Here is a letter of correction I wrote to the NPR politics Podcast, after listening to their Thursday July 6th edition reporting on Hobby Lobby’s settlement over the civil forfeiture complaint. This story has been widely reported, and often falsely reported. (But this shouldn’t surprise anyone.)
So, I thought I’d share it with everyone, just so they’d know for their own sakes, and as a resource if you need a quick link to show someone else.
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Dear NPR Politics Podcast,
Long time listener, first time emailer. I need to make some very important corrections to a story on your podcast from Thursday July 6th (http://www.npr.org/podcasts/510310/npr-politics-podcast). False statements I heard are underlined, and the legal explanations and supporting documents are described in-between. I would appreciate a correction.
I’m an attorney living in Arlington, VA (VA Bar #*****, please don’t read that on the air). On Can’t Let it go on Thursday, July 6th, Danielle’s story was the Hobby Lobby civil settlement with the DOJ over the civil complaint on 450 ancient cuneiform tablets. That complaint is here: https://www.justice.gov/usao-edny/press-release/file/978096/download
Unfortunately, the tenor of the conversation put a very incorrect spin on what the complaint was about, and included some objectively false statements. The specific violation of law is NOT one of Hobby Lobby smuggling of artifacts. Additionally, There was no fine issued, as stated on the 44th minute of the podcast. Rather, there was a settlement of 3 million dollars to end the entire issue for Hobby Lobby and the DOJ.
The reason there is no fine is that this is a civil forfeiture case, which is why (as the segment mentioned) the defendant is “Approximately four hundred and fifty Ancient Cuneiform Tablets; and Approximately Three Thousand Ancient Clay Bullae,” and not “Hobby Lobby.” Items are seized in civil forfeiture when there is probable cause (a good reason) to believe that a preponderance of the evidence (50.1% or more) shows that the items are used in some criminal behavior. It is NOT true that Hobby Lobby was smuggling artifacts as the segment reported, and it is not true that Hobby Lobby has been accused of smuggling artifacts. The items were seized because it is more likely than not that SOMEBODY smuggled them somewhere.
The biggest misstatement of fact came during the 46th minute of the podcast when Sam Sanders asked “Did Hobby Lobby respond and say, ‘Here is why we were labeling ancient tablets as tile samples?'” And Danielle said “Yes, I believe they said, ‘We’re new to this. We didn’t know. It was an accident.’ “ This was followed by skeptical “Hm…” noises from some of the hosts.
THIS IS FALSE AND MISLEADING. As the complaint makes clear in paragraphs 31-36 and 38-42 indicate, Hobby Lobby allowed the sellers to manage the importation of the items through US customs. AT NO TIME DID HOBBY LOBBY MISLABEL OR IMPORT ANY OF THE ITEMS. Their statement of “being new to this” was in entrusting the importation to the sellers, who were not as above-board as they were claiming to be and falsely labeled the packages to have them shipped to the US.
Finally, while someone hired by the Hobby Lobby organization did tell them that there could be some legal trouble with the importation of these items, paragraph 26 makes clear that this advice never made it to the President of Hobby Lobby who was personally purchasing the items. Hobby Lobby also made clear in a statement that at no time did any of the dealers they talked with indicate that the items were from Iraq (statement here: https://newsroom.hobbylobby.com/articles/artifact-import-settlement/
). As paragraph 27 of the complaint makes clear about the invoice for the tablets, “The Invoice falsely stated that the Artifacts in the Invoice originated in Israel.” Hobby Lobby was under the impression that the items were coming from Israel, not Iraq, and not the UAE, which was the mis-identified country of origin.
These lapses in confirmation were obviously mistakes, even though there is nothing in the complaint to indicate that Hobby Lobby intended to smuggle anything. This is why Hobby Lobby has agreed to improve their internal processes. There is a ban in Iraqi law on private persons possessing such items which originate from Iraq, but it is not clear the Hobby Lobby knew of this Iraqi law when they purchased the tablets in the early 2000s. There is a high burden on individuals in the ancient cuneiform market to affirmatively prove that the items they are purchasing are not stolen. This is what Hobby Lobby did not do.
The podcast seemed to be unsure what the motivation of Hobby Lobby is in buying cuneiform tablets. However, it is plainly clear that Hobby Lobby’s interest in these tablets comes from the faith of the owners. These owners are extremely involved in supporting the Museum of the Bible which they are constructing in Washington D.C. (See here: https://www.museumofthebible.org/). As proof of this motivation, there is another fact from paragraph 21 of the complaint, which also pushes against the idea that Hobby Lobby willfully smuggled items in from other countries. On July 18th, 2010, the President verbally declared to a customs official that he was carrying a Bible which he paid in excess of $1 million dollars for.
I would appreciate if NPR politics would do its best to give due credit to the sincere religious motivations of the actors they they report on, and due its best to accurately report on documents and activities that are easily available to the public for inspection. A correction of these mis-statements would be appreciated.
-J. Caleb Jones, Esquire
Va Bar # *****
DC Bar # *******