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Albanna denied data on wiretaps

The U.S. Justice Department does not have to tell Lackawanna businessman Mohamed T. Albanna whether secret National Security Agency wiretaps were used in the investigation that led to his indictment on illegally transmitting money.

U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny ruled this week that a government prosecutor does not have to inform Albanna if federal agents used NSA wiretaps to build the case against him.

Skretny's ruling came after classified documents were filed confidentially with the court March 13 by a federal prosecutor.

Albanna, 55, of Lackawanna, and two relatives are scheduled for a jury trial before Skretny in July. In December 2002, the three men were accused of running an illegal money-transmitting business that sent $3.5 million from Western New York to Yemen.

While preparing his defense, Albanna's attorney, Philip M. Marshall, had asked Skretny to determine whether investigators used any wiretaps that were not approved by a judge. Skretny ruled Thursday that prosecutors do not have to share that information with defense lawyers.

"It surprises me a bit, but my lawyer will have to take a look at the ruling," Albanna said Thursday afternoon. "Naturally, you'd want to know whether you were wiretapped, legally or illegally."

Marshall today said, "I'm extremely disappointed, as an attorney and as a citizen. We'll do whatever we can to prepare for trial without that information."

The prosecutor in the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy C. Lynch, declined to comment.

Albanna and two other men were charged after an investigation by the Joint Terrorism Task Force. They have never been accused of having ties to terrorists, however.

Prosecutors already have disclosed that court-approved wiretaps were used in the investigation. Marshall asked whether the government also used controversial no-warrant eavesdropping techniques, which have been approved in some cases by President Bush.

Last December, the New York Times disclosed that the NSA has been using warrantless surveillance in some terrorism probes since 2002. The disclosure angered civil liberties advocates, but Bush defended it, saying it is used in limited instances "to prevent attacks on the United States."

The defendants are accused of running a business that illegally wired money from Yemen-Americans here to relatives in Yemen. Albanna has denied any criminal intent, saying he was only trying to assist law-abiding citizens.

Under the USA Patriot Act, anyone running such a business must be licensed by the federal and state governments. According to FBI agents, Albanna's business was not licensed.

Albanna is a food and tobacco broker.

Albanna's co-defendants in the money-transmitting case are his brother, Ali T. Elbaneh, 59, and Albanna's nephew, Ali Albanna, 31, both of Lackawanna. They also deny criminal wrongdoing.

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com

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