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Spared trial, Kurtz donates defense fund to rights groups

Almost $109,000 that was raised for the federal court defense of University at Buffalo art professor Steven J. Kurtz will be donated to two civil rights organizations.

Kurtz and his supporters announced the donations to the Center for Constitutional Rights and the New York Civil Liberties Union on Thursday.

The money was raised by artists and free-speech advocates who were upset over the 2004 mail- and wire-fraud prosecutions of Kurtz and Robert E. Ferrell, a University of Pittsburgh researcher.

Kurtz said the money is left over from the $350,000 that was raised to cover the court costs for him and Ferrell. The costs would have been much higher if a federal judge had not thrown out the case against Kurtz last year.

And the 51-year-old professor still has plenty of jabs for the federal government.

"I feel great that the moneys that were sent to defend me will be used in the same kind of spirit by these two organizations," Kurtz said in an interview. "These are organizations that defend law and justice in this country every day."

Kurtz said he and the Critical Art Ensemble will continue to present projects that raise tough questions about government programs and policies.

"They can try and throw me in jail, but I will never quit doing my research that operates within the realm of legality," Kurtz said.

"I'm working now on a project about radiation . . . and a book about weapons systems -- how they are presented by the government and how they are used to control the public. I don't think the government is going to like those, either."

U.S. Justice Department attorneys said politics had nothing to do with the case. They said Kurtz and Ferrell were charged because federal agents learned that the two men illegally obtained bacteria for one of Kurtz's art projects.

Critics of the prosecution contend that the men were targeted by the administration of President George W. Bush because Kurtz's artworks were viewed as subversive.

Ferrell was fined $500 last year after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of mailing an injurious article to Kurtz.

After a lengthy legal battle, all charges against Kurtz were dismissed in April 2008 by U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara, who ruled that the government indictment was "insufficient."

Kurtz's attorney was Paul J. Cambria, while the prosecutor was William J. Hochul Jr., who is awaiting confirmation as U.S. attorney for Western New York.

"Had the case gone to a jury trial, [the remaining money] wouldn't have been enough to cover Steve's legal bills through the trial, let alone appeals in the event of a guilty verdict," said Edmund J. Cardoni Jr., executive director of Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center and administrator of the defense fund.

Eighty percent of the leftover money will go to the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the other 20 percent to the civil liberties union, Cardoni said.

Kurtz, who has been at UB for eight years, said he hopes to remain at the university for a long time.

"The university was very supportive of me throughout my ordeal. They made me a full professor while those charges were pending," he said. "To me, that made a statement."

Hochul had no response to Kurtz's remarks.

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com

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