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Investigative stories

 

John Howard on Gersten

28 November 2000

Published in the Age and Sydney Morning Herald


 
The Prime Minister, Mr Howard, has asked to be briefed on allegations that the Australian Federal Police victimised US citizen Joseph Gersten, who is now living in Australia in “exile”.
 
The Prime Minister told the Herald he will “get some advice” on the Gersten matter, after a Herald story on October 17 suggested that Gersten had been pursued by the AFP at the behest of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI is controlled by Attorney General Janet Reno, a former political rival of Gersten’s.
 
Mr Howard said that he presently knew nothing of the claims of improper AFP interference in Gersten’s life. However he stated:
 
“As a general principle, no - I wouldn’t agree with it. Definitely not.”
 
The House Committee on Government Reform in Washington last month suggested political motives behind the FBI’s and the AFP’s actions toward Gersten. Told of this, Mr Howard said:
 
“For political purposes? Oh no, no. I would be completely and utterly against that. Let them chase crooks. That’s my view.”
 
The House Committee last month queried the FBI’s “supplying raw and unsubstantiated allegations, or information, to foreign law enforcement entities” such as the AFP. The Committee’s Chief Counsel, James Wilson, said:
 
“There appear to be legitimate concerns of improper action in the Gersten case.”
 
The Federal Police’s activities allegedly include improper attempts to prevent Gersten from practising law in Australia, and from obtaining Australian residency.
 
Of the Prime Minister’s request for a briefing on his case, Gersten stated:
 
“It is right, and I appreciate, that the Prime Minister has taken an interest in this matter. The Australian Federal Police has behaved like a political secret police. But I am concerned that any brief prepared for the PM by the AFP alone will continue to fabricate and cover up. Remember, the AFP has violated court orders, as well as provided untrue and contradictory evidence in judicial proceedings.
 
“I hope the Prime Minister’s staff will speak to my legal advisors, to keep the AFP honest in relation to the Prime Minister’s brief.
 
“There is no point in the Prime Minister’s being told the same false information which the AFP has provided elsewhere, and which it was itself provided in the first instance, by the US authorities.”
 
AFP Commissioner Mick Palmer has refused to comment, on grounds that Gersten’s application for refugee status here is before the courts.
 
Mr Gersten now practises law at the Sydney Bar. He was formerly a powerful political figure in his home state of Florida, and a political enemy of Ms Reno during her term as a Florida State Attorney in the 1980s and early 1990s. He has recently been a commentator on ABC television’s Lateline, after the impasse in the US Presidential election which centres on Florida.
 
The House Committee on Government Reform will shortly release a transcript of its questioning, last month, of Attorney General Reno. The questioning related, in part, to evidence before the Committee that Ms Reno’s office tried to frame Gersten for murder in 1992 - and that she has been deploying the Justice Department and the FBI against him since.
 
Last month Committee Chief Counsel James Wilson stated that Reno’s answers “raised additional concerns about what happened in the Gersten case”. It is believed the Committee will make a more specific judgement on Attorney General Reno’s responses when the transcript is released.
 
Meanwhile, Gersten’s legal team in Florida has moved to have a “writ of bodily attachment” against Gersten lifted. (The writ is a civil order authorising a law officer to take a person into custody.)
 
The contempt order on which the writ is based stems from Gersten’s refusal in 1992 to answer questions relating to the theft of his car. Gersten claims the car theft was part of a drugs, prostitution and murder “set-up” by the office of then State Attorney Janet Reno.
 
Gersten’s American lawyer, Carmen Calzon, was only recently informed that the State Attorney’s Office file on Gersten had been closed, and that the statute of limitations on the car theft case had expired in 1997.
 
However the office of State Attorney Katherine Rundle (Reno’s successor) strenuously opposed the motion by Gersten’s legal team, and Judge Siegler, in the Circuit Court for Miami-Dade County, refused to lift the writ. The Judge described Gersten as a “fugitive from justice”.
 
Ms 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 is applying for refugee status in Australia, on grounds of “a well-founded fear of political persecution” under the United Nations Convention on Refugees.


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