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Posted January 15, 2005 by Dana Garrett in US Embargo

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BY RAFAEL LORENTE | South Florida Sun-Sentinel

In the first legal decision issued as part of the Bush administration’s crackdown on travelers to Cuba, Administrative Law Judge Robert Barton this week reduced the proposed penalty on a Minnesota man by almost 90 percent, from $6,770 to $780.

Craig Ostrem of Edina Minn., went to Cuba on a scuba diving trip in January and February of 1999. He booked his trip through Canada and returned with two bottles of rum, candy and artwork valued at $30.

In his decision, Barton said the government’s requested penalty of $7,350 was not warranted because there were a number of mitigating factors in the case. For example, Ostrem cooperated with authorities and was a first-time offender, Barton said.

Barton said “the lack of any aggravating factors and the presence of several mitigating factors has led me to impose a lesser penalty here.”

But Barton, an administrative law judge with the Department of Justice, emphasized in his decision that higher penalties, as high as the $65,000 maximum allowed by law, could be justified in some cases.

Ostrem and his attorney, Matthew Armbrecht, could not be reached for comment Friday.

Molly Millerwise, a spokeswoman for the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces travel and other restrictions on trade with Cuba, said the department does not comment on specific cases.

The Bush administration’s crackdown on travelers has resulted in dozens of cases like Ostrem’s making their way through the system for the first time. In years past, people accused of traveling illegally to Cuba often sat in limbo because there were no judges to hear their cases.

Along with the crackdown on illegal travelers, new restrictions imposed last year have had the effect of reducing the number of people flying to the island legally on charter flights. During the last half of 2004, the number of seats reserved on charter flights to Cuba dropped by half from the same period the year before.

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