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The Treasury Department has backed off a threatened $34,000 fine against the D.C.-based Alliance of Baptists for alleged violations of Cuba travel restrictions by five member churches during mission trips. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control dropped its “pre-penalty notice” last month after the alliance appealed with help from local attorney Kenneth Lazarus, who says he accepted a third of his hourly rate under “what I call my priests, ministers and rabbis rate.” OFAC claimed five mission trips engaged in prohibited tourist activity, but some church and alliance leaders questioned whether the threatened fine was politically motivated because of the alliance’s vocal opposition to the travel restrictions. Lazarus says OFAC threatens big fines but backs down on appeals to avoid any adverse court decisions. “They impose all these draconian penalties or try to. It’s all done administratively so it never sees the light of day,” he says. An OFAC spokeswoman says mitigating factors are considered during appeals, which can reduce threatened fines. Democrats in Congress are pushing legislation to eliminate the travel restrictions and trade embargo, but the Bush administration is still striking a hard line, despite the apparent departure of Fidel Castro from power for health reasons. The Rev. Stan Hastey, who heads mission partnerships for the 120 churches in the Alliance of Baptists, hopes the Cuba restrictions will be lifted, with Republicans facing heat from Midwest farm states that want to trade with Cuba. “All along I have felt that when the embargo itself comes down someday, it will be driven by economics, not moral persuasion,” he says.
Brendan Smith can be contacted at [email protected].

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