The Will Adams Embargo

The sad saga of how the feds hounded a senior citizen over, what else, Cuba

So what does a guy who plays by the rules do when he thinks his government is putting the screws to him? He writes to his congressmen.

Adams sent letters to U.S. Senators Bob Graham and Bill Nelson and to his House representative, Peter Deutsch, asking them for help. Each politician dutifully contacted OFAC and each received an identical reply from Newcomb. It informed the elected officials of the $10,000 Penalty Notice issued to the Adamses for violations under the Trading With the Enemy Act. It also acknowledged Will-Bob's request for an appeal. "The constituents have requested reconsideration of the Notice," Newcomb allowed. "Upon receipt of the previously requested taxpayer identification numbers, OFAC will reconsider the Notice."

Steve Satterwhite
From morning commute to bedtime, Adams wonders: Just who does his government think the enemy is here?
Steve Satterwhite
From morning commute to bedtime, Adams wonders: Just who does his government think the enemy is here?

Each politician forwarded Newcomb's note to Adams, offered little to no encouragement, and wished him well. "I hope you find this information helpful," Graham wrote, adding, "I hope you will always feel free to call on me." Nelson was slightly less optimistic. "I hope this explanation adequately addresses the concerns you raised," he stated. "I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to look into this issue. If I can assist you with any other matter, please do not hesitate to let me know." Deutsch offered no hopes at all. "Enclosed is a copy of the response I received, which is self-explanatory," he asserted. "I regret that circumstances preclude a more favorable reply."

Among those circumstances is a political reality in which these three Florida Democrats work hard to maintain the pro-embargo credentials that help win elections in the Sunshine State. Thus abandoned by his three most powerful public servants, Adams began to prepare for defeat. He wrote to OFAC and offered to work out a payment plan. "I want to get this affair settled, even though I am not guilty of any wrongdoing," he penned this year in an April 26 letter. "I was under the assumption, apparently my error, that in America, one is presumed innocent until proven guilty."

Believe it or not, the federal government does consider Adams -- and hundreds of other U.S. citizens in the same boat -- guilty. Just to make sure, New Times called OFAC's public information line in Washington to ask whether one was free to sail to Cuba as long as one didn't spend money. "Sure you can," boomed OFAC information specialist Jackie Hillian. "But it is your responsibility to explain to customs how you were able to travel to Cuba and not spend any money. Customs is going to forward the information to us." Hillian, paraphrasing current rules, said a satisfactory explanation would include a letter from the foreign national who hosted the guilty-until-proven-innocent traveler, as well as "copies of receipts of what was paid on your behalf and why." And if the host doesn't want his name disclosed because he is not subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, or the traveler wants to protect his host's privacy? Or, as Adams maintains, he doesn't know Canadian Jack's last name or how to find him five years later? "Then you're going to be fined," Hillian assured.

Some lawyers believe the travel ban is unconstitutional. Earlier this year U.S. Senators Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) held subcommittee hearings on the matter. Among those who testified was Nancy Chang, a lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, which represents about 400 U.S. citizens whom the Bush administration has targeted for traveling to Cuba. The ban undermines civil liberties "without enhancing national security," she asserted to a Senate Foreign Relations Committee panel. For example, OFAC is violating the Fifth Amendment, which protects one from being deprived of liberty without due process. To make her point she quoted Justice William Douglas from a 1964 majority opinion: "Freedom of movement is the very essence of our free society.... Once the right to travel is curtailed, all other rights suffer." The ban also violates the First Amendment, she submitted, and quoted Douglas from a 1965 dissenting opinion: "The right to know, to converse with others, to consult with them, to observe social, physical, political, and other phenomena abroad as well as at home gives meaning and substance to freedom of expression and freedom of the press."

Chang noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has not considered the travel ban since 1984, when a five-to-four majority justified the restrictions on the basis of the Cuban government's close military ties to the Soviets. "The restrictions on travel to Cuba have long outlived their usefulness," she concluded. "The arbitrary and unfair manner in which they have been applied only serve to breed contempt and disrespect for the laws of this nation."

In addition to these arguments, there is an interesting technicality that Wild Bill could pursue for his client. The language that ensnared Adams -- i.e., that a person who travels to Cuba "shall be presumed to have engaged in travel-related transactions" -- was added to the regulations in May 1999 under the Clinton administration, nearly a year after the fateful sailboat trip. (Wild Bill, a.k.a. William Heffernan, did not respond to a request for comment.) Although Adams is not currently on Chang's roster, she thinks that his case could be worth litigating. "I think that there are serious questions raised by that presumption," Chang told New Times. "It's an unfair presumption. If the government seeks to enforce it, the Center for Constitutional Rights is prepared to challenge it in court."

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