Mom and Pop Go to Washington

Local shopkeepers stung in Mini Thins case get help from national Arab-American leaders

Only in America could an immigrant shopkeeper send a letter of desperation to a stranger in Washington, D.C., and get such a response.

About a month ago, Phoenix resident Amir Alyas wrote to Dr. James Zogby about serious criminal charges he, his wife Fay and many others then faced. He got what he'd hoped for: the attention of one of the nation's most prominent Arab-Americans--and a man who has the ear of President Bill Clinton.

The Alyases were among 39 Phoenix and Glendale convenience store owners and employees arrested by police last September after a high-profile sting dubbed the "Mini Thins case."

Mini Thins are an over-the-counter cold medication that contains ephedrine, a chemical that can be illegally processed into methamphetamine. Phoenix police and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration raided the independently owned stores after hearing that the shops had become a prime local source for meth cooks.

Prosecutors from the Arizona Attorney General's Office said undercover cops posing as meth cooks had persuaded the Alyases and others to sell them excessive amounts of Mini Thins. But on May 8, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge dismissed all charges against the Mini Thins defendants after ruling that they'd committed no crimes under Arizona law.

(The U.S. Attorney's Office hasn't said if it will prosecute the cases under less stringent federal laws. However, state civil forfeiture cases against 16 of the stores are continuing, with potentially grave financial consequences for the owners.)

Amir Alyas wrote to Jim Zogby, the president of the Arab-American Institute, shortly before the dismissal. Alyas noted that all but one of the targeted Valley stores is owned by an Arab immigrant--with a majority of them, including the Alyases, from Iraq. He complained he and the others had been singled out because of their ethnic origin.

(A more compelling hook, raised in a May 28 New Times story, "Suspects of Convenience," is that undercover cops had instructed a meth task force not to alert small stores that anyone trying to buy or steal large quantities of over-the-counter cold remedies should be reported. Around the same time, the task force did alert officials of large local stores and pharmacies, which stopped selling as much of the medicine.)

Alyas' letter intrigued Zogby, a well-known proponent of Arab causes. Last month, the extent of Zogby's influence was illustrated when Bill Clinton became the first sitting American president to address an Arab-American conference. "He is a remarkable voice for calm and clarity, no matter how heated the issues," Clinton said of Zogby. "But I can tell you, he is one of the most forceful, intense and brutally honest people who ever came to the White House to see me."

Zogby agreed to fly to Phoenix at his own expense to meet with Alyas and many of the other onetime Mini Thins defendants. With him on his two-day fact-finding trip June 1-2 was Elie Abboud, founder of the Cleveland-based National Arab American Business Association.

On the evening of June 1, the pair presided at an emotion-charged meeting at northeast Phoenix's Chaldean Catholic Church. About 75 people--including those stung by the cops and their families--crowded into a room at the church to vent and to seek remedies.

Neither Zogby nor Abboud seemed well-versed in the myriad details of the Valley sting.

"The case seems very disturbing to me in a number of ways," Zogby told the gathering. "It does seem like entrapment, and it does seem like selective prosecution. It seems like you all have something in common, and that is your ancestry. You are in a most vulnerable situation in this community."

The out-of-towners seemed equally irate at the fees charged by defense attorneys in the Mini Thins case, and by the alleged police misconduct.

"You guys have got to stop paying your lawyers here," Abboud suggested, after one defendant told him of paying an attorney $40,000 to represent him. "Sounds like they are making a business of this, too."

None of the 20-plus attorneys in the state Mini Thins cases was present at the meeting.

Zogby said he plans to speak with senior U.S. Department of Justice officials about the Mini Thins raids after acquainting himself with the facts: "There is justice in this country if you know how to go about it. . . . The best defense you have right now is your strength as a collective community."

Someone pointed out that the September 1997 raid was the top story on local television--a given after police tipped off selected media. Why, the speaker asked Zogby rhetorically, hadn't anyone but the local weekly written about the cases being dismissed, and about the story behind the raids?

Zogby said he didn't know.
After the meeting, the guests of honor were treated to a delicious feast of homemade Middle Eastern cuisine at the church. Relaxing after their long day, Zogby and Abboud couldn't stop talking about how much local barristers had charged the beleaguered storekeepers.

"This whole thing sounds like a cottage industry," said Zogby. "You've got the cops, the prosecutors, the defense attorneys, everybody. The authorities get the glory, the other side soaks up the money. And who is living the nightmare? These people who never even got a warning like the big boys got."

Contact Paul Rubin at his online address: prubin@newtimes.com

 
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