ADL settles with Arabs, others to wrap up 6-year lawsuit

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The Anti-Defamation League has reached a final settlement with Arab-American and other ethnic groups in a 1993 class-action lawsuit that accused the organization's California office of spying on them and their members.

Under the settlement reached in a federal court in Los Angeles on Monday, the parties agreed to an injunction whereby the ADL will purge certain information, such as criminal arrest records and Social Security numbers, from any files it holds on the plaintiffs.

The ADL also agreed to pay $175,000 for the plaintiffs' legal fees and contribute $25,000 toward a community relations fund to be jointly administered by representatives of its organization and the plaintiffs. The fund will support projects aimed at improving relations among Jewish, Arab-American, African-American and other minority communities.

"We're just pleased to have it behind us," said Jonathan Bernstein, director of the ADL's Central Pacific regional office in San Francisco. "It's a fair settlement."

David Goldstein, the ADL's attorney, said that by agreeing to the injunction, the ADL does not admit guilt of any illegal activity.

The ADL, which monitors many groups, said that just because it had a file on a group did not indicate opposition to the group and that the files were sometimes just compilations of newspaper clippings.

The ADL chose to settle, he said, "to avoid time-consuming and costly discovery battles that would take years to resolve."

The case dates back to April 1993, when police raided the ADL offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles, seizing hundreds of documents.

The San Francisco district attorney at the time, Arlo Smith, accused the ADL of conducting a national "spy network" but dropped all accusations a few months later.

But several organizations pursued the issue, filing the lawsuits. This settlement ends all legal action against the ADL.

Plaintiffs in this case included the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the American Indian Movement, two African-American politicians in Los Angeles, the National Lawyers Guild, the National Conference of Black Lawyers, the Palestine Solidarity Committee, the Bay Area Anti-Apartheid Network and the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador.

In 1996, the parties reached a tentative agreement, which was finalized this week after the ADL began the process of removing files and a federal judge approved the agreement, according to Goldstein.

"It's definitely over now," Bernstein said. "This is the absolute end of the case with the ADC."

The injunction included in this week's settlement "explicitly recognizes ADL's right to gather information in any lawful and constitutionally protected manner, which we have always done and will continue to do," said a statement issued by the ADL.

The settlement bars the ADL from obtaining any document or other information from someone the ADL "knows or was reckless in failing to know at the time" is precluded by law from disclosing it, namely a government employee or state official in California.

The ADL has maintained that, like journalists, it has the right to use and publish information received from sources that volunteer such information. Nonetheless, the organization has agreed to the terms barring it from obtaining information from officials not at liberty to supply such information.

A news release issued by the ADC took a decidedly different view, quoting its president, Hala Maksoud, as saying that "ADL's admission that it has spied" on Arab-American, anti-apartheid and civil rights organizations and individuals "vindicates our view that the ADL has engaged in illegal activities to undermine the work of such groups and damage the cause and reputation of the Arab-American community."

According to Hussein Ibish, director of communications for the ADC, the ADL was gathering information "systematically in a program whose clear intent was to undermine civil rights and Arab-American organizations."

"This is clearly not the work of a legitimate civil rights organization, but much more along the lines of an espionage group," he said.

Abraham Foxman, the ADL's national director, said the ADC's claims are "absolutely untrue."

"If it were true, they would have won their case," he said, noting that no court found the ADL guilty of any wrongdoing and that the group will continue its monitoring work.

"Our judicial system is such that you can sue anyone and accuse them of God knows what and we have to defend it, but if you defend it, it's going to cost you a lot of money," Foxman said.

"In order to stop harassment and malicious prosecution, what you do is settle it. And in settling you say, 'I didn't do it and won't do it again' — it's an absurdity."