ADL settles with plaintiffs of 1993 spying lawsuit

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The class-action suit was filed in 1993 by a dozen Arab-American, African-American, Native American and left-wing groups. They alleged that the ADL had hired intelligence agents with close police ties as part of a private national intelligence operation that kept tabs on thousands of Americans.

During the course of the suit and an earlier probe by the San Francisco district attorney, the ADL has consistently denied any improper or illegal actions — a position reiterated in the settlement.

"It's unpleasant to be on the receiving end of accusations. It has not been a comfortable experience. It never is to respond to litigation. But I feel our work has essentially been vindicated," said Barbara Bergen, who heads the ADL's regional office in San Francisco.

In the tentative settlement, the ADL agreed to pay $175,000 toward the plaintiffs' legal fees and to establish a $25,000 community relations fund to improve relations among Jewish, Arab-American, African-American and other minority communities.

"The settlement is an appropriate way to put an end to what has been a particularly draining litigation. We are extremely pleased that a fund will be set up to help foster better relations among those involved in the affair," ADL national chairman David Strassler and national director Abraham Foxman wrote in a letter to their leadership.

According to the letter, the parties agreed to the following:

*A court injunction prohibiting ADL from obtaining any information from a government employee in California, when ADL knows, or should know, that the employee is precluded by law from giving such information to ADL.

*ADL and the plaintiffs will review and remove files with "confidential" information from its California and national offices. Peter Schey, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said that a mutually agreed upon "referee" will oversee the process.

A spokeswoman in New York said there would be no added comment from the national ADL office.

Schey expressed his satisfaction with the settlement. The attorney, who works at the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law in Los Angeles, said he hoped his clients and the ADL would join in future efforts to fight skinheads and other hate groups.

He said the settlement "is fair and addresses the important First Amendment issues of freedom of association and freedom of expression that were in the complaint."

Schey made it clear, however, that "obviously, we take the position there was wrongdoing."

Don Bustany, a spokesman for the lead plaintiff, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Com-mittee, added that despite ADL's "protestations of innocence…ADL engaged in illegal spying and hasn't really atoned for it."

Bergen expressed dismay about such statements.

"If you count monitoring hate hot-lines and attending extremist group gatherings as spying, I suppose that's a personal characterization that anyone can make. I certainly don't see it that way," she said.

In fact, Bergen said, information-gathering in ADL offices hasn't changed much since the lawsuit.

"The lawsuits gave us an opportunity to review our whole fact-finding methodology," she said. "To the extent that it required fine-tuning, we did that, but there has been no dramatic change."

Roy Bullock, a Bay Area ADL informant accused by civil rights groups of spying, "still does various assignments for us but not on an undercover basis," Bergen said.

In addition to the Anti-Discrimination Committee, other plaintiffs included the American Indian Movement, two African-American politicians in Los Angeles, the National Lawyers Guild, National Conference of Black Lawyers, Palestine Solidarity Committee, Bay Area Anti-Apartheid Network, and the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES).

Sarah Lawton, who was the CISPES regional director in San Francisco when the lawsuit was filed, said her group became a plaintiff "out of political principle."

She didn't know whether the ADL actually kept files on her group. CISPES was more concerned about the information gathering conducted by government agencies, such as the police.

"The point of the lawsuit was to raise the question of civil liberties and the freedom of expression, of assembly and of being able to organize a group…based on one's beliefs or based on one's cultural or ethnic background," she said.

Events leading up to the civil suit started in April 1993, when police raided the ADL offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles, seizing hundreds of documents.

Then-San Francisco District Attorney Arlo Smith accused the ADL of conducting a national "spy network" but dropped all accusations a few months later.

A second lawsuit against the ADL that alleges invasion of privacy is still up in the air. Former Congressman and Woodside attorney Pete McCloskey filed that suit in 1993 on behalf of 18 individuals.

McCloskey couldn't be reached for comment. But Bergen said that lawsuit "may be resolved in light of this settlement as well."