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Investigative stories

 

Gersten 4

12 December 2000

Published in The Age


The Chief Counsel of Washington’s powerful House Committee on Government Reform, James C Wilson, will visit Australia early next year to investigate evidence that US Attorney General Janet Reno is involved in official malfeasance.
 
The Committee has received evidence suggesting that Reno used the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in a political vendetta against Joseph Gersten, a former rival who now lives in Sydney.
 
The evidence comes in  documents subpoenaed from the Justice Department, the State Attorney’s Office in Florida, and leaked to the Committee from within Australian Government departments.
 
Joseph Gersten, who now practises law in Sydney, was a rival of Reno’s in Florida Democratic politics in the 1980s and early 1990s. He was a Florida Senator, and later an influential Commissioner of Dade County. He is seeking refugee status in Australia on the basis of “a well-founded fear of political persecution” in the United States.
 
Chief Counsel Wilson, who hopes to visit Australia as early as January, has told The Age: “There appear to be legitimate concerns of improper action in the Gersten case.”
 
Mr Wilson stated that he wants to “talk to Gersten, and also to Australian law enforcement authorities” about the FBI’s passing “raw and unsubstantiated” information on Gersten to the Australian Federal Police.
 
The AFP has in turn been accused - by Gersten and others - of trying to sabotage Gersten’s career as a lawyer, and his Australian residency, at the FBI’s urging.
 
The House Committee on Government Reform recently furnished Gersten’s legal team in Melbourne with a copy of a report on Gersten, written by Nautilus Investigations and Security Pty Ltd, a Sydney company. According to the US Embassy in Canberra, Nautilus had “volunteered” the report to them. The report casts serious aspersions on Gersten - which Gersten says are false.
 
Nautilus’s derogatory report has been sent under US Embassy letterhead to the Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, Mick Palmer, in an apparent attempt to discredit Gersten. The letter is dated December 29, 1997.
 
In the original report, Nautilus pitches for business to the US Embassy, and also offers to “return” Gersten to the US for the US Government, should events in Australia move against the expatriate Floridian.
 
In October, Attorney General Reno was questioned by the House Committee regarding her pursuit of Gersten, which began in 1992 during her tenure as a Florida State Attorney. Chief Counsel Wilson says that Reno’s answers “raised additional concerns”.
 
Documents obtained by The Age reveal a pattern of interference in Gersten’s Australian residency and career prospects by the Federal Police, at the FBI’s behest. A February 1996 letter from the US Embassy in Canberra to the AFP Commissioner, Mick Palmer, draws attention to the Florida Bar’s attempt to disbar Gersten. The US Embassy letter was sent at the behest of the FBI.
 
As a result, AFP Sergeant John Greenaway contacted the NSW Law Society, disclosing this and other information harmful to Gersten which had been sent by the FBI. Some of the information appears to derive from FBI Director Louis Freeh, Reno’s immediate subordinate.
 
Thereafter, moves were initiated in NSW to cancel Gersten’s certificate to practise law.
 
Additionally, FBI communications to the Federal Police in 1995 discussed unsubstantiated “corrupt activities” of Gersten’s. This information was forwarded to the Immigration Department, and apparently killed Gersten’s “skilled migrant” application there.
 
Chief Counsel Wilson stated that he would like to talk to the NSW Law Society during his visit to Australia. On Tuesday he will interview Susan Curtis, the FBI agent apparently responsible for releasing the private investigator’s report on Gersten, whilst she was a legal attache at the US Embassy in Canberra.
 
Dr Andrew McNaughtan, a friend of Gersten’s, recently returned from six months in the US, researching the Reno-Gersten matter, and answering questions before the House Committee. He believes that “some of the US authorities have set out to destroy Joe Gersten’s political career, and his personal credibility - because of a threat he once posed to the way business was done in Dade County. And the Australian Federal Police have inadvertently bought into it.”
 
AFP Commissioner Mick Palmer has declined several requests to comment on the AFP’s activities in relation to Gersten. Janet Reno, her successor as Florida State Attorney, Katherine Rundle, and the FBI, have not responded to The Age’s  requests for comment.
 
Prime Minister John Howard has told The Age of his strong disapproval of federal authorities interfering in the lives of private citizens at the behest of foreign law enforcement authorities.
 
Whilst emphasising that he then knew nothing about the Gersten matter, the Prime Minister said: “As a general principle, no - I wouldn’t agree with it. Definitely not.”
 
Told that the House Committee on Government Reform in Washington had made comments which implied political motives by the FBI, in relation to activities it had had the AFP carry out against Gersten, Mr Howard said:
 
“Oh no, no. I would be completely and utterly against that. Let them chase crooks. That’s my view.”
 
The Prime Minister stated that he would “get some advice” on the Gersten matter. He was subsequently briefed by advisors, but will make no further comment while the matter is before the courts.
 
Meanwhile, Janet Reno’s rival for State Attorney in 1988, Republican Jack Thompson, has told The Age  that Reno attempted to have him disbarred from the Florida Bar in 1990 - as she had done with Gersten in 1992.
 
Thompson, a conservative Christian, claims that when he objected publicly to Reno providing school students with information on homosexuality, Reno engineered the attempt to disbar him, as well as having him surveiled by law enforcement authorities.
 
Mr Thompson said, “There are so many patterns here that are played out in the Gersten case as well. What on earth does Janet Reno care whether Joe Gersten gets to practise law in Australia? But from what we’ve seen of her, we know that this is the way she does business. Reno’s obsession with Gersten is wise. He could have destroyed her.”
 
Reno’s moves against Gersten began in 1992 when she was a Florida State Attorney - and a high-profile Democrat, with links to Hilary Clinton’s family. At the time, Gersten was Chairman of the heavyweight Dade County Finance Committee. That Chairmanship enabled him to uncover massive corruption at the Port of Miami - which was then a centre of fundraising for the Democratic National Committee, and the first Clinton-Gore campaign.
 
The present investigation of Reno by the House Committee caps years of Congressional censure of the Attorney General for claimed abuses of office. These include her approving the assault on the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas, in 1993, and her failure to properly investigate alleged Clinton Administration law-breaking.
 
The latter encompassed illegal coffee gathering “fundraisers” at the White House, and the suspicious disappearance of 246,000 emails from the White House email server - both of which involved Vice President Al Gore.
 
Committee Chairman Dan Burton has criticised Reno’s inaction regarding “the President’s close proximity to illegal foreign money”, as well as on “possible instances of perjury by the Vice President”.
 
Dr McNaughtan says: “The Gersten case shows that Janet Reno is willing to use her power to destroy her political enemies. The facts show that she is also willing to use her power politically, to protect her bosses. It’s quite possible that Al Gore would not be running for President if that were not the case.”
 
The US House of Representatives - and thus the House Committee on Government Reform - is Republican-dominated. This status quo was re-established in the recent Congressional elections.
 
George W Bush winning the US Presidency would enable a Republican Attorney General to act on the House Committee’s work of the past eight years. Sources close to the Committee believe this may include the prosecution of Janet Reno’s alleged abuses of power, including those relating to Gersten.
 
Central among the claims against Reno is that, when Gersten’s car was stolen in unusual circumstances in 1992, he was spuriously investigated on suspicion of murder by Reno’s State Attorney’s office. When the primary witness stated that he had fabricated the story because he “was going to be paid some money by the FBI”, Gersten was charged by Reno’s office with three drug and prostitution-related misdemeanours. The evidence underpinning the charges was quickly undermined by FBI tests.
 
The evidence against Gersten in these charges is further eroded by FBI documents which the House Committee has just released to Gersten’s legal team. These “302s” - or reports of witness interviews - put the time of Gersten’s alleged drug and prostitution-related offences at 11 to 11.30pm on April 29, 1992. Gersten’s alleged offences are claimed, by the State Attorney’s Office, to have occurred between 6.15 and 7pm. From 9pm onwards on the night in question, Gersten had credible alibis for his activities.
 
Gersten says that these newly released documents “have been ‘deep-sixed’ [suppressed] for nearly a decade, obviously because they directly contradict the case against me by State Attorney Reno and her successor”.
 
In 1993, Gersten refused to answer questions relating to the theft of his car - fearing that the car theft was part of the drugs, prostitution and murder "set-up" by the Office of the State Attorney. He was cited for contempt, and jailed. For three weeks he administered Dade County’s multi-billion dollar budget from his prison cell.
 
State Attorney’s Office documents from the period - which are now in the possession of the House Committee in Washington - reveal that the Office arranged media interviews for witnesses against Gersten. The massive publicity which ensued helped to ensure Gersten’s political defeat. He subsequently left the United States, and has lived for eight years in Australia.
 
The statute of limitations on the Florida misdemeanour charges expired three years ago. However the civil contempt order was upheld last month by Judge Siegler in the Circuit Court for Miami-Dade County, and Gersten faces jail if he returns to Florida.
 
Gersten’s lawyer in Florida, Carmen Calzon, will appeal the ruling on the basis of numerous claimed errors. She said:
 
"The Court has acted without any evidence or authority to support the decision. This Court's actions further highlight Mr Gersten's inability to obtain a fair hearing in the United States, and thus make his case for political persecution."


Gersten’s attempt to obtain refugee status in Australia will come before the High Court 2001. His attempt to retain his certificate to practise law in NSW will resume before the NSW Supreme Court in February.


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