ADL ready to settle 1993 class-action suit on spying

The Anti-Defamation League is on the brink of settling a federal class-action suit contending that the San Francisco office illegally spied on Arab-Americans, anti-apartheid activists and others.

Lawyers on both sides have drawn up a settlement in which the ADL does not admit to any wrongdoing, but agrees to review its files. ADL also agrees to eventually destroy information that may have been acquired illegally.

The settlement was mailed earlier this month to the case's class members, who have until June 1 to opt out of the deal.

"It's a win all the way around. Hopefully the lawsuit will be over and everyone can move forward," said David Goldstein, a San Francisco attorney for the ADL.

Marc Van Der Hout, a San Francisco lawyer who helped file the suit on behalf of the National Lawyers Guild, said that "it was a very good settlement. Everyone is ready to move on and say this shouldn't have occurred."

Saying the settlement is fair to both sides, Van Der Hout added, "The important thing is that there was a gathering of information that shouldn't have been going on. Whether it's the police department or the ADL, there shouldn't be spying on individuals who have done nothing wrong."

The suit, filed in 1993, claimed that the ADL had hired intelligence agents with police and government ties to compile confidential information on Arab-Americans, African-Americans, Native Americans and left-wing groups.

The lawsuit came on the heels of police raids on ADL's San Francisco and Los Angeles offices in 1993. The raids were prompted by evidence compiled by the FBI showing that a San Francisco police inspector had leaked confidential police information to Roy Bullock, an ADL informant.

The settlement does not conflict with ADL's stance that it has not done anything improper or illegal.

However, the ADL has agreed to review its files in its California and New York offices and remove certain categories of information that the class members claim was illegally gathered.

The categories of information include driver's license numbers, license plate numbers, criminal arrest records, fingerprint cards, mug shots, social security numbers and non-commercial post office boxes.

Class members who agree to the settlement will be notified of the categories of information the ADL has filed on them. That data will be kept in a secured location for six years and then destroyed.

The settlement "doesn't allow anyone to get into the files and receive a copy of the information. The ADL gets to keep all its files private," Goldstein said.

According to the settlement, the ADL cannot gather any information from a California state or city employee if the ADL knows that the person is giving the information illegally. But the ADL can still collect information it uses for journalistic purposes.

The ADL must also donate $25,000 to a fund that facilitates improved relations between Arab-Americans, African-Americans and other minority communities.

Another settlement was negotiated between the class members and the city of San Francisco that forbids the city's police department from releasing confidential information. The settlement requires that officers be properly trained on the rules of handling such information. The city will also pay the legal fees of the lawyers who brought the suit.

A final hearing on approval of the settlement will occur on Sept. 27 before U.S. District Judge Richard Paez in Los Angeles.

A related suit brought by 13 people against the ADL and the city is still pending; however, nine of the plaintiffs have dropped out of the case. The ADL has previously asked for that case to be dismissed.

Referring to the ADL settlement, Goldstein said that "early on everyone realized that the party's concerns could be addressed without having to spend an inordinate amount in litigation costs. We are looking forward to a final resolution."

Van Der Hout emphasized that it was time to move on, too.

"The important thing is that the activity we claim was illegal was exposed and stopped. People should be able to express public views and feel the ADL and the city are not conducting surveillance on them. I don't think the city or the ADL is proud of this incident."