is crowded—mountain bikes and Keith's extra wheelchair hog space in the family room—with six people and all their stuff.

When he was younger, Keith could get around the neighborhood independently after school, and go down to nearby East Rock Park with friends. Keith's older brother used to help him in and out of the house but can't now because of his work and school schedule.

Keith could take the bus to school, if he could get on it. The school bus drivers were told that for liability reasons, they're not allowed to carry Keith down the apartment building stairs. School policy says it is the parents' responsibility to make their children available for school.

"I want him to go to school—he needs to go to school," says Rhonda. "He needs to learn things instead of just sitting in this house. He needs to go out and be with kids his own age." Instead he spends the day with his mother. Since Keith is confined to his home, Rhonda's had to leave her job as a paraprofessional at New Haven's Sound School to help Keith at home.

"You get angry sitting in the house 24-7," Rhonda says. "He gets angry. I get angry. It's just too much to see the same four walls every day."

Those four steps leading to and from Keith's house aren't the only obstacle Keith faces at home. The Ridge Street apartment only has one bathroom and it's too small for Keith's wheelchair.

This is isn't the first time HANH's fallen down on helping a disabled tenant. Michelle Duprey, the director of New Haven's Disability Services, says her office has fielded complaints about HANH for years. Last year, the Connecticut Fair Housing Alliance filed three fair housing complaints against HANH with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities. Greg Kirschner, CFHA's staff attorney, says he sees more complaints from New Haven than elsewhere in the state. The complaints center of HANH's lack of help in finding handicap accessible housing and the lack of help in negotiating the price of that housing, he says.

Echoing that, Duprey says, "One of the biggest problems [for people with a disability] is getting help with Section 8 to find accessible housing." Instead of helping, HANH "just sends people to my office and that's not our function. We are not a housing resource office."

HANH seems to think they are. In a May email to Duprey, HANH deputy director Sheila Allen Bell asked, "Do you know if there is a database of accessible units in New Haven and surrounding area i.e., West Haven, East Haven etc." Duprey's curt response was: "No there is no database of accessible units. In fact, HANH was supposed to create its own database of Section 8 units more than a decade ago as part of a settlement with HUD on a discrimination complaint [a 1994 agreement between HUD and HANH that said HANH would build a database of accessible Section 8 units]. Of course it never happened and my office has been struggling with the resulting problems for years," Duprey wrote.

"She's disability services. I thought she would know," says Bell in a phone interview. And anyway, Bell adds, "I wasn't asking for Section 8 units."

If a database of handicapped accessible apartments existed, it would be a very short list. On a list of nearly 500 Section 8 properties in New Haven, only one is designated as handicapped accessible. Twice in the last year, HUD has advised HANH to help the disabled find homes and to make more of HANH's programs handicapped accessible. But HUD won't tell HANH exactly what they should be doing.

"If the law doesn't tell you what to do, the regulations should tell you and if the regulations don't tell you, the policy should tell you," says Solomon. "HUD has left that role to a guessing game in typical HUD fashion."

HUD spokeswoman Kristine Foye says, "HUD requires that at the very least, they must keep a list of accessible units in the area." Other requirements about what is to be done to assist the disabled are to be "determined on a local level."

In the meantime, the Gaithers have been looking for an accessible apartment. Because there are so few handicapped accessible homes in New Haven, the market is tight and these places rarely become available, and when they do, they're expensive.

So where should the Gaithers live? "This is really a question for the private housing market," says Karen Dubois-Walton, HANH's chief operating officer. (HANH officials wouldn't comment on the Gaithers' case, only on the disabled housing conundrum generally.)

There's little to entice developers to build handicapped accessible apartments, says Joe O'Sullivan, a local landlord. He was looking for a way to reduce turnout at his New Haven apartments, and a fellow realtor suggested he create units for handicapped-accessible housing.
Making units accessible—adding ramps to the front and back entryways, enlarging the bathroom, installing a wheel-in shower, lowering counter tops and fixtures—adds up to about $30,000, O'Sullivan says. Section 8 tenants wouldn't generate enough income for O'Sullivan to break even or make a profit.

"It started out self interested—the intention to reduce turnover," says O'Sullivan. "Then I met the families. I went to their homes and saw their living conditions and saw their children and the family members who are disabled and your heart just goes out to them."

Before filing suit in April, Rhonda turned to New Haven's Disability Services and Rep. Rosa DeLauro's office for help. Both offices tried advocating on the family's behalf to no avail.

In November, the Housing Authority's Jennifer Bowlan wrote to DeLauro's office. "I believe we may have found a possible apartment for Ms. Gaither," she wrote. The only available wheelchair accessible apartment HANH could find was a two bedroom apartment for the six-person Gaither family. HUD guidelines say no more than two people should share a bedroom.

HANH has now contracted Stamford-based Housing Opportunities Unlimited to search for housing for the Gaithers. So far, that search has only turned up one home, in Hamden, and at $2,400, the rent was too high for HANH standards. HANH has contracted HOU to help find housing for over 30 New Haven disabled Section 8 tenants.

In the meantime, Keith and Rhonda will be at home waiting for resolution—if not from HANH, from the court.

No Way Jose

Another corrupt New Haven cop is caught in the feds' dragnet. How many more?
Thursday, October 11, 2007
By Betsy Yagla

Was Jose Silva an enabler or a thief? Consider the facts laid out in a quiet hearing in Bridgeport federal court last week, where the New Haven police detective and his cohort, ex-Detective Justen Kasperzyk, pleaded guilty to corruption charges.

On March 1, 2007, Kasperzyk and Silva conducted a drug raid on Fillmore Street in Fair Haven, and Kasperzyk pocketed $1,000 in drug money. Somehow, $500 of that made it into Silva’s jacket pocket. Silva kept mum about the cash until last Friday, when he pleaded guilty to depriving someone of their civil rights, a misdemeanor which carries a maximum one-year sentence.

In November 2006, the duo took part in a drug raid on Truman Street in the Hill, armed with a search warrant. A black man came out of a back bedroom. The cops found no drugs in the apartment, but Kasperzyk did find cocaine, crack and pot in the shared basement. So Kasperzyk planted the drugs in the apartment upstairs and arrested the guy. Silva filed a police report that said the drugs were found on the guy’s dresser, next to his ID.

The deep corruption that lived inside ex-Lt. Billy White’s narcotics squad is unraveling, since the FBI arrested White and Kasperzyk in March on corruption charges involving stolen bait money and a bail bonds kickback scheme.

Cops like Silva, who’d been on the force 12 years, allowed these indiscretions to continue. So did narcotics Detective Julie Raymond. Raymond has filed a sexual harassment complaint against the New Haven P.D. with the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, alleging she was targeted by her male counterparts for two years (with comments like, “Jul, are you a dirty girl?”) and paid overtime she did not earn.

Raymond’s complaint alleges that White filled out timecards for overtime she didn’t do, and says she told him not to, but White “badgered” her into it.

“I finally yielded to his request,” Raymond wrote. This in a year when taxpayers have footed the $1,843,445 bill for 79,338 police overtime hours, so far this year.

“I continually told him not to but he did anyway,” she writes in the complaint. “This made me sick because I did not want money that was not mine or that I did not earn.” She was so disgusted by making extra money that she waited four months to officially complain. Even though she cashed in those checks, Raymond is requesting relief—“compensatory damages, punitive damages, front and back pay, reasonable attorneys fees, interest and such other relief.”

According to Police Executive Research Forum, the high-priced consultants hired to audit the police department after the scandal broke, the P.D. only had 11 internal complaints, compared to 114 civilian complaints (the report doesn’t give a time frame). Raymond and Silva both knew Kasperzyk and White were breaking the law and neither spoke up. Both of them profited financially from the abuse within the narcotics department.

PERF recommends rebuilding the narcotics department with strict policies and procedures. PERF has one dissenter, Andrew Rosenzweig, who says rebuilding the department is a bad idea because narcotics officers are often allowed to bend the law while higher ups bury their heads in the sand in an effort to fight the nation’s “War on Drugs” and rope in the bad guys.

Only time will tell how many other New Haven police officers associated with the narcotics squad received stolen money or unearned overtime. U.S. Attorney Kevin O’Connor wouldn’t predict more arrests, but says his office will be “interviewing a lot of people in days to come.”

Oh, Say Can You Sue?

Immigrants stuck in federal red tape find lawsuits their only path to citizenship. How American.
Thursday, September 20, 2007
By Betsy Yagla

When Ali Abubakr Ali Al-Maqtari got off the airplane at John F. Kennedy airport last month, he knew the FBI would be waiting for him. The federal agents checked disembarking passenger's passports until they found him. They matched the name in his passport against a piece of paper they were carrying. Then they led him to an airport Homeland Security office.

This happens every time he travels, says Al-Maqtari, a legal immigrant from Yemen who resides in Greenwich. The last two times Al-Maqtari returned from Yemen he was interrogated, but this time he refused to answer questions.

"It's stupid," he says sitting outside of his office at Southern Connecticut State University, where he teaches French and Arabic. "They already know everything about me. They know my whole life." He was held in the office for three hours and was not allowed to call his lawyer. Finally they gave up and let him pass through customs.

Al-Maqtari's name appears in an FBI terrorism database because of what happened to him shortly after 9/11. Al-Maqtari married his American-born wife, Tiffany, in June 2001. The couple filed a marriage application with Hartford's U.S. Customs and Immigration Services office shortly thereafter. On Sept. 12, 2001, the couple went to Springfield, Mass., because Tiffany's National Guard unit had been called up. In Massachusetts, the Al-Maqtaris spoke French to each other and Tiffany was wearing a hejab, or head scarf.

From Massachusetts, the couple traveled to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where Tiffany was to report for duty and stay for a year. Tiffany's picture had been delivered to the camp's gates—presumably because she was wearing a head scarf and speaking a foreign language—and when they arrived, the couple was detained and their car searched. The two were questioned for 12 hours. Although she wasn't arrested, Tiffany was then taken to a barracks where three guards watched over her until nearly two weeks later, when she requested an honorable discharge from the Army.

Her husband, though, was held until late November in a Tennessee jail, initially without bail. He was only allowed to talk to his wife once a week by phone. The FBI detained him after finding box cutters and postcards of New York City in the couple's car. The box cutters, says the couple, were to help unpack after moving to Kentucky and the postcards were momentos. Still, it took two months to get Ali Al-Maqtari out of jail.

In 2002, Al-Maqtari's immigration status was finally changed and he was granted a green card. But he wants to be a citizen.

"Unless that happens, I'm not free," he says. "Every day I think about this. It's like having a test in college, but the teacher won't tell you when it is. It's like I'm just hanging in space, and why?" Federal agencies were dragging their feet in processing the college professor's immigration application, leaving Al-Maqtari no choice but to sue for citizenship.

Following the 9/11 attacks, U.S. Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) asked the FBI to perform millions of background checks on legal immigrants applying to become citizens. Legally, USCIS only has 120 days to decide whether an applicant can become a citizen after completing the interview and the naturalization exam, but FBI background checks are so backlogged that some immigrants may wait years.

"Generally, 90 percent of USCIS requests are completed within 90 days," says FBI spokesman Bill Carter.

But for those 10 percent, a lawsuit is oftentimes seen as their last remedy. In the past 18 months, 120 of these lawsuits have been filed in U.S. District Court in Connecticut, according to John Hughes, a federal prosecutor who handles many of these cases for the government.

While the rancorous national debate over illegal immigration is focused almost solely on undocumented immigrants and get-tough border enforcement, little attention is paid to people who ask permission to move here and the bungling federal bureaucracy that holds them in limbo. Immigrants playing by the book often aren't getting the help they need from federal officials.

Not all of these immigration cases go to court; many times a lawsuit will persuade the FBI to pull a citizenship candidate's file and complete the background check. After months or years of waiting—but before the court date—an immigrant will get a letter in the mail inviting him or her to a follow-up citizenship interview (which happens if two years have passed since their first interview) or to take their citizenship oath.

The FBI's Carter says files are only expedited if there's a court order to do so.

But Garri Zingman's story suggests otherwise. Zingman, 66, is an immigrant from Belarus who fled under persecution as a Jew in 1998, which ordinarily "practically guarantees you refugee status," according to Zingman's immigration attorney, Alexander Lumelsky. Zingman, who lives in Manchester, filed suit for citizenship, and just weeks before he was to appear in court he was invited to take his citizenship oath. He and his wife Zina both applied to become U.S. citizens on Dec. 26, 2002. Zina became a citizen in 2003, but her husband waited another four years.
"When she got it [citizenship], I hoped that soon I'd get it too," says Zingman with a heavy, angular accent. "I thought I'd get it in a month or so. Then it became a year, two years..." he trails off, fiddling with his wire-framed glasses. Nearly five years after he applied, he at last became a citizen.

On Feb. 11, 2004, Zingman completed an interview and took the naturalization exam. After the exam, he was given a form with an X marked next to the phrase: "Congratulations! Your application has been recommended for approval." That same day, in Hartford at the USCIS office, Zingman was told he would take the oath to become a citizen on March 5.

But the day after passing the exam, Zingman received a letter in the mail saying his March 5 oath had been cancelled because the FBI had not completed his background check. So, Zingman sued the FBI, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, USCIS and the Justice Department in an attempt to force the issue.

"Every day you wait for them to call you," he says. "You feel like you're in a state of instability."
Zingman and four other hopeful citizens-to-be were scheduled to appear in federal court in Hartford Aug. 30 to plead their cases. But just two weeks earlier, Zingman received a letter saying he'd been scheduled for a follow-up interview at USCIS's Hartford office on September 7.

He became a citizen that afternoon.

All but one of the five cases scheduled for the 30th were resolved before their hearing.
So, on a slow morning in a high-ceilinged, wood paneled courtroom, U.S. District Judge Christopher Droney listened to the details of Ali Abubakr Ali Al-Maqtari's case.
"It's odd that so many cases, including this one, involve people from the Middle East," noted Droney.

Every year, the FBI has more than three million background checks to perform, John Hughes, the federal prosecutor, told the judge. That's something Hughes repeats to the judge in nearly every one of these lawsuits. Most are simple background checks—if the immigrant's name doesn't appear in any FBI files, the check is done. Others though, who may have the Chinese, Russian or Middle Eastern name equivalent of John Smith, have a tougher time.

People like Al-Maqtari, whose name is already in FBI files because of what happened to him after 9/11, have an equally tough time.

In court, Hughes explains that most of those three million background checks get cleared in less than two months, and 10 percent of the three million need to be investigated. The FBI won't say why they need extra time to investigate someone. They won't even tell Hughes.

"This is a concern to me," interrupts Judge Droney. "There may be a few cases where, in regards to national security, there may be something in the file you shouldn't know about. But you don't know what's going on in 32 percent of these cases?"

"They won't tell me," responds Hughes. "Think of the 32 percent," he says, throwing his hands up into the air. "That's thousands and thousands."

"So, the alternative is that the applicant waits two or three years?" Droney asks dryly.
Hughes reasons that if lawyers and judges begin asking the FBI about particular cases the whole process would be slowed down. The government would rather everyone just sit tight and wait quietly.

But Al-Maqtari has already been scrutinized by the FBI and immigration officials in a post-9/11 world to receive his green card. Why should he be made to wait again to become a citizen? "A two year wait is just not reasonable," argues his lawyer, Justin Conlon.

Conlon works for attorney Michael Boyle, a prominent immigration attorney with offices in Danbury and North Haven. Boyle says he's seen an explosion in these types of lawsuits. In one year, his office has gone from filing two or three citizenship lawsuits a year to one per week.
"With these constant delays, Immigration Services just washes their hands and says, 'It's the FBI's problem,'" says Boyle. "The FBI just says 'We're really busy.' They'll say 'We're not going to jump you in line.' But this isn't jumping the line—these are people who've been waiting for years. It's a really big problem."

The only way to get priority for his clients is to file a lawsuit, says Boyle.

Alexander Lumelsky, Zingman's immigration attorney, is also seeing more and more of these cases. Another of Lumelsky's clients, Andrei Bulygin, filed a lawsuit against the federal government and shortly thereafter received notice that his citizenship oath would take place Sept. 7. After so many delays, Bulygin didn't actually believe it would happen.

Bulygin, 72, is from Russia and resides in Hartford. Like Zingman, he, too, was persecuted for being Jewish. He had been an aeronautics professor in Russia before he lost his job due to discrimination. Bulygin moved to Connecticut with his wife, daughter, son-in-law and their son and they all received refugee status. As a refugee, Bulygin was eligible for Supplemental Security Income.

Non-citizens lose their right to benefits, like Supplemental Security Income, after seven years. Bulygin has been here for six and a half years, and his SSI benefits would have expired in February. In 2005, he, his wife, daughter, son-in-law and their son all applied for citizenship. Bulygin is the only one in his family who had not been granted citizenship due to the FBI's delayed background check.

"If I don't get my benefits, I'll have to go back to Russia again," worried Bulygin weeks before his Sept. 7 appointment. His family would not have returned with him. After nearly seven years out of the country, Bulygin felt he had nothing to go back to. But by 2 p.m. on Sept. 7, Bulygin was an American citizen and had already applied for a passport.

Without citizenship, people can't vote, they can't petition for their children, parents or spouse to come live in the United States. They're in limbo—they don't feel they belong to their birth country, but they're not fully accepted in this country either. Unfortunately, suing—something as American as baseball and apple pie—may be their only recourse.