Wednesday, January 16, 2008

So Much for Petitioning the Government

Former Republican congressman Mark Deli Siljander has been indicted on charges of supporting terrorism. Since this both involves the GWOT and a former Republican politician, Siljander has already been convicted by both the left and right sides of the blogosphere. One place he hasn't been convicted, however, is here.

I have not seen the indictment in this case, but as far as I can tell, neither have any of the pundits, which means all we have to rely on right now is the AP report. To sum up: Siljander was hired as a lobbyist by an Islamic charity to get the charity off of a list of agencies suspected of funneling money to terrorists. This charity was, as far as I can tell, located in Kansas City, Missouri, and was made up of US citizens (I could be wrong about this, though). The organization itself is accused of a number of different things, but the charges against Siljander are fewer and are summed up below:

Prosecutors allege Siljander's co-defendants -- the directors of an Islamic charity -- hired him to get the organization off a list of agencies suspected of links to terrorism and paid him with stolen U.S. government funds.
The Treasury Department designated the Islamic American Relief Agency as a suspected fundraiser for terrorists in 2004, The Associated Press reported.
Siljander is also accused of lying to federal agents and prosecutors about his work for
the group, which allegedly steered $260,000 to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar -- an ally of the Taliban and al Qaeda.

As shady as all of this sounds, there's a few things that raise some red flags for me, and tell me this case is not as clear cut as it sounds (or at least it shouldn't be). Let me be very clear up front, though: if Siljander knowingly received "stolen government funds" in exchange for his services, then he deserves what is coming to him; in addition, if he lied about his activities in a material fashion when asked, then I likewise lack sympathy for him. But the main thrust of Siljander's indictment (and the investigation of him that led to the apparent perjury charges) appears to be that Siljander lobbied the government to take this particular organization off the watch list, and was compensated for his services.

I know that most people hate lobbyists and all, but we have this thing called the First Amendment, which states:

"Congress shall make no law ...abridging ...the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

So far as I know, organizations on the terror watch list that are nonetheless American citizens have never lost their right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. This is particularly true when said organizations have not yet been convicted of any felonies in a court of law. I am also unaware of any restrictions that have ever been placed on lobbying fees beyond the typical attorney ethics rules (which are not criminal statutes).

While we may find it sleazy that a former government official would lobby to get an organization off a watch list, we would do well to remember that the watch list doesn't exactly give the accused a chance to adequately fight the charges that place it on the watch list. Just as any criminal defendant has a right to fight charges against him, this organization - sleazy as we may find it - had every right to fight the charges against it (as long as it complied with various legal requirements, of course). But more importantly, Siljander had every right to lobby on their behalf and receive payment for it; again, that may seem sleazy, but I don't think it is inherently any sleazier than the criminal defense attorney who defends a serial killer. We would also do well to remember that Siljander was in the private sector at the time, making money as a lobbyist; he was not an elected official anymore, and hasn't been for some 20 years.

If organizations on administrative watch lists cannot use all legal recourses to petition the government to get off those watch lists, then the government has the ability to dramatically penalize anyone without giving them any due process of law.

The right to petition the government for a redress of grievances is an often overlooked and - based on the hatred of lobbyists that exists in this country - clearly underappreciated right. In many ways, it is every bit as fundamental as the remaining rights listed in the First Amendment, for without it, the government would never have to hear about the real-world effects of its policies, and could much more easily get away with ignoring other civil liberties, since opposing legislators would not be able to hear about, publicize, and act on problems caused by the majority party.

Now, I want to repeat: it seems very likely that this particular organization was in fact guilty of some abhorrent and rightly illegal activities. However, their relative guilt has nothing to do with Siljander's, and at this point no one has seen the evidence and thus no one knows how much knowledge Siljander had of any illegal activities. But even then, he would still have a right to lobby on their behalf and receive compensation for it just as they would still have a right to lobby to get off the terror watch list.

If Siljander knowingly received stolen government funds, as alleged, then he deserves to be convicted, as is also the case if he lied under oath or otherwise obstructed justice in a manner inconsistent with his duties as an attorney. But if all he did was lobby on this organization's behalf and receive funds that he did not have any reason to think were stolen, then the First Amendment should protect him. If it doesn't, then this case is a dangerous step down the slippery slope- it's always easiest to go after the most unpopular exercises of rights first.

(More at memeorandum)

***UPDATE*** I've now looked at the DOJ's press release about the case, which is much more explicit than the media reports. According to the release, the charges allege that:

"As compensation for the services that Siljander agreed to perform, IARA transferred roughly $50,000 in stolen federal funds to accounts that were controlled by Siljander at the National Heritage Foundation and the International Foundation. According to the indictment, the funds used to compensate Siljander for his services had previously been stolen from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) by IARA, Hamed and Bagegni. The International Foundation and the National Heritage Foundation, which is not related to the Heritage Foundation, are not charged with any wrongdoing in this case."

This allegation certainly seems to show shady behavior by Siljander- it would be, I think, quite unusual to have compensation for services funneled through private charities. It is still possible that there would be legitimate reasons for doing so, but the appearance of the transaction suggests knowingly illegal activity. In addition, the press release states that Siljander denied to investigators the existence of an agreement to act on the group's behalf for compensation, and that the payments to his accounts at the private charities were just "donations" to help him with a book he was writing.

I would like to know more about the evidence in this case before coming to any definite conclusions, but it seems likely that Siljander is guilty of some clear wrongdoing. Had he simply received payment for lobbying services directly and told the truth about it to investigators, there would be little basis for the charges; but by funneling his compensation through third-party groups and then lying about the nature of that compensation, it seems likely he knew the money was ill-gotten.

If those facts are accurate, then certainly the obstruction of justice charge is warranted, as is the money laundering charge.