By Greg Moses
The thing about courthouse reporting is the stories come packaged for delivery. For a thirty-dollar check and a five-minute wait, the clerk at the federal courthouse will hand you a document whose news value comes pre-certified by affiants with impeccable credentials, signed off by a U.S. Magistrate Judge.
“That’s sixty pages,” she says, not meaning to remind you of the audio thud that television producers delivered yesterday when they dropped this report in front of the camera from two feet above the desk.
Walking back out the silent stone building, past the metal detector, wishing the courteous guardian a nice afternoon, I wonder that times have changed so many of these heavyweight buildings into inner sanctums. Thank goodness that I could explain myself briefly.
Standing later in the May shade across from the Texas capitol, sipping a short cup of coffee, I am nothing but depressed, having stopped off at the pizza joint for a stuffed slice and preview of the thudding federal litany that served in late February to warrant the search of the South Austin home of Riad Hamad. It is a summary of the last chapter of his life.
“We had a very unpleasant visit from the FBI and IRS agents yesterday morning and they walked out with more than 40 boxes of tax returns, forms, documents, books, flags, cds etc.,” wrote Riad Hamad in a Feb. 29 email that was quickly forwarded across the internet. “The special agent said that they have a probable cause for money laundering, wire fraud, bank fraud..etc and I think that all of it stems from more than 35 years of watching me.”
Indeed, the 60-page package, unsealed last week by the federal court in Austin, contains an affidavit which swears that Riad Hamad’s home had been under surveillance enough to be able to report license plate numbers from his car and those driven by his closest companions in life.
There is a fourteen page inventory of the stuff that was taken from Riad Hamad’s house on Feb. 27. Miscellaneous bills seized from the dashboard of a BMW. Notepad with notes seized from a briefcase in a Ford Explorer. Tax return info found in a canvas bag. Deposit slips. Paycheck stubs. Spreadsheets of addresses, names, phone numbers. Articles of Incorporation for the Arab-American Cultural Society. Miscellaneous medical records.
From the top stereo shelf of the kitchen the feds seized CD Roms. From the second shelf they took cassette and camcorder tapes. From the dresser in the master bedroom they grabbed various letters. From the kitchen table some W-2 forms. From luggage in the master bedroom they removed the airline luggage tags.
They took the Dell Optiplex, the HP Pavillion, the Gateway laptop, and both Compaq Presarios, along with two generic thumb drives, one Kingston 2GB media card, and two floppy disks.
From master closet (hers) they took passports. From master closet (his) they took 80 video tapes. From the master bedroom nightstand they took a sheet of paper with handwriting. And from the family room they took something called “Volkswagon of America.”
From the master bedroom desk they took medical bills (’98 forward) and house purchase documents. From the trash can outside the house they pulled a postal service package sent from Stone Ridge, NY to Riad Hamad.
And David Rovics, if you’re out there listening, they took your CD, too, from a file cabinet in the office. That’s some of the stuff listed up to page 8 of 14, but that’s enough, don’t you think, to get the picture. They came to Riad Hamad’s house, and they cleaned him out.
Well, maybe we should also mention (from page 11 of 14) that on the piano they found a book entitled, “War on Freedom.”
They don’t say what they found in the safety deposit box when that was searched, too.
The federal agent who asked for the search warrant works for the Joint Terrorism Task Force, and he sets forth a case of probable cause involving “an illegal fraud scheme through the use of non-profit organizations, false documents submitted via U.S. Postal Service, false documents transmitted via wire communications, the failure to file federal income tax returns for the years 1999 through 2003 and 2005, and tax evasion for the years 1999 through 2006.”
There is absolutely no probable cause that Riad Hamad had anything to do with terrorism. Some sizable cash payments were allegedly delivered via ATM to the Occupied Palestinian Territories. But according to Google, the man named in the affidavit as the one who received those payments appears to be a well-known nonviolent activist. In fact, the affidavit says very little about where Riad Hamad spent his money.
“Hamad sends large amounts of money to the Middle East and/or to charities that forwarded these funds to the Middle East. The disposition of these funds is unknown at this time.”
At the website for the Palestine Children’s Welfare Fund, is a list that has not been referenced in the affidavit or by any press reports about the affidavit. There Riad Hamad offers some accounting of his donations and spending. According to my calculations, based upon the materials that he posted online, Riad Hamad publicly declared donations in the amount of $491,751.05 and expenses in the amount of $331,897.00 for the period starting Jan. 1, 2002 and ending Jan. 31, 2008.
Beginning in 2005, however, there are large gaps in the online numbers, some of them apparently due to inadvertent sloppiness. For example, Riad Hamad posted a document that purports to show donations from 2005, but actually shows donations from 2006. Therefore, he posted the 2006 numbers twice, probably without realizing that he had overwritten his previous file.
“Most small nonprofits have terrible record-keeping,” writes an Austin attorney who helped Riad Hamad find a lawyer after the Feb. 27 raid. On that count, Riad Hamad appears guilty as the rest.
Federal agents hinted that Riad Hamad may have been a tax protester, too.
“Hamad also filed a document titled ‘Redirect TAX Money AWAY from Israel’ with the IRS,” says the affidavit. “Your affiant believes that this form is used by ‘anti-tax’ groups as a way for them to justify not filing federal income tax returns or not paying income tax to the IRS.” Riad Hamad sent in the form twice, during 2002 and 2007. He also declared zero withholding from his paychecks. And when he filed for an extension in 2005, “Hamad listed his tax liability, Total 2005 payments, Balance due, and Amount you are paying as being $0.00 for all of the line items.”
So far, we have a story of a big-hearted man with a temper for justice who worked fast but loose in the cause of Palestinian children’s welfare. This is the man that everyone says they know well. It is the man that I talked to once by telephone when he was helping the incarcerated Palestinian families at the T. Don Hutto prison in Texas.
As a boy growing up in Beirut, Riad Hamad would look from his widow over tented communities. This is how he remembered it for me:
“What are those tents, Daddy?”
“Those are the Palestinians, Riad. They are waiting to return home.”
Could that boy grow up to be capable of drowning himself at the age of 55 in despair over what things had come to? Could he put duct tape over his own eyes, bind his own feet and hands, and shuffle himself down into Austin’s Lady Bird Lake?
“He didn’t seem suicidal,” says one Austin attorney who met with Riad Hamad after the raid. And in an email to me on March 1, Riad Hamad dashed off the phrase, “will fight like hell.”
But when Riad Hamad called his friend Paul Larudee via cell phone on the evening of April 14, he spoke in a hushed voice. And when Larudee shared news that a donation
had arrived at the new California address of the PCWF, Riad Hamad said, “Well, it doesn’t matter.” He would be dead by April 15. Was it the ultimate tax protest?
Beyond this point the affidavit veers into pathetic allegations about the background details of Riad Hamad’s home finances. Checks written via credit card accounts. Student loans from several colleges. Stock accounts. I can understand why Riad Hamad would not want to face these public humiliations.
By chance on the bus home I am reading Derrida’s discussion about the role that pity plays in Rousseau’s account of human morality. Isn’t pity a good word for what young Riad Hamad must have felt as he peered out his window upon the Palestinian refugee camps of the 1950s? Isn’t pity a good word for what motivates so many people, as Paul Larudee explains, who actually travel to Palestine and experience the pain of dispossession up close? And isn’t pity what I right now feel for the kind of pain that must have consumed the last days of Riad Hamad’s life?
Riad Hamad never could reconcile himself to a world where so many people could know so much about the Palestinian children, and care less.
Salamat, Riad Hamad. They are selling your suicide note down at the federal courthouse today.
Salamat, Riad Hamad. Would you have us buy it?