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Lawyers for Terrorists

The Legal Aid Society donates time--but not money--to some suspected terrorists.

11:01 PM, Nov 18, 2001 • By ELIZABETH ROYAL
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SINCE SEPTEMBER 11, Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly has grilled representatives of charities, demanding that they account for the millions of dollars they've collected for victims' families. His show, "The O'Reilly Factor," has also featured a number of widows and widowers who haven't yet received a cent. Like a lot of Americans, O'Reilly wants to know why it is taking so long to distribute the charity funds.

Others have raised questions about who is receiving the money. Thus, the September 11th Fund (established by the New York Community Trust and the United Way) gave $171,000 to the Legal Aid Society to provide "immediate direct legal services to the thousands of lower-income individuals working in or near the World Trade Center (including cleaning staff, waiters, messengers, vendors, etc.) who were directly affected by the terrorist attack." Controversy arose when a watchdog group in Falls Church, Virginia, the National Legal and Policy Center, announced that Legal Aid was also using resources to provide free legal assistance to Arabs detained in Brooklyn after September 11 on immigration violations. Ken Boehm, chairman of the center, said his organization could not affirm that the $171,000 was used on behalf of the detained immigrants, only that there was an apparent conflict of interest in subsidizing both victims of the attacks and detained suspects.

Janet Sabel, head of the immigration division of New York's Legal Aid Society, explained in a November 1 Wall Street Journal article that each of the inmates her organization represented "had something that seemed 'suspicious' on the surface, such as attendance at a flight school or odd travel plans." They were being "treated as security risks, and interviewed by the FBI with almost no opportunity to get first counsel."

But Immigration and Naturalization spokesman Russell Bergeron countered that "it is unrealistic to use pre-September 11 cases as a basis for comparison on how people taken into custody in connection with this investigation should be treated." He would not comment on any particular detainee, but he remarked, "It's wrong to think that the immigration charges are the only reason individuals are being held."

The Legal Aid Society, which bills itself as "the nation's oldest and largest provider of legal services to the indigent," has an annual budget of over $135 million, derived from federal, state, and city grants as well as contributions from corporations, foundations, law firms, and individuals. A spokesman says Legal Aid spent no money representing the three detainees who were its clients, although "lawyers spent time on the cases."

In another statement, Legal Aid announced it had "recently learned that two cases involve issues beyond immigration violations." Therefore Legal Aid staff "cannot provide further immigration assistance." The third case they accepted "facilitated a settlement."

It's nice to know that the Legal Aid Society finally blanched at representing suspected terrorists. But it would have been better to have done so sooner.

Elizabeth Royal is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.