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Freedom to Backstab

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At the July 9, 2004, board meeting, Romero offered a curious defense for his actions. It would be wrong to actually rely on government blacklists, he conceded then, but the CFC grant language barred the organization only from “knowingly” employing anybody on the lists. A few weeks later, he told the New York Times he had printed out the blacklists, but “I’ve never consulted them.” He said this interpretation, which ACLU president Nadine Strossen called “clever,” was deemed reasonable on “advice of counsel.”

To hard-core civil-liberties types, though, his remarks appeared to involve an ethical shortcut in order to get his hands on the money, some $500,000, from the CFC. “I think some people don’t have a civil-liberties gut or sensitivity,” says Muriel Morisey. “I don’t think Anthony’s civil-liberties bells go off the way they should.”

On July 30, one day before the New York Times was to publish a piece about the contretemps, Romero revealed that he’d fudged the date of the “advice of counsel”—in fact, he’d gotten the legal opinion six months after he’d made the decision. And the outside lawyer’s opinion didn’t endorse his policy. Though the lawyer said ignoring the list was an “alternative reasonable interpretation,” he also called it imprudent, arguing that by doing so, the ACLU and its staff might be found to have shown a “reckless disregard of the truth” and risked sustainable convictions for “knowingly making a false statement to the United States.”

At that point, Glasser blew a cork—and let Romero know it. To this day, he can’t understand why the board didn’t take action. “If Kenneth Lay had done something like that, he would have been out on his ass in five minutes! He breaches a principle, he lies about an interpretation, he says he reached this interpretation—which is on its face absurd—on the advice of counsel, but he doesn’t receive the advice of counsel until six months after he did it,” Glasser bellows, “and the advice of counsel says the opposite of what he says it said!”

In a bitter e-mail exchange that July and August, Romero told Glasser he was “pissed off” by his rebuke and wanted to “clear the air” between them. “I have always greatly admired you—and have regarded you as a surrogate father figure. I guess that’s why it hurts so much,” he wrote.

“My interest is not ‘clearing the air’; I don’t think there is much need for that, really,” Glasser wrote. “None of this is personal … Colleagues ought to be able to express and discuss such disagreements on the merits, vigorously but without rancor.”

He added, “I also think you have injured the ACLU, not only by your initial error of judgment, but also by your defense of it. That you have managed to find support for this error of judgment among some key staff and … board members only compounds the injury, in my view. I think the ACLU will be a long time getting over this.”

But Nadine Strossen, the board president, still thinks he was right to accept the grant. Forfeiting the money, she said, “wouldn’t be accomplishing anything at all. It would be the worst of both worlds if we’re giving up money we could get without compromising our principles, and we’re not advancing our cause.”

A few weeks after the dissidents launched their Website, called SaveTheACLU.com, a group of Romero’s supporters responded with VoicesForTheACLU.com, strongly expressing support for Romero and Strossen. Prominent signers included Arnie Miller, the headhunter; Norman Dorsen, who was president before Strossen; and Aryeh Neier, the executive director before Glasser. “Of course, there have been mistakes,” Dorsen admits, “but it’s a matter of judgment and proportion, really. The question is, what is the remedy? Termination? In the larger scheme of his performance of the ACLU, do the mistakes rise to this level? Most people don’t think so.”

In fact, more than 50 luminaries in the world of personal freedoms have rallied behind the current leadership, including the NAACP’s Julian Bond, now’s Kim Gandy, Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch, Feminist Majority’s Eleanor Smeal, and Faye Wattleton of the Center for Advancement of Women. Kate Kendell, who runs the National Center for Lesbian Rights, says she signed up partly because of a fear that homophobia might be behind the caviling. “I don’t want to engage in gay-baiting, but I would be lying if I said it hadn’t crossed my mind.” That suggestion is echoed by Arnie Miller, who supposes that Glasser is jealous of Romero’s successes. “It’s a highly competitive, sometimes unrelenting—it’s close to vicious—all-consuming personality he has,” Miller says. “There have been changes. That was difficult for Ira to accept.”


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