“An outstanding citizen, an outstanding cleric, and a person to be emulated” – that was Patrick Gillespie, head of the 35,000-member AFL-CIO Building and Trades Council for the Philadelphia area, describing the director of a local religious school now on trial for fraud, bribery and extortion. The object of Gillespie’s admiration was Shamsud-din Ali, a Muslim cleric (or “imam”), who ran Philadelphia’s Sister Clara Muhammad School – or perhaps more accurately, ran it into the ground. But it’s where Ali, a convicted murderer, got his money that may interest prosecutors as much as where the money went. Last month he was slapped with a superseding indictment in Philadelphia federal court.
The imam’s trial is the third resulting from a federal probe into financial mismanagement in Philadelphia. Investigators discovered that on November 30, 1999 a $15,000 donation from a group called the Friends of Labor was deposited into the account of the Sister Clara Muhammad School – a name adorning any number of Islamic schools throughout the U.S. The Friends of Labor were members of four LIUNA locals involved in charitable fundraising. The donation was one of several made by organized labor to the school during 1998-2003, testified IRS agent James Agnew. That Ali is on trial hasn’t dimmed donor enthusiasm. In addition to Gillespie, Laborers’ members Ryan Boyer, Daniel Woodall and Anthony Lewis offered testimony of praise for the imam.
Evidence suggests there hasn’t been much to praise. Around 35 years ago, Shamsud-din Ali, then known as Clarence Fowler, was convicted of murdering a minister during a robbery. In 1976 he had his conviction overturned. In the meantime, he converted to Islam and eventually became an imam. Apparently, he gained a religion, but didn’t lose a desire to live well at the expense of others. As director of the Sister Clara Muhammad School, he was efficient at spending money, not just raising it. And education just wasn’t a high priority. Not long after his school received the $15,000 union gift, Ali’s wife, Faridah, moved $13,000 out of the school’s account and into her own. She then paid $2,500 to cover expenses on her daughter’s luxury New York apartment and more than $9,300 to pay off a pair of her family’s American Express bills. This family had become accustomed to the good life. Invoices show Mr. and Mrs. Ali, their daughter and son enjoyed a six-day trip to Las Vegas, a cruise to Florida, shopping trips to Sachs Fifth Avenue, two Mercedes Benzes, and dinner at some of Philadelphia’s finest restaurants. Their credit cards were listed under KIFS, or Keystone Information and Financial Services, a debt-collection agency operated by the Alis, and Elite Services, a beauty salon Mrs. Ali once had owned.
Educators didn’t live nearly as well. According to testimony, months often would pass before school employees received paychecks, typically in the form of a $250 stipend (or smaller). The Alis, at least, were confident union money could bail them out of their personal financial troubles. One LIUNA official, Sam Staten Sr., was particularly helpful. According to IRS agent Agnew, the Alis received anywhere from $15,000 to $25,000 annually from Staten’s three Laborers’ groups. Once the trial is over, union officials hopefully will be less lavish in their praise of Shamsud-din Ali. But don’t count on it. Ali won a lot of political clout by establishing close his connections at City Hall, including current Mayor John Street. That’s how local unions gained their clout as well.