Efforts by Jewish groups and members of Congress to terminate federal contracts with Nation of Islam affiliates are getting a new boost by a lawsuit filed against the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
The American Jewish Congress has filed suit to determine whether the prisons bureau has hired or considered hiring affiliates of the Nation of Islam to provide counseling services to federal prison inmates.
For the past year, Jewish activists and members of Congress have been calling on the administration to examine Nation of Islam-affiliated business that receive federal funding through contracts. They charge that the organization headed by Louis Farrakhan violated federal employment requirements.
Given the Nation of Islam’s “well-documented and very public record of bigotry, it is inconceivable that the Nation of Islam is an equal opportunity employer,” said Michael Lieberman, associate director of the Washington office of the Anti-Defamation League, which has been involved with the push to examine the contracts.
“It’s not appropriate that taxpayers’ funds be spent to pay bigots,” said Marc Stern, co-director of the legal department of AJCongress.
The lawsuit has been filed under the Freedom of Information Act to force the prisons bureau to release records of any Nation of Islam affiliates contracted to provide counseling services to inmates.
Apart from violations of employment regulations, those who espouse anti- Semitism and racial separatism “should not be what the government holds up to prisons inmates as a model to society,” Stern said.
Attempts to reach the Nation of Islam were unsuccessful, and the prisons bureau did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the lawsuit.
By law, the government has 60 days to respond to requests under the Freedom of Information Act.
AJCongress expects notification by the end of October. The lawsuit against the prisons bureau comes largely out of frustration, after months of being “stonewalled” in attempts to access prisons bureau records, Stern said.
It also comes at a time of disappointment among Jewish groups and members of Congress over the administration’s apparent unwillingness to confront the Nation of Islam.
Last month, the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced the completion of an investigation of Nation of Islam affiliates that provide security services to low-income federal housing projects. Contracts with three affiliates in three cities were not renewed for unspecified reasons. HUD elected not to continue investigating contracts in Baltimore, New York and Dayton, Ohio, housing projects.
Although Jewish groups said HUD’s investigation clearly did not go far enough, they saw some encouraging news in the administration’s actions.
“The fact that these contracts have been canceled indicates that free ride is over for the Nation of Islam,” Stern said.
Earlier this year, Jewish groups and members of Congress had asked HUD to determine whether the security firms, which held about $10 million in federal contracts, were in violation of equal employment requirements.
In what it now admits was a “limited” initial investigation, HUD found no “widespread or systematic” problems in employment practices, essentially clearing the security firms of wrongdoing.
In a hearing before Congress prompted by Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros said further investigations of the Nation of Islam would “simply be using government resources to persecute” the organization.
Jewish groups blasted HUD, calling the investigation “limited and inadequate.”
Cisneros later sought to make amends by denouncing Farrakhan’s hate speech and labeling HUD’s investigation “ongoing.”
In an Aug. 25 letter to King, Cisneros cited several security contracts with Nation of Islam-affiliated agencies that have been terminated as a result of this investigation.
HUD decided not to renew contracts in Chicago, Buffalo and Washington, D.C., while a review in Baltimore remains open.
In addition, a New York security firm has been cleared of charges that it had been proselytizing and engaging in improper religious recruitment.
“The message has clearly gone out that there’s a political price to pay for dealing with the Nation of Islam,” Stern said, adding, “These are no longer considered sacrosanct contracts.”
Stern added, however, that AJCongress remains frustrated by the government’s reluctance to pursue a “formal, frank, head-on investigation.”
In his letter to King, Cisneros said he had referred the issue to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which has jurisdiction over “civil rights- related problems.”
Three government agencies – HUD, the EEOC and the Department of Labor – have looked at the matter, and all have “kicked the ball” over the jurisdiction, Stern said.
The labor department’s “lack of interest” is particularly “outrageous,” Stern said, adding that the administration appears to be shying away from a direct confrontation with the Nation of Islam.
In a related matter, the Department of Health and Human Services has been investigating a Washington AIDS clinic affiliated with the Nation of Islam since April.
The investigation is focusing on patient discrimination at the Abundant Life Clinic, which is run by Farrakhan’s national spokesman, Abdul Alim Muhammad. The alternative treatment center receives more than $500,000 in federal funding through contracts with local health offices.
HHS officials said they could not comment on the investigation while it remains open.
King, who has led congressional efforts to uncover Nation of Islam contracts, said he shares AJCongress’ frustration over the government’s slow movement in both the HUD and HHS investigations.
“After about a year of complete stonewalling and no cooperation, we’re starting to get halfway cooperation,” King said through a spokesman. “Everything is like pulling teeth.”
King plans to pressure the administration to step up its investigations and will also push for another round of congressional hearings, his press secretary said.
In addition, King has introduced a bill called the Hate Group Public Funding Exclusion Act that would prevent the federal government from contracting with hate groups. The bill has 21 co-sponsors and has been referred to the House Banking Committee.
“It is my view that these contracts are helping to finance Farrakhan’s empire of hate,” King said earlier this year.
AJCongress is not endorsing the bill, calling it “imprudent” and possibly unconstitutional. If the bill passes, Stern said, it may be perceived “as an attempt to quash people who disagree with the government, making Farrakhan a martyr to the First Amendment.”
AJCongress intends to keep the political pressure on in coming months. Stern said the group would push for the House Banking Committee to reconvene hearings and continue to impel the Labor Department to fulfill what he sees as its “obligation” to investigate.