Presumed Guilty: DOC Moorish Americans Saga

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[You And The Law]




The year was 1997.  New York City was more than five years away from the devastation and destruction of the World Trade Center. 

Yet, brewing inside the New York City Department of Investigation (DOI)  was a hysteria that would that would erupt into an insidious disease: the paranoia that New York City Department of Corrections (DOC) employees who had adopted the Moorish-American religion (also referred to as the “Beys” and “Els”) posed a “security threat” or a “security concern” to that Department. 

Incredibly, despite the Bill of Rights and individual liberties embodied in the freedom of religion, freedom of association, freedom of speech and due process, among other things, members of the Moorish American religion were accused of posing a “security concern” to the DOC merely because of their membership in the Moorish Nation.  Meritless accusations that Moorish Americans posed a security concern resulted in the recommendation of discharge for at least 22 DOC employees despite their long and faithful service to the Department and, in some cases, despite their honorable discharges from branches of the United States military.  At least 18 employees were fired.  DOC Moorish Americans were presumed guilty of engaging in unlawful conduct without an ounce of proof in the name of “security concerns.”

More than 10 years have passed since the DOC snatched hardworking corrections officers from their posts, without warning, suspended them for 30 days without pay and ultimately fired them.  December 2007 marked the 10 year anniversary of a dark point in the history of New York City’s public employees. 

The union to whom these officers paid dues to protect their rights, the Correction Officers Benevolent Association (COBA) readily sacrificed them on the altar of this, the new McCarthyism.  Basic constitutional rights were trampled upon and discarded.  As new allegations of termination for mere association have recently surfaced in news reports, it is appropriate to review the real story behind the case of the “Beys” and “Els.”

Many readers will recall the infamous “tax fraud” investigation  into City employees led by the Department of Investigations (DOI).  In April 1996, the DOI received a tip that numerous DOC employees submitted federal and state tax forms to the DOC claiming “99” exemptions in an effort to avoid paying income taxes.  The practice of submitting tax forms to the DOC claiming 99 exemptions was nothing new.  Since at least 1991, DOC employees regularly claimed “99” or “exempt” on tax forms submitted to the DOC Payroll Department. 

Then-Inspector General, Michael Caruso, spearheaded an investigation of DOC employees to determine whether corrections employees had engaged in misconduct with respect to tax documentation submitted  in connection with their City employment.  A check of the payroll management system showed that 1,214 DOC employees  had supplied the Department with what Caruso determined to be “false tax information,” that is,  tax forms claiming “99", “exempt”, or exempt because of “foreign status”,  including but not limited to disgraced former Correction department Commissioner Bernard Kerik’s lover, Jeannette Pinero and Moorish American employees.  The tax documents submitted by the “Bey” and “Els” were never processed by the DOC Personnel Division.

Then, around July 12, 1996, Caruso read a fax from  the New York Police Department (NYPD) concerning individuals with “Moorish National” license plates.  The NYPD bulletin claimed, among other things, that members “of the Detective Bureau should use extreme caution and remain on alert when making car stops or when interacting with these individuals.  Members of a group, known as ‘The Great Seal Association of Moorish Affairs’, have been  previously arrested and are suspected of armed robberies and  trafficking in high-powered automatic weapons.” 

Members of the service were also advised to be alert to individuals that express “anti-government rhetoric,” and  that these individuals should be reported to the intelligence division.  The NYPD bulletin did not contain any information which could be independently verified.  For example, the memorandum did not say when the car stop occurred;  it did not name a single individual involved in the car stop;  it did not state the name of anyone associated with the Great Seal who had been arrested and when they were arrested, and for what reason;  and, it did not name anyone suspected of “armed robberies and  trafficking in high-powered automatic weapons” who were associated with the Great Seal or the Moorish Nation.  Finally, the NYPD bulletin did not identify the individual  in the car stop as a law enforcement or corrections employee.

Despite the absence of credible information, widespread constitutional abuses engulfed the DOI’s efforts to ferret out Moorish Americans from the DOC’s ranks. The DOC, under the direction of the DOI,  launched a policy to “get rid of the Moors.” Records were kept of employees who identified themselves as Moorish American.  Beginning in mid-1995, DOC employees who had adopted the Moorish American faith advised the Department of that fact, by submitting “name change” forms and the supporting documents to formally use their Moorish names on DOC documents. 

DOI staffers intensively searched through those documents and created a list of all DOC employees identified as “Moorish American.” DOI employees scoured filed lawsuits to determine who was claiming to be Moorish American.  Pedigree sheets added “Moorish Nation member” as  intelligence information.  Terms such as “security risk,” “security threat,” and “security concern” were whispered and repeated. 

Indiscriminate use of dubious “informers,” wiretapping, surveillance, neighborhood snooping and a sting operation of the Moorish Temple  was employed.  In their quest to obtain information, even DOC employees who were not members of the Moorish Nation were wiretapped. 

Despite the covert operations, Caruso did not obtain evidence that any of the Moorish Americans now fighting in this litigation had been suspected of armed robberies or that they  trafficked in automatic weapons.  The investigation did not uncover information  to show that  the fired Moorish Americans organized or committed  armed  robberies or  possessed the proceeds of armed  robberies. 

In short, Caruso could not prove that the targeted Moorish Americans had anything at all to do with the allegations in the NYPD bulletin. And, yet, because of their mere membership with the Moorish religion, Caruso hatched a plan to eliminate these employees from the DOC.  Former DOC Commissioners Michael Jacobson, Bernard Kerik and William Fraser did not take a single step to remedy the flagrant constitutional abuses occurring under their noses. 

Among other things, they were grossly negligent in supervising subordinates who committed the violations and were deliberately indifferent to the rights of the “Beys” and “Els.” The late Edward Kuriansky simply allowed Caruso to run amok in the DOI. Union officials provided inadequate representation, if any.  Steven Issacs, at the time a union attorney, informed Caruso’s office of the activities of union members in the United States Constitutional Task Force, including “other unnamed,” dues-paying “Beys.” 

Eventually, the Department of Taxation and Finance identified 85 individuals for arrest.  Significantly, of the remaining 1,000-plus DOC employees not arrested, Caruso’s office wrote memoranda of complaints against only the 23 correction personnel who had submitted paperwork claiming exemption from tax withholding based on their membership in the Moorish Nation.  DOC personnel not identified with the Moorish Nation but who nonetheless had submitted paperwork claiming exemption from tax withholding based on other theories, that is, they were “non-resident aliens,” immune/exempt from taxation, and not subject to the jurisdiction of the United States and/or the State of New York, or some combination of these claims, were ignored until two years after the tax investigation closed in July 1999.  Even then, the DOC did not demand their discharge.

On December 3, 1997, Caruso recommended the summary suspension and termination of the Moorish American employees based upon his receipt of the NYPD bulletin and the documents they submitted to the DOC to support their name change. But, these individuals were merely told that they were being suspended and ultimately charged for misconduct based upon their submission of “false tax information” to the NYC DOC. The fired Moorish Americans were never told that the NYPD bulletin played a role in the selective treatment they received. Caruso admits that Moorish Americans were not told that the NYPD bulletin was one of the factors considered in suspending and terminating them.

Before their discharge, these individuals were never told that they posed a “security risk,” a “security concern,” or a “security threat.” They were entitled to receive a presumption of innocence rather than to bear the presumption of guilt. No one from the DOI or the DOC ever interviewed them about the NYPD bulletin or submission of their tax documents.  The presumption of guilt was manifested in a modified duty assignment in a rodent infested, abandoned building without co-worker contact. Indeed, co-workers, fueled by Caruso’s hysteria, ridiculed the “Beys” and the “Els” by writing “99 Club/Muslim” on locker room walls. Formal complaints were lodged. DOC officials never investigated the matter. DOC friends were terrorized into severing all ties to “the Beys” and “Els.” 

The conduct of Caruso, the DOI and the DOC, among others, attached a negative stigma to the targeted Moorish Americans and destroyed family and personal associations not to mention professional careers. Their ultimate termination entailed serious economic consequences. Comparable employment has been impossible to find. The wheels of justice have been grinding slowly in this case. The City defendants are expected to use every avenue available under the rules of legal procedure to grind those wheels even slower, wreaking economic, psychological and emotional havoc. 

One of the greatest travesties of justice in the “Beys’” ordeal was the lack of procedural due process – being the victim of a vicious whisper campaign by a faceless accuser spewing baseless charges. These former corrections employees never received an explanation of the real evidence against them, the NYPD memorandum, nor did they have an opportunity to respond to the baseless accusation. 

An equally despicable travesty was the encroachment upon the right to freedom of association for the “Beys” and “Els” because of their adoption of the Moorish American religion. One of man’s most precious liberties is his or her right to work. When a person is deprived of this right by the defendants’ clinging to hysterical, unfounded accusations based solely on a person’s religious associations and by the silence of those who know the truth lest they be smeared and attacked, “presumed guilty” may become the norm.

Attorney Irene Donna Thomas is admitted to practice in New York and Pennsylvania.  Her firm, Thomas & Associates, concentrates in the area of labor and employment law.  She is an adjunct professor of law at the Fordham University School of Law.


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