By Leslie Eaton
Published: February 6, 2005
AT the request of federal prosecutors, a judge dismissed criminal charges in October against four men involved in operating gas stations on Long Island, charges that were substantially overstated in an article in the Long Island section last Sunday. The article, about the reaction among local Turks to raids by federal agents on Turkish-owned gas stations, failed to report that the charges against the men had been dismissed.
The article also reported incorrectly that the four men — Turhan Ak, Sukru Akkaya, Mustafa Catalbas and Ahmet Cayan — had been charged with evading taxes and bootlegging gasoline. It also implied incorrectly that they were charged with smuggling illegal aliens into the United States.
The Times article contained a number of errors and was marred by journalistic lapses. The most serious lapse was the failure of the newspaper to contact the four men or their lawyers.
In fact, the four men were charged in July with only one, less serious, crime: trying to circumvent federal regulations that require banks to report cash transactions over $10,000 to the Internal Revenue Service. Prosecutors alleged that the men had divided big deposits into smaller chunks to avoid triggering that reporting requirement.
Lawyers for the men categorically denied the charges. Joel R. Weiss, who represented Mr. Akkaya in the criminal case, said in an interview on Thursday that the men made frequent bank deposits to avoid keeping cash at the gas stations, and deposited money into different bank accounts because the stations were set up as separate corporate entities and were often owned by different combinations of shareholders.
In October, a judge granted the request of the prosecutors, from the office of the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, to dismiss the charges. On Thursday, a spokesman for the office, Robert Nardoza, declined to comment on the case.
In July, Federal authorities seized bank accounts belonging to Messrs. Ak, Akkaya and Catalbas, and a Mercedes belonging to Mr. Akkaya, and continue to assert in a civil proceeding that these assets are forfeit because the men violated the cash reporting regulations.
Steven L. Kessler, the Manhattan lawyer representing the group in the civil forfeiture case, said the government’s case is weak. ”There is nothing here,” he said.
At the time of the raids in July, United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced in a press release, still available on its Web site, that it had moved against ”an alleged Turkish organized crime ring suspected of violating money-laundering and immigration laws to raise and move millions of dollars overseas.”
English- and Turkish-language news reports said that law enforcement officers had picked up at least 50 people of Turkish origin who were suspected of being illegal aliens; the immigration authorities would not confirm those accounts last week.
The Times article misused quotations from law enforcement officials who were commenting on the broad set of criminal proceedings that they brought against a varied group of Turkish defendants last July. The article mistakenly suggested that these officials were commenting specifically on the cases of Mssrs. Ak, Akkaya, Catalbas and Cayan.
It misidentified one of the men so quoted, Joseph Foy; he is a spokesman for the Internal Revenue Service, not Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The article reported incorrectly that the four men own 140 gas stations on Long Island; according to lawyers for the four men, Mr. Akkaya and Mr. Catalbas owned 16, and Mr. Ak was a partner in at least one, said his lawyer, Douglas T. Burns. Mr. Cayan did not own any gas stations, according to his lawyer, James O. Druker, who described him as a low-level employee.
Prosecutors did not contend that the men evaded taxes on about $14 million of gasoline revenue, as the article reported. In fact, the chief document filed with the court in their criminal case, an affidavit from an I.R.S. special agent, says only that he believed that the men may have tried to avoid government scrutiny of their cash transactions because he suspected that they were underreporting their income on their tax filings. Their lawyers say this speculation is unfounded, as is an allegation that the men were in any way involved in bringing in gasoline from New Jersey to avoid New York taxes.
The article also erroneously implied that their stations were pumping gasoline that includes an additive, MTBE, which has been linked to groundwater pollution and is banned in New York. Lawyers for the four men stressed that the gas stations they operated were affiliated with major-brand oil companies that would not have permitted such practices.
The article said they were denied bail, which was incorrect. Mr. Akkaya and Mr. Catalbas were released directly from the courtroom under bail arrangements; Mr. Ak and Mr. Cayan made bail within days, their lawyers said.
The accompanying photograph did not depict a gas station owned by any of the four men, their lawyers said. It was raided in July, but court documents link it to a different group of defendants. The caption stated incorrectly that it was involved with gasoline smuggling.
Their legal problems have been very difficult for the four men, financially and emotionally, said Andrew L. Crabtree, another lawyer who represents them. Mr. Akkaya and Mr. Catalbas are American citizens, he noted.
”They ask, in America, how can they do this?” Mr. Crabtree said. ”It’s very difficult to explain to them.”
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