Terrorism law used on Vegas 'vice lord'
FBI criticised for using post-September 11 act in corruption inquiry
Suzanne Goldenberg in Washington
Friday November 7, 2003
The FBI has used the sweeping powers of anti-terrorist legislation enacted in the panicky aftermath of September 11 against the owner of a Las Vegas strip club suspected of bribing local council officials.
Justice department officials say the events in Las Vegas mark the first time the FBI has tried to extend the use of the Patriot Act to a corruption investigation.
The move was described by civil rights groups yesterday as proof of the dangers of giving such a free hand to the security agencies.
The Patriot Act allows the FBI and other agencies to seize private documents - such as medical records and college transcripts - without obtaining a warrant, or showing probable cause.
It does not require the authorities to admit they have undertaken such actions.
Although the Patriot Act went through Congress virtually unchallenged six weeks after September 11, Arab-American and civil rights groups have claimed for two years that it puts key freedoms at risk.
Their lobbying, which has been aimed at quashing the act when it comes up for review in 2005, was so successful that last month the attorney general, John Ashcroft, went on a tour of 16 US cities to publicise the act as a tool to save lives.
However, the FBI's use of the act last week to subpoena two Las Vegas brokers to hand over their records on the strip club owner Michael Galardi, as well as clients serving on the local council, threatened to overshadow Mr Ashcroft's road-show.
Harry Reid, the veteran Democrat senator from Nevada, said the law had gone too far.
"The law was intended for activities related to terrorism and not to naked women," he told journalists. "Let me say, with Galardi and his whole gang, I don't condone, appreciate or support all their nakedness. But having said that, I haven't heard anyone say at any time he was involved with terrorism."
The raids on Mr Galardi's clubs do not immediately appear to fit criteria for the Bush administration's invoking of the Patriot Act which has given the FBI greater freedom in tracking down terrorist-funding networks.
However, FBI agents used some of the tools Mr Ashcroft described on his speaking tour as lifesaving devices.
They include: delaying notification to targets of search warrants in order to avoid tipping off suspects; access to the business records of suspected terrorists, and "roving" wiretapes in case the target switches phones.
Mr Galardi, whose family owns nearly 20 strip clubs across the US, has been the subject of a long-term investigation into charges that he bribed council members to pass a law that would allow physical contact between dancers and customers.
In September, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud in San Diego, and admitted to bribing police to tell him when his clubs were about to be raided.
This week, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that FBI agents had invoked the Patriot Act to subpoena two Las Vegas stock brokers to reveal their business records. Officials said they were trying to find evidence of bribery.
However, civil rights activists said the FBI wrongly turned to the act in order to circumvent normal criminal procedure for accessing private documents such as financial records.
"The use of the Patriot Act against a sin city vice lord should give pause to anyone who says it has not been abused," said Laura Murphy, a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union.
"The attorney general didn't tell Congress that he needed the Patriot Act to raid nudie bars."