On Jan. 22, I-Drive mogul Jesse Maali died at Florida Hospital Orlando after a five-month battle with lung cancer. Three days later, Maali, 59, was buried at Orlando Memorial Gardens after his body was removed from his casket, wrapped in white sheets and interred facing east, toward Mecca.
Maali will be remembered for two things: the International Drive tourist empire he built from nothing, and the fact that he died under a cloud of suspicion from the federal government. The former is the essence of the American dream; the latter is a shameful reminder of the times we live in.
In November 2002, FBI agents arrested Maali at his Isleworth home on 53 counts of hiring illegal immigrants and two counts of money laundering. It was a high-profile arrest that was made more so when a federal prosecutor and an FBI agent tried to deny Maali bond by claiming he had ties to terrorist organizations, operated as a gangster who dabbled in drugs and extortion, and tried to have a government informant killed.
The bond-hearing revelations were spectacular stuff. But the feds couldn't prove any of it. The Orlando Police Department later showed that two DEA informants upon whom the FBI relied were liars. None of the terrorism-related charges brought by a federal prosecutor trying to make a name for herself materialized despite a three-year, multi-agency investigation.
The feds pressed ahead anyhow, perhaps to save face for an embarrassing debacle. Later, they added tax evasion charges to Maali's case. Two of his associates were convicted of felonies and are now awaiting sentencing. Maali's trial was delayed when his health began to worsen.
Did Maali break the law by hiring illegal immigrants? Probably. According to court records, he was nonchalant about that fact during his interviews with the FBI. Family members later told the media that he wasn't hands-on with the Big Bargain World stores, which allegedly hired the illegal workers, and focused more of his time on his steakhouses.
Even if he was guilty, Maali's crimes were no worse than those that go on every day at construction sites, corporate farms and lawn care services in Florida and everywhere else. Other businesses get fined; Maali got threatened with decades in prison. Reporting by this paper and other media outlets in 2003 revealed that criminal prosecution for hiring illegals is rare at best.
Ultimately, Jesse Maali was a casualty in the misbegotten, jingoistic war on terror. It never mattered that he was innocent of the worst charges leveled against him, only that he was Palestinian. Orlando media served him up to an audience hungry for a lynching, and a willing prosecutor and FBI agent supplied the rope.
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