By ANNYSA JOHNSON | Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Four years after traveling to Cuba on a church mission without U.S. government approval, three Milwaukee residents have been granted the hearings they’ve requested.
Quotable: The whole idea that they are spending this much time, and using money meant to fight terrorism, it’s just ludicrous.
- Theron Mills,
who traveled to Cuba
William Ferguson Jr., Dollora Greene-Evans and Theron Mills were notified by the U.S. Treasury Department late last month that they will be scheduled to appear before an administrative law judge on allegations that they violated the Trading with the Enemy Act.
The New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which is representing the three, said it will fight the complaints.
“This is a violation of the First Amendment right to freedom of travel,” said Matthew Scott, who coordinates the group’s Cuba Travel Project.
“It puts a hardship on the Cuban people, and it violates the spirit of this country - that an individual should be able to travel where he wants and interact with any individual he chooses.”
The notices come four months after President Bush directed the departments of Treasury and Homeland Security to step up enforcement of Cuba embargo travel restrictions. Although suspected violators have been told since 1994 that they have a right to request a hearing, no administrative law judges were hired to handle the cases until October, Scott said.
Treasury spokeswoman Molly Millerwise provided an e-mail message with facts about the enforcement effort but offered no other comments.
Ferguson, Greene-Evans and Mills were among six members of Central United Methodist Church, 639 N. 25th St., who went to Havana in 1999 to mark the 100th anniversary of its sister congregation, Iglesia Metodista Central de Trinidad. They were stopped by customs agents on the return trip through Canada and were assessed fines of $7,500 each by the Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control.
Under the Treasury regulations, the three are presumed guilty and carry the burden of proof in the administrative hearing, said Milwaukee attorney and activist Art Heitzer, who is assisting in their defense.
Ferguson did not return a telephone call seeking comment, but Greene-Evans and Mills said all three had requested hearings from the beginning, rejected settlement offers of $1,000 each and will travel to Washington, D.C., to plead their cases.
“This is ludicrous,” said Mills, a soft-spoken Bay View psychotherapist who had never traveled outside the U.S. until her trip to Cuba.
“The whole idea that they are spending this much time, and using money meant to fight terrorism, it’s just ludicrous,” she said.
Greene-Evans said she believes the complaints interfere with the trio’s right to worship as they please, and that the stop by customs agents was racially motivated. She and Ferguson are African-American.
Heitzer said they will also challenge the requirement that all hearings on Cuba travel violations must occur in Washington.
“It’s very onerous,” said Heitzer, who estimated as many as six people will have to travel to Washington to testify in each of the hearings.
“This is one of the reasons so many people settle,” he said. “It’s a boiler-room, high-pressure operation to shake people down.”
Greene-Evans and Mills said they didn’t realize the legal ramifications before visiting Cuba and fear that they could be saddled with costly fines.
But neither regrets going.
“It changed my life,” said Mills, who saw shortages of food and water, toured a hospital where the only X-ray machine was 50 years old and visited a dirt-floored home where the inhabitants were frying plantains and invited her to share what little food they had.
“I view my blessings differently,” she said.
Greene-Evans thinks every middle-school child in America should take the trip.
“People live on so much less,” she said, “and they’re happy.”