8-year-old civil suit against ADL nears conclusion

A San Francisco Superior Court judge dealt the Anti-Defamation League a mixed-hand last week by dismissing only two of the three remaining plaintiffs in a longstanding civil suit against the agency.

The suit, first filed in 1993 by 19 plaintiffs, accuses the ADL of illegally obtaining and disseminating the individuals' private records for the purposes of blacklisting them. The agency has continuously and vehemently denied the allegations, calling them "wholly without merit."

In the July 5 decision, Judge Alex Saldamando dismissed the cases put forward by Anne Poirier and Steven Zeltzer, saying there was not enough evidence to pursue them. However, he did not dismiss that of plaintiff Jeffrey Blankfort, who claims the ADL obtained his Social Security number "for non-journalistic purposes."

The ADL is currently mulling its choices before deciding what steps to take next. Those could include an appeal of the judge's decision.

The case, of course, could go to trial.

"There are First Amendment principals at stake here," said ADL attorney David Goldstein. "As a journalistic organization, it is our legal position that we've never violated any laws."

The ADL publishes many pamphlets, journals and bulletins as part of its watchdog activities.

The mixed ruling came as somewhat of a surprise to Goldstein, who in the past had seen "the court affirm our position" and assumed they "would drop" the case.

In 1998, the California 1st District Court of Appeals determined that the ADL could be defined as a journalistic organization, and as such keep confidential any information gathered in a journalistic manner.

Fourteen of 17 surviving plaintiffs in the current civil suit subsequently dropped their cases.

"Since 1993, no court had found that we ever violated a single law," said Goldstein. "Although I am very pleased that we're down to only one plaintiff, I respectfully disagree with the [Superior] Court's analysis."

Jonathan Bernstein, regional director of the ADL, concurred, adding, "It's unfortunate that the courts are used this way."

Former U.S. Rep. Pete McCloskey, attorney for the remaining plaintiff, was out of town and could not be reached as of press time Wednesday.

The lawsuit was filed after police raids on San Francisco and Los Angles ADL offices in 1992. During those raids, confidential files revealing the names of individuals in activist groups being monitored by the ADL were confiscated.

According to Bernstein, it is not out of the ordinary or illegal for the organization to maintain that type of material. The ADL, he explained, tries to prevent hate crimes by keeping "its eyes and ears to the ground to see what's being said and done by people who might be a threat to the Jewish community."

He said they do that by gathering information or fact-finding "any way we can legally" to learn about what those groups and individuals are up to.

"And on occasion," he added, "we use confidential sources to gather information."

The use of confidential sources came into dispute following the raids, however, when then-District Attorney Arlo Smith considered bringing indictments against the ADL for alleged spy activities. One ADL investigator, Roy Bullock, was accused of obtaining illegal information on political organizations and individuals from a former San Francisco police inspector, Tom Gerard.

The ADL settled that civil suit in November 1993. Neither the agency nor Bullock had to agree to any wrongdoing or face any criminal charges, but the agency did have to agree to certain conditions:

*To refrain from obtaining confidential and prohibited information from police.

*To set up a San Francisco reward fund of up to $50,000 for hate crimes.

*To pay up to $25,000 in training costs for a public school program designed to teach students about hate crimes.

Gerard was charged with five felony counts of stealing confidential state documents but pleaded guilty to a lesser count of illegally accessing a computer. He was sentenced to three years probation, a $25,000 fine and a 45-day jail sentence that was to be spent, instead, on a sheriff's work detail.

In 1996 a related class-action lawsuit brought by a dozen human-rights group in Los Angeles was settled. At that time ADL officials agreed to get rid of certain categories of information, particularly those items obtained from the Department of Motor Vehicles, "even though it was properly and legally obtained," said Goldstein.

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