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The Ancient Coin Collectors Guild has become a driving force in the ongoing effort to protect coin collectors and museums in which coins are stored from being forced to give up these items to foreign governments under the premise the coins are the cultural patrimony of the claimant nation. — Richard Giedroyc, World Coin News April 26, 2010

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Limited State Department FOIA Releases Raise More Questions Than They Answer

An update on litigation and observations on material released to date.

By Peter K. Tompa |
July 21, 2008

The ACCG, IAPN and PNG Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit has forced the State Department to process FOIA requests, some of which are over three years old. The Plaintiffs had hoped that the FOIA litigation would explain last year’s unprecedented decision to impose import restrictions on coins of Cypriot type. A secondary goal was to determine whether China actually asked for import restrictions on coins, as maintained in the public summary of the still-pending Chinese request for import restrictions. Unfortunately, the limited releases the State Department has made to date (including some last week) have raised more questions than they have answered. As a result, Plaintiffs intend to press forward with their litigation.


On Cyprus
The limited information that the State Department has produced has led Plaintiffs to focus on the activities of the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute (CAARI). Based on the FOIA releases and subsequent internet research, it is now clear that CAARI was intimately involved in the controversial decision to impose import restrictions on coins of Cypriot type. Any effort to downplay the “behind the scenes” contacts between CAARI and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) is belied by: (1) ECA's consultations with the late Professor Danielle Parks (a CAARI-affiliated archaeologist) about coins BEFORE Cyprus even made a formal request for their inclusion; and (2) the words of CAARI's own president in an interview with Cypriot media. See Cyprus News Agency, “CAARI-30 Years Interview with Gustave Feissel” available online at: http://www.cna.org.cy/website/english/subject1.shtm#GF (“CAARI, according to Feissel, has been instrumental in the renewal of a Memorandum of Understanding between Cyprus and the US to restrict the import of Cypriot antiquities into the US, including for the first time ancient coins.”).

Unfortunately, the communication between ECA staff and the late Dr. Parks is heavily redacted. Nevertheless, it is clear that ECA not only consulted with Dr. Parks about import restrictions on coins of Cypriot type behind the scenes, but that ECA then also invited her to submit public comments on the subject (which failed to mention these secret consultations).

CAARI has received funding or in-kind assistance from both the ECA, the State Department entity that decides whether to impose import restrictions, as well as the primary beneficiaries of those restrictions, the Cypriot Government and the Bank of Cyprus Cultural Foundation (BOCCF). In particular, ECA has made grants to Fulbright Scholars hosted by CAARI and the State Department has also provided an annual subsidy to CAARI. See http://www.caari.org/Fellowships.htm and also http://www.caari.org/Research.htm. Moreover, the Cypriot Embassy and the BOCCF have sponsored events on CAARI's behalf. It is unclear whether CAARI has received any monetary grants from either the Cypriot Government or the Bank, but that certainly is at least possible. Yet, by lobbing in favor of import restrictions, CAARI has raised the specter that its actions might be tied to that financial support in some fashion.

It is also clear that the Bank of Cyprus stood to gain from a decision to impose import restrictions on coins of Cypriot type. Such restrictions would give the BOCCF a competitive advantage against US collectors and museums when it sought to buy coins of Cypriot type for its collections. On account of the restrictions, US collectors and coin museums must now certify a coin of Cypriot type’s provenance before importing coins. On the other hand, the BOCCF need not make any such showing before importing ancient coins from abroad, including those imported from the United States. (Under Cypriot law, the BOCCF must register the coins once they get to Cyprus — then, they cannot leave.) For more about the BOCCF collection see: http://www.boccf.org/main/default.aspx?tabid=46

CAARI was certainly well placed to lobby the State Department behind the scenes given the number of retired diplomats that serve as Trustees. See: http://www.caari.org/Trustees.htm. The extent of this lobbying on behalf of Cyprus not only raises potential questions about some quid pro quo, it also potentially raises some questions about whether CAARI should have registered as a foreign agent for Cyprus. At a minimum, these lobbying efforts raise legitimate questions about whether undue influence or cronyism influenced the decision to impose import restrictions on coins of Cypriot type.

The FOIA litigation has raised other questions about the decision as well. As previously reported, Assistant Secretary of State Dina Powell, the decision maker, was given a false choice as to whether then current restrictions should be continued with the addition of coins or alternatively that all the restrictions should be discontinued. A staff “action memo” did not give Powell the option of continuing current restrictions without adding coins to the designated list.

Plaintiffs have only received a heavily redacted copy of the CPAC report on Cyprus. While plaintiffs suspect that CPAC recommended against extending import restrictions to coins, the failure of DOS to release pertinent documents precludes the Plaintiffs from confirming that or determining whether CPAC's recommendations were accurately reported to the decision maker.

On China
According to the State Department, the Chinese (and not State Department staff) made a request for import restrictions. Nevertheless, based on a communication with the Chinese Embassy, we suspect China never asked for coins to be included with the request. How coins were added to the public summary remains a mystery as the State Department has refused to turn over any relevant documents.

State Should Practice What it Preaches
It has been one year since the State Department imposed its controversial import restrictions on coins of Cypriot type. Meanwhile, rumors continue to circulate that the State Department may announce import restrictions on Chinese cultural artifacts before the Beijing Olympics. State should provide full disclosure about these issues. Its failure to do so only raises further suspicions that its decision making is inherently biased in favor of members of the archaeological community and foreign states.

The Department of State’s failure to release meaningful information is in stark contrast to its pronouncements to representatives of other governments about transparency of process. Indeed, just recently the Department of State sponsored a leadership program for Caribbean government officials that included a lecture on “the history of public information in the United States including the role of the Freedom of Information Act; [and] information sharing and transparency at the Federal, State and local levels.” See http://www.nevisblog.com/?p=1631. It’s time for the State Department to practice what it preaches.

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