BY NANCY SAN MARTIN | Miami Herald

The Treasury Department is criticized after confirming that it is utilizing far more workers for tracking Cuba embargo violators than for tracing shadowy Mideast funds.

A Treasury Department report acknowledging that it has only four employees chasing Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein’s money and nearly two dozen chasing Cuba embargo violators brought withering criticism on the federal agency Thursday.

‘‘The magnitude of the discrepancy is just stunning,’’ said Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., a member of the bipartisan Cuba Working Group, which favors lifting U.S. restrictions on travel to the island.

‘‘We’re chasing old ladies on bicycle trips in Cuba when we should be concentrating on using a significant tool against shadowy terrorist organizations,’’ he added.

The controversy erupted after the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee sent a letter to Treasury Secretary John Snow Wednesday requesting a detailed accounting of the terrorist-related assets seized by the department since 1995, as well as the number of staffers dedicated to terrorist-related duties.

The letter was prompted by a little-noticed Treasury report to Congress in November revealing that the agency had six times the number of agents working on Cuba embargo violations than the two full-time investigators focusing on bin Laden’s money and two others looking into Hussein’s wealth.

The report by Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, first highlighted by the Associated Press, also noted that while OFAC opened just 93 enforcement investigations related to terrorism and collected just $9,425 in fines for terrorism-financing violations since 1994, it worked 10,683 cases on the Cuban embargo and collected more than $8 million in fines.

`VERY CONCERNED’

‘‘I’m very concerned that despite the nearly three years that have passed since Sept. 11, there is still a lack of proper staffing and communication among the U.S. agencies,’’ Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee, said in a written statement.

‘‘While funding and manpower are important, even more important is efficient and effective use of available and plentiful resources and a dedicated focus on tax crimes and terrorism financing,’’ said the letter to Snow, signed by Baucus and committee chairman Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.

Treasury officials have until May 17 to provide responses.

OFAC is charged with enforcing U.S. economic sanctions against nations, including Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria, as well as designated ‘‘terrorist’’ organizations.

Treasury officials declined to discuss the amount of resources dedicated to embargo enforcement but acknowledged that Cuba is a priority for the Bush administration. The administration has been accused of being hard on Cuba to earn the votes of Cuban Americans.

`EQUALLY DEDICATED’

‘‘There is no question where the administration stands on Cuba policy,’’ Treasury spokeswoman Molly Millerwise told The Herald. “We are equally dedicated to fighting the financial terrorism network.’‘

Millerwise also noted that OFAC alone administers sanctions on embargo violations, while the investigation of terrorism financing is an ‘‘inter-agency’’ effort.

‘‘We do focus on Cuba,’’ she said. “They are our nearest neighbor. Castro continues to be a threat. But there is no question of our stance on the war on terrorism.

“We can walk and chew gum at the same time.’‘

With some exceptions, U.S. residents are prohibited from traveling to Cuba or conducting business with the communist-ruled nation. Cuban-Americans are allowed annual trips for family reunifications. Exceptions are also available for journalists, academic and religious groups. Several dozen U.S. firms have permission to arrange their travel.

Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, an avid embargo supporter, defended OFAC’s work.

`TWIST FIGURES’

‘‘You can twist figures anyway you want . . . These are people who hate the embargo and will do anything they can to eliminate it or undermine it,’’ she said of OFAC’s critics.

The letter to Snow came just days before the White House is expected to unveil recommendations from the six-month-old Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba—headed by Secretary of State Colin Powell—to prepare for and hasten democracy on the island.

Herald staff writer Frank Davies in Washington contributed to this report