Watch-List Name Confusion Causes Hardship
A would-be auto buyer described a "revolving-door nightmare" after a sales agent spotted a similar name on a federal most-wanted list. A former California prison employee wrote of being mistaken for a Colombian drug criminal. A Northern Californian sued after his home loan was held up when a credit agency thought he was Saddam Hussein's son.
Their stories - with much information blacked out, and other records withheld - are among documents obtained by a San Francisco legal organization seeking greater public accountability in the operation of a Treasury Department watch list of terrorist suspects and drug traffickers.
The list, maintained by the department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, includes more than 6,000 people and organizations. Banks, insurers, landlords and other businesses are subject to financial penalties for conducting transactions with anyone on the list.
The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights filed a Freedom of Information Act suit last year, saying many Americans had complained of hardships - loans and insurance denied, bank accounts frozen, routine purchases stalled - because their names were confused with those on the list. Last month, a federal judge in San Francisco ordered the Treasury Department to release records of complaints filed by members of the public.
The approximately 100 documents that the lawyers' committee received this week "suggest that little if anything is being done by the government to help individuals who are wrongly linked by the government with illegal activity," said Thomas Burke, a San Francisco lawyer who took part in the suit.
Even when the department confirms that a business has mistakenly identified a customer as a terrorist, he said, "they don't do anything."
One document was a June 2006 e-mail to the Treasury Department from a former police officer in the Baltimore area. The e-mailer, whose name was blacked out, said an auto sales agent had run a credit check on him and found that a government agency had reported he was on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list.
After checking the ex-officer for tattoos that the person mentioned on the list had, the agent advised him to call credit-reporting agencies to get his name removed. The e-mailer said he had been referred in turn to the FBI, other credit agencies and the Office of Foreign Assets Control, each of which told him to go elsewhere - a process he described as "world-class buck-passing" and a "revolving-door nightmare."
Similar frustration was expressed by the unnamed former California prison employee who was mistaken for a Colombian drug dealer on the Treasury list when he tried to buy a car in Hanford (Kings County).
An 18-year-old man said he had been mistaken for a Libyan official on the list, and a former Defense Department employee said an erroneous listing required him to prove his identity before wiring money to his son.
One previously publicized case involved Tom and Nancy Kubbany of Arcata (Humboldt County), who were denied a home loan in 2006 when their credit report identified Tom Kubbany as Saddam Hussein's son - because his middle name, Hassan, was an alias used by the son, who is 30 years younger than Kubbany.
The Kubbanys sued the credit agency and other companies in San Francisco federal court earlier this year "for failing to use common sense," said their lawyer, Amitai Schwartz.
The Treasury Department documents include an exchange between the Kubbanys' congressman, Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, and the Office of Foreign Assets Control director, who said the office had no power to regulate credit agencies.
The problem, said attorney Philip Hwang of the Lawyers' Committee, is that "the Treasury Department isn't taking responsibility. It's pointing the finger at credit-reporting agencies" while providing "very little guidance" to businesses about what to do with erroneous reports.
Not so, said department spokesman John Rankin. He said that the watch list contains detailed information about each person and organization to reduce the likelihood of confusion, and that the agency hosts more than 100 workshops a year to answer questions from those affected by the list.
"We take very seriously our effort to get as much information as possible into the hands of the public," Rankin said.
He also defended the department's refusal to turn over 346 petitions from people who have sought to remove their names from the list. U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton ordered those documents released in her ruling last month, but the department, in a letter to the Lawyers' Committee, said disclosure would violate a host of laws protecting individual privacy, safety and law enforcement proceedings.
"We did exactly what the judge said," Rankin said.
That's not for the department to decide, said attorney Burke. "We will likely go back to court and talk about it," he said.
To view the Treasury Department watch list, go to www.treasury.gov/ofac and select the link for Specially Designated Nationals. The documents obtained by the Lawyers' Committee are available at www.lccr.com/news.html.
E-mail Bob Egelko at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2008 San Francisco Chronicle