One of the more interesting things to come out during the discovery phase of the Islamic Society of Boston (ISB) lawsuits against its critics, and the lawsuit brought by The David Project against the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), is the role of the BRA in helping the ISB acquire city property for cheap. In particular, BRA Assistant Director Muhammed Ali-Salaam has been extremely helpful to the ISB since 1992, going on fifteen years. I've reviewed some of the public records on the BRA case, and while I'm no lawyer, it sure looks like a textbook case of a conflict of interest to me.
Some background: The BRA buys, develops and sells City of Boston-owned property. As Dean Barnett wrote in a Weekly Standard article (December 2005), the BRA conveyed a parcel of property (R-14) in Roxbury to the ISB in 2000 for the bargain basement price of $175K. The land was valued at $400K by the BRA, a bargain price in itself. The BRA and the ISB arranged that the balance of $225 would be "paid " by the ISB in services deemed to be in the public interest. These services are maintenance of the nearby Clarence Jeep Jones park in Roxbury, providing an Islamic law library and lectures on Islam to the Roxbury Community College (RCC), and helping the RCC to raise funds. Questions abound here concerning the separation of church and state.
James Policastro, a Mission Hill resident, sued the City of Boston in September 2004. Policastro argued that the City was "subsidizing the $22 million Islamic center," violating both the state and federal constitutions:" it accepted a less-than-fair-market-value price for a parcel of city land and it is illegally supporting a religion." In February 2007, the MA Superior Court decided that while Policastro had standing and cause, he hadn't filed his lawsuit within the allowable time frame. The role of BRA Assistant Director Ali-Salaam in the ISB mosque project was discovered along the way, including his trip to the United Arab Emirates to raise funds for the mosque construction. That's going the extra mile!
Here are documents demonstrating the other ways that Mr. Ali-Salaam was involved with the ISB, starting from 1992, before the ISB was formally involved. I'll post PDFs of these documents ASAP.
- Letter from Ali-Salaam on Muslim Council of Boston, Inc. (MCB) letterhead, dated August 17, 1992, to the three directors of the Council, regarding the "development of the Roxbury Masjid with the assistance of the City of Boston and the Boston Redevelopment Authority." Ali-Salaam requests that three directors to resign to allow the transition to new unnamed directors. I don't know if Ali-Salaam worked at the BRA at that time.
- Letter from Ali-Salaam on MCB letterhead, dated October 30, 1996, regarding the lack of progress on the Masjid project, noting that the City indicated that "if the Masjid project is not going forward, then they would incorporate the land designated for the Masjid into a new park." Ali-Salaam continues: "Not being aware of any substantial progress by the Directors towards this end, I initiated conversations with a local Islamic organization based at MIT. These brothers have incorporated under the name Jamaa Masjid of Boston, Inc., and are prepared to raise funds necessary to complete the project." Ali-Salaam again asks the MCB directors to transfer their rights to the city parcel to Jamaa Masjid. Seven of ten officers signed this letter. Was Ali-Salaam working for the BRA then? If so, is it hunky-dory for a BRA person to represent the BRA, the MCB and the Jamaa Masjid at the same time?
- Fax - BRA memo from Ali-Salaam to then-ISB director Dr. Muhammed Attawia dated October 21, 1998. Ali-Salaam drafted a letter from the ISB to the BRA for trustee Attawia to sign. Ali-Salaam wrote that he had contacted the Bank of Kuwait, which responded in writing to Ali-Salaam. "In order to avoid any potential for a conflict of interest," Ali-Salaam asked the bank to rewrite the letter to Attawia. Sounds like Ali-Salaam was helping to secure funding for the mosque project. How much assistance does the BRA usually offer in these projects?
- Confidential 7-page memo from Ali-Salaam (BRA) to ISB Board and ISB Director Attawia dated February 26, 1999. The memo summarizes the status of the mosque project, discusses design elements and design team, and a strategy to move forward. The memo notes that the MCB endorsed the ISB as "lead Ummah" for the project, that the Bank of Kuwait encourages the project, and that there is support among the local non-Muslim community. Ali-Salaam writes that the ISB and the City have reached a tentative agreement on community benefits, which include giving scholarships to some non-Muslim children to the Madrassa (Islamic school). Ali-Salaam notes that the multi-lingual Madrassa library will be "an invaluable tool for da'wah" (Islamic proselytizing). Ali-Salaam writes that this will "undoubtedly be a union job." The letter further states that the City is prepared to offer more vacant land for development as affordable housing in an area two blocks away. "An added incentive for this approach," Ali-Salaam writes, "is the number of professional property management, clerical and administrative jobs that could be created for the Ummah" (Muslims). So the ISB and BRA can find many "community benefits" in this taxpayer-subsidized project, but the benefits they want are for Muslims, not for everybody.
- E-mailed memo from ISB trustee Osama Kandil to Muhammed Attawia, ISB director, cc'ed to Ali-Salaam, dated April 26, 1999. The ISB was not thrilled with some elements of Ali-Salaam's 2-26-99 memo. Kandil writes in Item 1: "I do not approve providing scholarships for non-Muslim students. We should be innovative enough to include services that will benefit our community." Item 3: "We should be wise enough to negotiate in our favor the best deal for ISB....For example, we are certain that the board of the BRA would want us to use unionized labor..... Dr. Engawi suggested that we circumvent this obstacle by mentioning that we cannot use unionized labor due to the delicate nature of this project as it pertains to certain Islamic architectural details." (Woof!! That's pretty blatant BS-ing!) Final sentence: "But most important to make the best decision for muslims living in the Boston area." What happened to the gains for the entire City? Aren't we all children of Abraham, after all? I totally understand the Muslim community wanting to create a mosque and school for its children. But if it's only to benefit Muslims, then do it on your own dime.
- Letter from Ali-Salaam on BRA letterhead to Kaye Johnson, landscape firm, dated May 5, 1999. Ali-Salaam wrote that the Client (ISB) found their bid for landscape design services was too high, and requested that they resubmit their bid. Does the BRA typically get involved in requesting lower bids for their "clients"?
- Letter from Ali-Salaam on BRA letterhead to Muzaffer Muctehitzade, electrical firm, dated June 7, 1999. Ali-Salaam wrote "We are reaching out to building trade professionals from the Muslim community" for the mosque project. A fine idea, but shouldn't the ISB be sending out those letters, not the BRA?
- Draft confidential memo from Ali-Salaam to ISB trustees Walid Fitaihi, Osama Kandil and Mohammed Attawia, dated September 22, 1999. Ali-Salaam discusses how the ISB should negotiate with the BRA in order to get the lowest price for the Roxbury property. Ali-Salaam notes that a nearby parcel of land was sold to the US Post Office for $16/square foot, but that the ISB should negotiate using the $6.50/square foot figure that the Bank of Kuwait appraisal (done by Meredith and Grew). Whose interests is Ali-Salaam representing here?
- Letter on ISB letterhead from Imam Basyouni M. Nehela to Paul McCann, Acting BRA Director, dated December 7, 1999. "The Islamic Society of Boston is in the process of embarking on a major capital fundraising campaign this Ramadan" in the Middle East. Nehela requests that Mr. Muhammad Ali-Salaam accompany the ISB on the trip, saying the ISB will reimburse the BRA for the cost of the flight.
- Letter on BRA letterhead signed by Ali-Salaam, Yousef Abou-Allaban (ISB Project Director) and Walid Fitaihi (ISB trustee), to Dr. Grace Brown, President, Roxbury Community College (RCC), dated December 9, 1999. The letter presents a check for $10,000 to RCC to show their support for the College, with a request that the contribution be anonymous. Well, this is very curious, isn't it? Why isn't this letter on ISB letterhead? Boy, Ali-Salaam apparently gave up all concern with any appearance of a "potential conflict of interest." Isn't it funny that the ISB is making a donation to the RCC? Is this part of the fund-raising they're supposed to help with? Dr. Brown responded on December 10, 1999 with a giddy letter to Ali-Salaam of the BRA for the gift from the ISB, promising to keep the source of the check anonymous ("Smiles"). I find this all questionable and almost unbelievable. I wonder if the RCC was able to use that money for non-Muslim students.....
- BRA inter-office memo dated January 18, 2000, authorized Ali-Salaam to travel to the UAE for the purpose of explaining the City's disposition process relative to parcel R-14. The trip was elsewhere characterized as a fund-raising trip.
- Letter on BRA letterhead, from Ali-Salaam to Dr. Grace Brown, dated March 28, 2000, noting that the fair market value of the subject property is $2,010,996. Not $200K?? The letter describes some of the public benefits that the ISB will provide, including lectures on Islam, a research library on Islamic law and the history of Islam, assistance with fund-raising campaigns, and a parking facility. Excuse me, isn't this an enormous conflict between the separation of church and state? What business do Massachusetts taxpayers have in subsidizing lectures on Islam and Shariah law libraries? Why are these deemed public benefits? The ISB should find some rich benefactors to help them to convince people to embrace Islam, not the City of Boston.
- A draft memo from Ali-Salaam to ISB trustees Osama Kandil, Walid Fitaihi and Muhammad Attawia, no date. A pretty interesting memo, it basically grovels and asks for understanding on the part of the ISB trustees, who were unhappy with the management of the project. Ali-Salaam writes that the trustees made an impression on his step-father, and Ali-Salaam writes "I can only hope that perhaps you will get some of the credit if he embraces Islam." The ending sentence: "Allah is our Lord. Muhammad (saw) is the Servant of Allah, and the Qu'ran and the Sunnah of the Prophet is our way of life."
Could it be any clearer that there's a conflict of interest here, and a problem with church/state separation?