Justice for Cardillo: NY High Court Considers Judicial Watch Freedom of Information Appeal

One of the most outrageous cover-ups in New York City history went back to court in November. For the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court, it was an opportunity not just to right a wrong in a decades-old murder case, but to send a message that the New York City Police Department’s routine assaults on freedom of information will no longer be tolerated. A decision is expected soon.

Forty-seven years ago, NYPD Patrolman Phillip Cardillo was gunned down inside Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam Mosque in Harlem. Fearing controversy, the mayor and NYPD brass promptly threw Cardillo under the bus. The crime scene was swiftly erased. Suspects were released and vanished. Investigations were stonewalled. Evidence was buried.

Exaggeration? Don’t take our word for it. A special grand jury probe concluded there was “a concerted and orchestrated effort by members and former members of the Police Department to impede the investigation into the murder of Patrolman Philip Cardillo.” No one ever served a day in jail for the crime.

A Judicial Watch investigation turned up new evidence in the case, but hit a stone wall with the NYPD. In 2017, we filed a New York Freedom of Information Law request for case documents and an audio copy of a fake emergency telephone call that lured police to the Harlem mosque. We planned to make the audio tape widely available. Even after all these years, we reasoned, someone might recognize the voice that lured Cardillo to his death.

Read More

The Left Loses Its Mind in Jails Debate

Ideas have consequences and yesterday in New York City arrived more evidence that progressive forces in Gotham have lost their collective mind. The New York City Council voted to close the 400-acre Rikers Island jail complex. Keeping violent criminals off the streets? Future crime waves? Never mind, they’ll figure that out later.

Rikers is a hellhole with a long history of human-rights abuses. Serious reform is needed. But that’s not what the radical Left is looking for. New York is in the vanguard of a national “Abolish Prisons” movement. All prisons must be done away with.

Mayor Bill de Blasio is on the bandwagon. “Mass incarceration did not begin in New York City,” he declared recently, “but it will end here.”

Radical chic star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also has signed on to prison abolition. “Mass incarceration is our American reality,” she wrote. “It is a system whose logic evolved from the same lineage as Jim Crow, American apartheid, & slavery. To end it, we have to change.”

In case you’re wondering about Ocasio-Cortez’s influence on the Left, Bernie Sanders has been touting her upcoming endorsement, slated for a rally Saturday in Queens. Rep. Ilhan Omar also endorsed Sanders this week.

Meanwhile, the jails controversy in New York is catching fire.

Read More

De Blasio’s New York Slips Toward a Crisis of Crime & Disorder

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s withdrawal from the presidential race last week is a lost opportunity. A successful de Blasio effort in the Democratic primaries—his was anything but—could have sparked a necessary national debate over signs of rising disorder in American cities.

We haven’t returned to the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s. The troubles of that era had many causes: disappearing jobs, changes in social welfare policy, changes in cultural attitudes, deinstitutionalization of the mental health system, drug wars, crack cocaine, a surging crime rate—all intersecting to drain the vitality of neighborhoods and stamp countless urban tableaus of Dantean despair. For many of the younger new urbanites, noted the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, those days are “little more than sensational headlines from a barely imaginable world.”

But it is a world not long gone and one that could return. In New York and other urban centers, warning signs are flashing. Overall in New York, for example, the crime rate is down—way down—from the highs of the early 1990s. But shootings are up almost 8% over the previous year. Gun arrests are up more than 20%. Hate crimes have jumped sharply, a 41% increase from the previous year, according to NYPD statistics. The majority of the incidents—152 out of 290—were anti-Semitic.

Read More

Murder or Suicide? High Stakes, Huge Challenges in Epstein Investigation

The death of financier and alleged sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein in a high-security federal jail cell in Manhattan has lit up social media with conspiracy theories. Was it murder?  Suicide? The wealthy Epstein for decades cultivated the rich and powerful: heads of state, barons of commerce, royalty. He skated on earlier Florida sex charges, a controversy that eventually brought down Labor Secretary Alex Acosta. According to conspiracy theories cresting on the internet, Epstein’s recent federal indictment on sex trafficking charges threatened too many prominent people—so somebody, somehow, bumped him off.

There’s no evidence that Epstein was murdered in his cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center. Officials at the lockup say he was alone Saturday morning and hanged himself. But it’s fair to say that at present there’s not much evidence, aside from a few official statements, that Epstein committed suicide. Huge challenges and high stakes loom in the Epstein case and the window on some key opportunities is closing fast.

Here are the questions that will decide the fate of the case:

Is the unit where Epstein died a crime scene? Preservation of evidence is critical. Fingerprints, hair samples, body fluids, location of body, method of death. Many investigations have been ruined at the outset from a failure to preserve the scene. Sound an alarm bell if the Epstein death location was not processed as a crime scene.

Read More

Mysterious Mena: Judicial Watch Demands Answers

The mysterious events surrounding Mena Airfield in remote western Arkansas during the gubernatorial reign of Bill Clinton have teased the popular imagination for more than three decades. Movies have been made, books have been published, hundreds of articles have been written. Many of the more baroque allegations emerge from the fever swamps of conspiracy theorists, but certain facts are indisputable. CIA and DEA activities flowed out of Mena in the Clinton years. Cocaine—a lot of it—flowed in. And for thirty years, every attempt to get to the bottom of events at Mena—federal, state, judicial, journalistic—has failed.

Judicial Watch has launched a new campaign for answers. The CIA “stonewalled the release of information now sought by Judicial Watch on the Mena Airport controversy,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. So last month, we filed a lawsuit seeking a long-hidden report by the CIA inspector general into events at Mena. The Judicial Watch lawsuit seeks the report of a November 1996 CIA investigation into “drug running, money laundering and intelligence gathering” at Mena. We’re taking other steps, too—Freedom of Information actions against the DEA, FBI, and Arkansas state institutions.

I first traveled to Mena in 1994, reporting for the Wall Street Journal editorial page. “Mena is a good setting for a mystery,” I wrote at the time. “The pine and hardwood forests of the Ouachita Mountains surrounding it have long been an outlaw’s paradise, home to generations of moonshiners and red-dirt marijuana farmers.” It was also just seventy miles south of the sprawling Fort Chaffee Army Base at Fort Smith, Arkansas. I didn’t make the connection then, but it seems significant now: if you’re going to secretly run arms to controversial U.S. allies, you’ll likely want some military support.

The mysteries of Mena revolve around a drug-smuggling pilot named Barry Seal. In 1981, Seal set up shop at Mena. He later claimed to have made as much as $50 million running 1,000 pounds of cocaine a month from Colombia. In 1983, the DEA arrested him on drug smuggling charges. Seal flipped, becoming a valuable government informant.

He gathered information on Medellin cartel kingpins and participated in at least two drug runs to Nicaragua, where the Reagan administration was ramping up operations against the Sandinista government. On one CIA-involved mission in 1984, a secret camera in Seal’s C-123 cargo plane snapped photos of an alleged Sandinista official loading cocaine aboard the aircraft. The photos quickly leaked, boosting Washington’s anti-Sandinista effort but likely putting a target on Seal’s back: to his drug-running friends in South America, there could be no question where the photos came from.

In Mena, meanwhile, things were getting stranger. A Seal associate cut a runway deep in the woods. Bill Duncan, an IRS investigator, told me that he had “numerous reports of automatic weapons fire, men of Latin American appearance in the area, people in camouflage moving quietly through streams with automatic weapons, aircraft drops, twin-engine airplane traffic.” Duncan, along with Arkansas State Police investigator Russell Welch, started digging into Seal and the Mena connection, suspecting a drug smuggling and money laundering operation. For their efforts, their careers were crushed.

Read More

Deep State Secrets? Declassify the Sater Files

The outlaw Felix Sater didn’t show up last Friday for planned closed-door testimony to the House Intelligence Committee about the Russia affair. He says he overslept, he wasn’t feeling well, he’d like to reschedule. But the committee isn’t waiting. It issued a subpoena for his appearance.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for new revelations. The Moscow-born Sater is a master of the long con, a Gatsbyesque figure with known ties to organized crime, the FBI, and the CIA—and to Donald J. Trump. He’s fabulously wealthy. Or maybe he’s not. In February, he sold his 10-room house in Sands Point and shipped himself and his Porsche across the country to LA, where he’s reinventing himself again.

He entered Donald Trump’s life around 2002 with some spectacularly unsuccessful real estate deals. Before that, he was a low-level New York criminal, a tough guy from Brighton Beach, allegedly connected to Russian organized crime back in the old country. He was sent to prison for using a broken bar glass to rearrange a man’s face, then busted again for a Mafia-connected pump-and-dump scheme. He turned on his pals and cooperated with the FBI, ran into more trouble, and persuaded the CIA to take him on as an intelligence asset in Russia. He appears to have found his true calling as a government informant. The FBI and CIA say he was a very successful rat. (Read more about his past here and here.)

Sater reappeared in Trump’s orbit in 2015, reviving a foundering scheme to build a billion-dollar Trump property in Moscow just as the candidate’s improbable presidential campaign was gaining traction.

The standard media narrative of the Moscow deal is that candidate Trump did not expect to win the presidency and was reluctant to let go of a shot at a billion-dollar business bonanza. But Sater’s swaggering presence at the center of the action suggests the possibility of a more sinister counter-narrative: that someone may have been trying to lure Trump into a trap—a politically damaging entanglement with Moscow money.

Read More

The Qatar Connection

A tiny and vulnerable country that punches well above its weight, Qatar takes a traditional route to security: it spreads money around and cultivates alliances far and wide. Contradictions abound. The Persian Gulf monarchy has strong business ties to Iran, angering its Saudi neighbors and the U.S. But it hosts the Americans at the critical Al Udeid Air Base—the forward operations post for the entire U.S. military effort in the Middle East. Qatar supports terror-aligned groups such Hamas, but sponsors the freewheeling Al Jazeera television network. A Sunni nation, its Shia minority worships freely. But its media is filled with anti-Semitic and anti-Israel propaganda. It’s an inconsistent partner in the American-led war on terror and terror financing. Regional players, led by Saudi Arabia and angered over Qatar’s ties with Iran and support for the Muslim Brotherhood, slapped an economic blockade on it in 2017. But Qatar’s dynamic economy, powered by vast oil and natural gas reserves,  shook it off.

Qatar’s influence operations extend into the U.S. In 2017, it quadrupled American lobbying efforts to $16 million spread across 23 firms, including targeting friends of the president, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. Qatar also pours money into American universities. Luke Rosiak of the Daily Caller put the numbers together. Qatar has given $1 billion to American universities since 2011, with more than $830 million directed to three U.S. universities—Georgetown, Northwestern, and Texas A&M. Not coincidentally, all three now operate satellite campuses in Qatar.

Does Qatar’s money come with strings attached? Is it supporting anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activities at American universities? Inquiries have hit stone walls. Universities have “refused to discuss where strings are attached,” Rosiak noted. Qatar hired the powerhouse law firm Squire Patton Boggs to crush a freedom of information request to Texas A&M. At Georgetown, Rosiak wrote, requests for basic information about Qatari funding were “repeatedly ignored.”

Read More

Cardillo Murder, de Blasio FOIL Fail

Judicial Watch’s probe into the murder of NYPD Patrolman Phillip Cardillo is heading back to court in New York. Cardillo was murdered more than four decades ago, but the NYPD has advanced the preposterous legal claim that its investigation is still “active and ongoing” to deny Judicial Watch documents in the case. That’s an extreme interpretation of the state’s Freedom on Information Law, but typical of the assault on transparency underway in New York City under Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Cardillo was shot down in 1972 in Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam Mosque in Harlem. No one ever served a day in jail for the crime. Controversy surrounded the case from the moment bullets flew. Why were suspects released from police custody? Why was the crime scene erased? Why was the FBI quickly on the scene? Why were investigations stonewalled? Who lured Cardillo to the mosque? Who in the political echelon cut a deal with whom, and why?

A suspect was arrested, indicted, went to trial—hung jury—went to trial again, acquitted. The alleged shooter was free—”not guilty” in the eyes of the law—but the NYPD was confident it arrested the right guy. The collar was righteous, but the prosecutions failed due to tainted and withheld evidence. Case closed.

Then, in 2006, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly re-opened the case. According to a 2006 letter from the NYPD to the FBI obtained by Judicial Watch, the new investigation was launched “to determine if there is evidence of a conspiracy in 1972” to kill Cardillo. Six years later, the case was closed again. An NYPD spokesman told the Daily News that the new probe was finished and that it “didn’t turn up any useful information.”

That’s when Judicial Watch began requesting documents in the case—and hit a stone wall. Year after year, Judicial Watch’s requests for information were met with silence. In 2017, Judicial Watch went to court, arguing that the NYPD should be compelled to turn over the Cardillo case file and a tape-recording of an anonymous caller luring police to the Harlem mosque.

The NYPD responded by submitting a sworn affidavit that the Cardillo murder—45 years later—is “an open investigation and remains actively pursued.” And that tape recording? Sorry, we can’t find it.

A New York judge accepted the NYPD’s argument. Read a legal update here.

Last month, we filed our appeal. We argued that on the facts and the law, the NYPD was wrong. The NYPD had failed to demonstrate that there is a bona fide “ongoing investigation,” that it had not provided a legitimate legal basis for withholding the Cardillo documents, and that it “is making a mockery” of Freedom of Information laws. Read the Judicial Watch appeal here.

Read More

Schock & Awe

Aaron Schock always has been an awesome character. At 23, he won a seat in the Illinois House of Representatives, becoming the youngest member in state history. At 27, he won a race for the Illinois 18th Congressional district, becoming the youngest member of Congress. He was a Republican star, a prodigious fundraiser, raising more than $11 million for his congressional campaigns. An exercise aficionado, he once appeared on the cover of Men’s Health magazine. He got in trouble with the Washington Post for decorating his DC office in the luxurious style of the British period drama, “Downton Abbey.”

That’s when it all came crashing down. Washington had a good laugh over Schock’s cover shoot and interior decorating, but questions about improper spending mounted and in March 2015, he resigned from Congress. And there was nothing funny about the federal indictment that came twenty months later, a few days after the 2016 election. The U.S. Attorney for the Central District of Illinois charged Schock with 24 counts of wire fraud, mail fraud, theft, false statements and filing false documents.

The indictment, reported the Post, “alleged that the former congressman from Peoria, Ill., reimbursed himself for 150,000 miles he never drove, bought a new 2015 Chevrolet Tahoe for his exclusive use with campaign committee funds, and reimbursed himself with congressional funds for camera equipment purchased for himself and his personal photographer. It alleges that Schock used government and campaign money to take a private plane with a group to Chicago for a Bears football game, and remodeled his Illinois apartment and Capitol Hill office — paying those who did the thousands of dollars’ worth of work at least in part from government and campaign funds.”

The total tab for the misdeeds: $100,000

Schock was, well, shocked. “I simply cannot believe it has come to this,” he said in a statement after the indictment. He said his campaign team “might have made errors among a few of the thousands and thousands of financial transactions we conducted, but they were honest mistakes—no one intended to break any laws.”

Read More

Sunshine Week, Stormy Weather

It’s Sunshine Week—the annual celebration of freedom of information brought to you by the American Society of News Editors—but unfortunately the forecast is for stormy weather ahead. Everywhere, it seems, public access to information is under fire. Journalism is besieged by charges of “fake news.” Newspapers are closing at record rates. Government secrecy is on the upswing. Freedom of information requests—a critical tool in the fight for transparency and accountability in public life—are increasingly delayed, denied and disparaged.

The Great Recession and the creative destruction brought by technological change has resulted in the closure of almost 1,800 newspapers in the last fifteen years. But digital media will fill the information gap from all those vanishing publications, right?

Wrong. Not even close. In the decade ending in 2017, notes former Sacramento Bee executive editor Joyce Terhaar, citing a study by the Pew Research Center,  “roughly 32,000 newspaper journalist jobs evaporated and only 6,000 were created by digital news startups.” The Pew report is grim tidings for the newspaper industry. Read it here.

Federal and state freedom of information laws are at the heart of the fight for transparency in government. But here, too, the news is bad. “The United States government is bigger than ever and the most secretive in recent memory,” Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton told Congress in 2017.

We should know. Judicial Watch is the nation’s top filer of Freedom of Information requests in the Nonprofit/Advocacy Group category, according to the FOIA Project of Syracuse University. By the way, we also outstrip every news organization in filing lawsuits to obtain government records.

We’ve learned from long experience that lawsuits are the key to sunshine success. Freedom of information requests are dragged out for months and years, or simply ignored. That’s much more difficult to do when a judge gets involved.

The investigative website ProPublica published a litany of FOIA horror stories that gets to the heart of how governments game the transparency crisis to their advantage.

“Local, state and federal agencies alike routinely blow through deadlines laid out in law or bend them to ludicrous degrees, stretching out even the simplest requests for years,” ProPublica reported. “And they bank on the media’s depleted resources and ability to legally challenge most denials. Many government agencies have gutted or understaffed the offices that respond to public records requests. Even when agencies aren’t trying to stymie requests, waits for records now routinely last longer than most journalists can wait — or so long that the information requested is no longer useful. This, in turn, allows public agencies to control scrutiny of their operations.”

Read More