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ADL Settles Privacy Lawsuit, but Denies It Did Anything Wrong

February 27, 2002
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The Anti-Defamation League has settled a nine-year-old civil lawsuit against the agency, agreeing to pay three remaining plaintiffs $178,000.

Originally filed in 1993 by 19 plaintiffs, the lawsuit had accused the ADL of illegally obtaining and disseminating the plaintiffs’ private records for the purpose of blacklisting them.

Although the ADL decided to settle, it continues to deny all allegations of wrongdoing. After nine years, however, the organization felt that enough was enough.

"We just decided it was time to get past this and move on," said ADL attorney David Goldstein. "Otherwise, there could very well be many more years of litigation."

ADL Executive Director Jonathan Bernstein, who leads the agency’s Central Pacific Region, agreed, adding that he is "pleased that this is almost behind us now."

The plaintiffs’ attorney, former U.S. Rep. Pete McCloskey, could not be reached for comment.

The California Court of Appeals dropped the ADL’s appeal early this week. The ADL is still waiting for the court to drop the plaintiff’s appeal.

Both sides had filed appeals in July when a San Francisco Superior Court judge dismissed the cases of plaintiffs Anne Poirier and Steven Zeltzer, but not that of Jefferey Blankfort, who claimed the ADL obtained his Social Security number "for nonjournalistic purposes." Because the settlement took place before the appeals came though, the ADL agreed to compensate all three.

The ADL would have preferred to have had all the plaintiffs dismissed in July, but Goldstein said the case’s nine years of litigation did help establish "some important principles" about the agency.

In 1998, for instance, the California 1st District Court of Appeals determined that the ADL could be defined as a journalistic organization, and as such keep confidential any information gathered for journalistic purposes.

The lawsuit was originally filed after police raids on San Francisco and Los Angeles ADL offices in 1992. During those raids, confidential files revealing the names of individuals in activist groups the ADL was monitoring were confiscated.

But as a journalistic organization publishing many pamphlets, bulletins and journals, according to Bernstein, it is not out of the ordinary or illegal for the ADL to maintain that type of information, which is used to assist the agency in the prevention of hate crimes.

"It’s something we have done since we were founded in 1913," he said. "It’s a proactive way to deal with hatred before it explodes into an incident."

In 1985, for example, the ADL supplied the San Francisco Police Department with information that helped convict Coy Ray Phelps, who was charged with placing bombs at several Jewish and non-Jewish sites.

"Time and time again ADL’s background information on extremists has thwarted their agendas through successful prosecution or the outcry of the community," said Bernstein.

The need for this type of investigative activity and "keeping of files" is underscored by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said Goldstein. "Now more people are understanding of the importance" of monitoring possible extremists and "keeping a reservoir of information on them."

Following the 1992 raids, however, San Francisco’s then-District Attorney Arlo Smith considered bringing indictments against the ADL for alleged spy activities. One ADL investigator, Roy Bullock, was accused of illegally obtaining information on political organizations and individuals from a former San Francisco police inspector, Tom Gerard.

The ADL settled that civil suit in November 1993. Neither the agency nor Bullock admitted wrongdoing or faced any criminal charges, but the ADL did have to agree to certain conditions:

To refrain from obtaining confidential and prohibited information from police.

To set up a San Francisco reward fund of up to $50,000 for hate crimes.

To pay up to $25,000 in training costs for a public school program designed to teach students about hate crimes.

Gerard was charged with five felony counts of stealing confidential state documents but pleaded guilty to a lesser count of illegally accessing a computer. He was sentenced to three years probation, a $25,000 fine and a 45-day jail sentence that was to be spent, instead, on a sheriff’s work detail.

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