In a case that appears to represent a shift in policy, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control has opened legal proceedings against a longtime pro-Cuba activist based in Tampa.
Albert A. Fox Jr., who has extensive ties with the Cuban government, faces a $100,000 fine for alleged violations of the U.S. embargo during two trips to the island over the past six years.
The sanctions are the first issued by OFAC to an individual at least since 2013.
According to official documents obtained by el Nuevo Herald, OFAC accuses Fox, president of the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation, of illegal transactions tied to two trips to Cuba. The alleged prohibited transactions include providing unauthorized travel services to five members of the International Association of Drilling Contractors of Houston — who traveled to the island in August 2010 — and engaging in unauthorized business activities, including meetings with Cuban government officials.
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OFAC also presented more detailed charges against Fox tied to a second trip in September 2011 with a delegation of 15 people who traveled on an inaugural Tampa-Havana flight. The delegation was led by the late Steve Burton, former head of the Hillsborough Aviation Authority, and Mary Mulherm, former Tampa city commissioner. OFAC claims that Fox covered the cost for the delegation’s lodging at the Hotel Nacional, plane tickets with Xael Charters, transportation on the island with Havanatur, meals and visas for some members of the delegation.
Fox’s lawyer, Arthur Heitzer, told el Nuevo Herald that Fox had obtained special licenses from OFAC for the two trips in question under allowed “humanitarian activities” and was not paid for the services. He also insists that his client would have been “doubly covered” by the special license and a general license for “professional research.”
Heitzer said that as “an expert in U.S.-Cuba relations” Fox’s travels also are intended to gather information for his profession. He added that his client worked with authorized service providers and that he did not make any payments directly to Cuban personnel.
A review of fines imposed by OFAC in recent years shows that sanctions to individuals decreased dramatically since 2009, when President Barack Obama began his first term. Although actions have been taken against banks and companies, not a single individual had been sanctioned for violations tied to Cuba during Obama’s second term, records show.
The OFAC action against Fox began in May 2015, just five months after Obama announced his intention to normalize relations with the island. The fine of $100,000 was officially issued in August 2015. But the response to a request for a hearing by Fox’s lawyer did not arrive until July.
According to Heitzer, the case could be the result of a “vendetta” by OFAC’s Miami office against Fox, who has publicly called for the closure of that office during testimony before the Senate in 2002 and during his 2006 campaign for a seat in Congress now occupied by the /U.S./ Rep. Kathy Castor.
“I heard stories for years of governmental abuse by ‘faceless bureaucrats’ and always believed they were exaggerated. How naïve I was,” Fox said.
Officials from the OFAC office in Miami did not respond to a request for comment for this report.
In the replies sent to OFAC, Heitzer, who has extensive experience with similar cases, claims that his client is suffering reprisals for his position on Cuba policy.
“We can speculate that at various levels of government there are hardliners who want to get even with Fox,” said the lawyer, who described the work of his client and the foundation he directs as being of national interest to the United States and Florida.
“They want to make Mr. Fox the latest victim of the Cold War against Cuba,” he said.
Fox, whose mother is Cuban, has been a key player in Tampa-Havana relations. An editorial in the Tampa Bay Times gave him credit for contributing to the restoration of flights between Tampa and Cuba, while another article in the same publication identified him as an important mediator to help reach a cooperation agreement between the U.S. and Cuba in the event of an oil spill in the Gulf.
In 2002, the activist also organized a meeting between then-Tampa Mayor Dick Greco and Fidel Castro in Havana. On that occasion, Fox told the St. Petersburg Times that “to see someone like Fidel Castro, erect like a soldier, salute us” at the end of the meeting, “that says it all.”
But perhaps his most memorable involvement for South Florida’s Cuban community was his role in the Elián González saga, in which Fox remained close to the Cuban side of the international custody battle. In 2000, Fox was one of the few Americans invited by Castro to the island to attend the child’s first birthday since his return to Cuba.
More recently, Fox was invited to the opening ceremony of the Cuban Embassy in Washington in July 2015 and the previous year he organized a trip to the island for a group of 43 officials, businessmen and Tampa community leaders.
OFAC declined to comment on why it took action against Fox several years after the various trips occurred, although documents in the case clearly state that the legal period for doing so had not expired.
A spokesman for the Treasury Department declined to comment on the pending case but reiterated that, “All U.S. persons, individuals and entities, must comply with the laws and regulations administered by the Office of Foreign Assets Control. OFAC investigates apparent violations as appropriate and consistent with U.S. government laws and regulations.”
“OFAC has taken various different types of enforcement actions in recent years, but these cases take time. You’ll note most of Fox’s travel infractions took place from 2010-2011, just as recent actions against banks took place as far back as 2004-2007,” said Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC and observer of Cuban issues from Washington. “Thus, the biggest lesson (and warning) to those being encouraged by the new policy to play fast-and-loose with the law is that the statute of limitations does not run out when President Obama leaves office in January.”
A hearing is tentatively scheduled for February in Baltimore.