FBI Went Looking For Drugs, Allegedly Found Corruption in Philadelphia
PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- FBI agents were looking for information about a violent drug gang when they tapped the phone of a politically connected imam in 2001, according to court documents filed this week.
In a 116-page affidavit, an agent investigating the city's drug trade told a judge that the FBI believed a wiretap on Shamsud-din Ali's home telephone would reveal a wealth of information about the gang's operations, including the names of drug suppliers and tips about planned kidnappings, extortion attempts and money laundering.
In making the claims, the bureau was secretly leveling charges at a man considered to be among the city's more respected community leaders.
The leader of one of the city's largest mosques, Ali was a member of Mayor John F. Street's transition team and later served on a board that oversees the city's prisons. He received awards regularly for his charitable work, and was a man politicians called on when they needed election-day volunteers.
Ed Rendell, the former Philadelphia mayor who is now Pennsylvania's governor, once called Ali's mosque "a force for persuading a lot of young people not to get involved in drugs."
Ali was never charged, and if the surveillance revealed evidence that he had anything to do with drug activity, it has yet to be revealed in public.
The taps, though, bore another kind of fruit.
Investigators claim that while monitoring the line they overheard Ali's wife, Faridah, discussing a plan to defraud a government-funded adult education program that held classes in the mosque's religious school.
Over two years, the surveillance effort expanded, first to Ronald A. White, a powerbroking attorney who did business with the Ali family and raised money for Street, and then to City Hall.
Ultimately, the FBI was granted permission to install a listening device in Street's office -- an operation that was blown when city police discovered the bug last October.
Faridah Ali and Delores Weaver, an administrator at the Community College of Philadelphia, were indicted on fraud charges in June, along with several members of their family.
Philadelphia's former city treasurer, Corey Kemp, was indicted in July on charges that he accepted thousands of dollars worth of payments and gifts from people interested in influencing city business decisions, including White.
Ten other people were also charged, including executives at several financial services firms that prosecutors said had benefited from Kemp's actions.
There has been a drug indictment too, although not one involving Ali or anyone associated with city government. Twenty-seven alleged members of the two drug gangs whose activities sparked the investigation were charged last spring and are awaiting trial.
Exactly why the government believed that Ali may have been linked to drugs is unclear.
The affidavit itself is still under seal, although portions of it were described at length in court papers filed Tuesday by Weaver's attorney.
In a motion to suppress the wiretaps, lawyer Thomas Bergstrom said the government's evidence was thin.
Bergstrom said the FBI cited tips from a number of confidential informants and cooperating witnesses, but noted that most had to do with activities alleged to have taken place years ago, or in the 1960s when Ali served prison time on a murder conviction that was later tossed out.
In the application for the wiretap, agents also cited the content of several phone conversations that Ali had with Gerald Thomas, an alleged dealer who was among those charged in June, and whose phone was previously tapped.
Bergstrom said agents misrepresented the content of the calls.
Several, he said, involved "mundane matters" like obtaining heating oil or food for a religious festival. Another involved getting bail money for Ali's stepson, who was arrested on drug and gun charges shortly before the wiretaps began. He was later acquitted.
"They were fishing, and it doesn't sound like they found anything," Bergstrom said in an interview Wednesday.
Ali's attorney, James J. Binns, did not return a phone message Wednesday. The imam has previously said he did nothing illegal, and claimed he is being persecuted because of his religion.