- The Washington Times - Monday, September 18, 2000

RICHMOND Controversy has found Richmond City Council member Sa'ad El-Amin once again.
The one-time street activist and Nation of Islam lawyer, whose law license has been suspended for four years for neglecting clients' cases and who recently almost lost his home because of missed mortgage payments, now is being investigated over a four-day trip to Jamaica for which he wants the city to pay.
Mr. El-Amin, 60, is best known as the man who last year demanded that a portrait of Robert E. Lee be removed from a public walkway in Richmond and who has since turned a critical eye to Monument Avenue, a historic street that includes several large statues of Confederate war heroes.
"We have to dismantle this whole Confederate infrastructure because it glorifies slavery," Mr. El-Amin has said.
But to residents of the one-time capital of the Confederacy, Mr. El-Amin is a man whose political and private life have kept him in the spotlight for more than 30 years.
Now he's embroiled in a dispute over whether the city will reimburse him for the four-day trip he took last month to Jamaica he says for city business, but council colleagues aren't so sure.
Mayor Timothy M. Kaine has asked city Commonwealth's Attorney David Hicks to conduct an investigation, which Mr. Hicks expects to complete in a couple of weeks.
Mr. El-Amin says he made the trip to look into making Negril or another Jamaican city a sister city to Richmond, to help tourism. He says his itinerary, which he submitted as part of a post-trip report, will prove that. He wants the city to pick up the $1,115 tab for airfare and incidentals meals and hotel were comped, he said.
Mr. Kaine conditionally approved the trip beforehand because Mr. El-Amin came to him the day before he was to begin the trip. The mayor, who is elected by the council from among its members, is one of three council members who can approve travel.
Mr. El-Amin didn't have a written itinerary at the time, and Mr. Kaine told him final approval would depend on his ability when he returned to prove the trip was for a good cause.
Mr. Kaine says Mr. El-Amin who is chairman of the council's Economic Development Committee said prior to the trip that it was for economic development. Mr. El-Amin's post-trip explanation of finding a sister city likely would not have been an approved reason for travel, Mr. Kaine said. He said the council has made it clear it thinks Richmond's six existing sister cities are enough.
"The bottom line is I don't know. The report Mr. El-Amin did does not answer my questions," Mr. Kaine said.
In the report, Mr. El-Amin details his meetings with tourism officials, but noticeably absent are meetings with Jamaican government officials something council members wanted to see as proof of Mr. El-Amin's goals in Jamaica.
Mr. El-Amin did include in the report the travel records of all the other members of council over the last two fiscal years and he charges that the fault lies not with him but with the council's travel policy.
"This is an extreme, politically inspired and motivated smear tactic on the part of Mr. Kaine and his cohorts," Mr. El-Amin said.
Council members said they'll try to revise their travel policy to require an itinerary beforehand.
From conversations, it's clear most Richmond politicos think Mr. El-Amin's trip was purely personal business. And the phrase "send him to Jamaica with Sa'ad" was the punch line to several jokes among the audience at last Monday's council meeting.
Mr. Hicks, the city prosecutor, said the primary question for his investigators is whether the trip was for legitimate council business or entirely personal. Misuse of public funds for personal reasons is a crime.
But, he said, it's possible that even if the trip was for personal reasons, the council's vague travel policy might make prosecution difficult.
Even if prosecution isn't possible, though, council members can make Mr. El-Amin pay for the trip if Mr. Hicks finds it was for personal business.
It's not the first time Mr. El-Amin's personal life has strained his political image.
Mr. El-Amin, first elected to the council in 1998 and re-elected this year with more than 60 percent of the vote, has been a controversial figure at every level in college, in law school and beyond.
Style Weekly, a Richmond weekly city paper, called him "Richmond's most controversial lawyer," who set a state record for contempt-of-court violations.
When the Yale Law School graduate arrived in Richmond in 1969, he was JeRoyd Wiley Greene. He soon changed his name to JeRoyd X Greene, and later changed it to Sa'ad El-Amin while serving as chief counsel for the Nation of Islam in the mid-1970s.
Last year, his law license was suspended by a panel of judges, and a bank tried to foreclose on his house after he missed mortgage payments. He reached an agreement with the bank that kept him in the house.
During his college and graduate school years, he made his mark as a speaker and activist. In one incident at a 1968 memorial service in New Haven, Conn., for Martin Luther King, he urged fellow students to burn the city.
In the 1980s, he served as president of Richmond's Crusade for Voters, which in the 1950s pushed for school desegregation in Richmond, and he has since become an important political organizer.
Last year he forced the removal of the portrait of Lee from the city history murals. The mural was later replaced with another one of Lee, though that one was firebombed earlier this year. When that happened, Mr. El-Amin said it should not be replaced.
He is urging officials now to investigate overruns in the police department. He criticized Mr. Kaine when he suggested the city use $6,600 in city money to send busloads of Richmonders to the anti-gun Million Mom March on the Mall this year.
Mr. El-Amin seems to enjoy support in the mostly black 6th District, as is evidenced by this year's election results.
Barbara L. Marshall, a resident of his district, said she voted for Mr. El-Amin but now is embarrassed for having done so. "It all started with that mural," she said, and added that to her, Lee is part of the city's history and Mr. El-Amin's time could be better spent working on promises he made during the campaigns.

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