Thursday, October 11, 2007

Legislation is moving through Congress to block the Justice Department from providing financial support to participate in conventions held by groups designated by the government as unindicted co-conspirators in federal court cases.

The measure sponsored by Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, is in response to the department’s recent participation in a convention held by the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA).

The Justice Department named ISNA as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation, which the government is prosecuting for raising $12 million for Hamas. As the trial proceeded last month, Justice officials sponsored a booth at ISNA’s annual convention, angering some Republicans.

“Prohibiting the Justice Department from supporting conferences held by organizations linked to terrorism and capping the overall amount the department can spend on conferences will assist the department to better prioritize both its spending and mission,” Mr. Coburn said.

Erik Ablin, Justice Department spokesman, said officials are concerned about the amendment and plan to share those concerns with Congress.

“The department’s goal in these efforts was to educate the public about how the department works to protect religious freedom, voting rights, economic opportunity and many other rights,” he said. “A variety of other federal agencies participated as well, including the United States military, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, the Department of Defense and USAID.”

The legislation caps overall conference spending by the Justice Department to $15 million for the next year, an estimated $31 million in savings.

The Justice Department spent $312 million on conferences between 2000 and 2006, according to an inspector general investigation — nearly twice the amount of the State Department, which convenes meetings worldwide for diplomatic purposes.

Justice officials have declined to say how much money was spent to sponsor a booth and send several lawyers from Washington to Chicago for the Labor Day event.

“Clearly, in the post-September 11 world, the tens of millions of dollars spent every year by the Justice Department on conferences would be much better spent investigating and prosecuting terrorists,” Mr. Coburn said.

In a letter to then-Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, Reps. Peter Hoekstra, Michigan Republican and ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and Sue Myrick, North Carolina Republican, called the Justice Department’s involvement a “grave mistake.”

“In light of the threat that our nation … is currently facing from radical jihadists, and because of the president’s commitment to fighting the war on terror on all fronts, we believe it is a grave mistake to provide legitimacy to an organization with extremist origins, leadership and a radical agenda,” the lawmakers said.

The amendment, which was approved by a voice vote to a spending measure, states that “no funds appropriated under this act may be used to support a conference sponsored by any organization named as an unindicted co-conspirator by the government in any criminal prosecution.”

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