Gov's aide did time in '80s terror case
SPRINGFIELD | Blagojevich stands by Guerra, who refused to testify before grand jury
BY DAVE MCKINNEY Sun-Times Springfield Bureau Chief
• PDF: Guerra's sentencing memorandum
SPRINGFIELD -- A high-ranking official in Gov. Blagojevich's office spent nearly two years in a federal prison for refusing to aid a government terrorism probe into a series of bombings in Chicago and New York City.
Steven Guerra, Blagojevich's $120,000-a-year deputy chief of staff for community services, was identified by federal prosecutors as a member of the Puerto Rican separatist group, FALN, which was behind a wave of violence and killings in the 1970s and early 1980s.
In 1983, Guerra, now 53, was among five people convicted in New York of contempt of court for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury investigating the group. The felony conviction resulted in a three-year prison sentence for Guerra, who was released in 1986 after serving 23 months.
Federal prosecutors labeled Guerra and his four co-defendants "a danger to the community," and said they advocated armed violence, kidnappings, hijackings and prison breaks in the name of a "free" Puerto Rico.
The lead prosecutor in Guerra's case, James D. Harmon Jr., said it is clear to him that the man he helped convict has no business working for state government. "He had his opportunity to help the government. Someone who refused to help the government, in my opinion, forfeits his right to earn a living from any government at any time," the former prosecutor said.
'Meeting of ... terrorists'
Gov. Blagojevich's office said Guerra disclosed his felony conviction to the administration before his 2003 hiring. Aides said the governor intends to stand by Guerra. He was recommended for the job by Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who lobbied President Bill Clinton to grant clemency to 11 imprisoned FALN members in 1999.
Before their trial, Guerra and his co-defendants denied they were members of FALN, said they had no information to provide the government and would not "collaborate" with a "tool of coercion" targeting supporters of Puerto Rican independence, the New York Times reported in September 1982.
Guerra was not charged with any of the group's attacks or plots. But a sentencing memo obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times laid out in detail the government's belief that Guerra was an FALN insider with intimate knowledge of wrongdoing.
The accusations came largely from an admitted FALN member, Alfredo Mendez. He grew up with Guerra, became a government witness and is living under the witness-protection program.
Mendez told investigators Guerra was a member of FALN and recounted a June 1982 trip Guerra took to Puerto Rico to attend "a meeting of a cross section of terrorists." Guerra was identified at the meeting as "one of the leaders of the resistance in the United States," the government memo said.
"The discussion at the meeting included detailed plans for the ambush of police officers and the destruction of dams through the use of explosives," the memo stated.
Mendez also said Guerra and others told him about "a breakout that was planned for the FALN members when they were housed at the Dwight, Illinois prison facility" but it ultimately never happened, the memo said.
"As a back-up to the plan for an actual breakout, plans were also discussed to demand release of the FALN by hijacking a plane or kidnapping either a politician or a politically connected millionaire," the memo stated.
Mendez described how Guerra spoke of efforts to "break . . . out of prison" another FALN member, Marie Haydee Torres. She is serving a life sentence in a federal prison in Florida for murder. Torres placed an explosives-laced umbrella in a coat rack that exploded inside the New York offices of Mobil Oil, killing a company executive in August 1977.
Finally, Guerra "advocate(d) the violent overthrow of the United States government" in Puerto Rico during a speech before a university audience in California, the memo stated.
"The right of our country to its independence was not to be discussed with words but with bullets. For believing this, we came to be branded as terrorists," the memo quoted Guerra as saying, citing a principle he said he had been taught.
Officials knew of his past
In September 2003, the governor included Guerra among a group of his top Latino appointees and said they were "the best people who could bring new ideas and valuable experience to state government."
Gubernatorial spokeswoman Abby Ottenhoff said Guerra disclosed his conviction when he was hired in May 2003 by the Department of Human Services, a post he held until his May promotion to the governor's office.
Ottenhoff said Guerra "was never given the opportunity to review the pre-sentencing memo -- it was not introduced in the trial -- but he strongly denies the hearsay statements attributed to Mr. Mendez."
"If there was really evidence that he had been involved in criminal activity, undoubtedly the federal government would have aggressively pursued charges. Instead, he was charged with refusing to testify before a grand jury. He served his sentence," she said. "And he's had an excellent record in the social services community for nearly 20 years since then."
When asked whether the governor would want employees under his watch to testify before a federal grand jury if called, Ottenhoff said, "Everyone has an obligation to follow the law, and when they don't, they should be prepared to pay the consequences. Steven made a decision not to participate in an investigation he opposed on moral grounds with full knowledge of the consequences. He paid the price for his decision."
Guerra declined comment.
The history of FALN
Before al-Qaida and Timothy McVeigh, the nation's most feared terrorism group was FALN, an organization that sought Puerto Rican independence through a wave of terror more than a quarter century ago.
More than 130 bombings in New York, Illinois and Puerto Rico were attributed to the group, including at least 28 here. Five people were killed, and 84 were injured, including four police officers.
Between 1975 and 1979, FALN took credit for or was suspected in bomb attacks at the Merchandise Mart, the Chicago Police Department headquarters, Woodfield Shopping Center and a former Marshall Field's department store, among others.
In March 1980, gun-toting sympathizers stormed the Carter-Mondale presidential campaign office in Chicago and held campaign workers hostage.
But a month later, FALN suffered its most severe setback when 11 members were arrested in a stolen truck in Evanston.