Smoldering Thoughts

Bananas, money, and blocking a common sense anti-terror bill


German leader Otto von Bismarck is credited with saying, “Laws are like sausages, it is better not see them being made.” Last week, I discussed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA for short), a bill that has been knocking around Washington D. C. for nearly five years. JASTA would expand liability for terrorist attacks to those who helped fund them. The bill, which has bipartisan support, was conceived when family members of 9/11 victims ran into roadblocks in their efforts to sue financial supporters of the attacks.

The Senate managed to pass JASTA in early December of 2014, but the House did not take it up in the last Congress.

Here we are in January, 2015, and the process begins anew. Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas and Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer of New York will introduce a new Senate version at some point. Over in the House of Representatives, Republican Representative Peter King and Democratic Representative Jerrold Nadler will most likely re-introduce a House version.

Backers are cautiously optimistic, based on the positive action in the Senate in December, that this common sense anti-terrorism bill will finally make it out of a House Committee and to the president’s desk for a signature. Last year, Republican Congressman Bob Goodlatte, kept JASTA bottled up in the House Judiciary Committee that he chairs.

Why was JASTA stalled in the Judiciary Committee? Well, according to Congressional lobbying disclosures, Chiquita (yes, the banana conglomerate) has spent some $780,000 over the past year and a half lobbying against JASTA. Does this mean that Chiquita somehow supports terrorists and the people and governments that fund them? The answer, like a high-stakes, high money Facebook relationship, is ‘complicated’. By any yardstick, $780,000 is a lot of bananas to spend stalling a bill.

A LITTLE BACKGROUND

For about seven years, beginning in 1997, Chiquita made payments to the United Self Defense Forces of Columbia (AUC), a paramilitary group designated by the United States as a terrorist organization. The fruit company has maintained that it only made payments due to extortionary threats of violence, and reacted to protect the lives of its workers. Chiquita paid a $25 million fine and admitted paying nearly $2 million in cash and checks to the terrorist group. Adding an interesting twist to his entire episode, Chiquita, was represented by now Attorney General Eric Holder in those legal affairs.

“Does [AUC] financing make Chiquita liable for the acts of terrorism and murder committed by those terrorists? That’s the question,” said Terry Collingsworth, a lawyer involved in a lawsuit against Chiquita, in an article published by online news site The Daily Beast. “To the extent that JASTA changes that or clarifies that standard, it would present a threat to Chiquita.”

Having acknowledged payments to terrorists — though they claim to be extorted — Chiquita’s interests conflict with those of 9/11 victims’ families. No one is suggesting that Chiquita and AUC had anything to do with the 9/11 attacks; however, by expanding the liability of groups that have aided and abetted terrorism, the bill incidentally became relevant to Chiquita.

Using the high-powered lobbying firm of Covington and Burling, Chiquita’s lobbyists approached lawmakers with Chiquita facilities in their districts, as well as members of Congress with influence over this legislation. They found an ally in Goodlatte, a Republican who has represented the Lynchburg and Roanoke areas of Virginia in a safe Republican district for over 20 years. Members of the group 9/11 Families United for Justice against Terrorism met with Zachary Somers, a senior aide to Congressman Goodlatte.

During that meeting one member of the group, a minister, wept openly. At another point, one attendee blurted out that the only part of her husband’s body that was recovered was his head. Meanwhile, the group claims, Somers acted dismissive and at one point in the meeting picked lint off his jacket. Then Somers said his boss had objections to their bill.

When asked if Chiquita had approached Goodlatte’s office, and whether Chiquita had been the only group to express concerns, Somers replied affirmatively on both counts, according to three participants in the meeting. Asked which companies and groups oppose the legislation, Goodlatte’s office said 20 groups opposed JASTA but refused to name any of them.

Terry Strada, whose husband died in the Twin Towers, and who acts as spokesperson for the 9/11 family’s survivors group, remains hopeful that common sense will trump the massive lobbying forces opposed to JASTA. “I do think this is the year,” she told me in a telephone interview. “We feel good about getting it (JASTA) reintroduced and just moving forward.”

As the sausage grinder keeps moving, we will keep readers apprised of any developments on JASTA as the new Congress takes up the peoples’ business.

Gary Giacomo is the editor of The California Fire Service magazine and the CSFA Connection. He may be reached at ggiacomo@csfa.net.