lawsuit designed to cripple terrorism
Attorney looks to find the truth about 9/11
July 14, 2003
BY BOB BRAUN
Star -Ledger Staff
as vengeance -- for the family.
Law as an anti-terrorism act.
Law as finding the truth.
"I've never worked so hard in my life," says Anthony Sellitto,
53, a lawyer in Asbury Park. "I keep up with my own practice,
but devote more and more time to this.
"It's fascinating. Fascinating and heartbreaking."
He is the cousin of Matthew Sellitto, a 23-year-old from Harding.
Killed at the World Trade Center, Sept. 11, 2001. The son of his
first cousin, also Matthew.
"His father got me into this. Wanted to know what I thought
of the idea of using a lawsuit to fight terrorism. I told him I
thought it was a good idea. He should go for it."
The more Anthony Sellitto learned about the litigation, the more
he wanted to get involved.
Not as a plaintiff, but as a lawyer.
So now, he is an attorney of record in a case captioned Thomas Burnett,
Sr., in his own right as the Father of Thomas E. Burnett, Jr., Deceased,
et al vs. Al Baraka Investment and Development Corporation, et al.
A lawsuit designed to bankrupt terrorists. And those who fund them.
scores of Saudi Arabian banks, corporations, charities, individuals
and members of the Saudi government and royal family (almost the
Generally, just about anyone and any organization handling money
that did or could end up in the hands of alQaeda.
Including, of course, Osama bin Laden and members of his family.
"If we do anything that limits the resources available to these
people, then we have done something very important for the country,"
His official role is coordinator of damage claims. No one -- not
even Sellitto -- is sure exactly what that means yet. This lawsuit
is far from getting close to a damage phase.
"Right now, what I'm trying to do is let people know about
the suit and how they can join as plaintiffs -- if they want to."
Sellitto travels the country, often to conferences sponsored by
the National Center for Victims of Crime, a private group that aids
9/11 victims and survivors and relatives.
"I hear a lot of stories. They just make you want to cry. Or
get you angry."
He hears stories and listens to tapes of answering machine messages
like the one his young cousin left for his father. He talks about
victims' parents and spouses who were on the phone with people in
the towers when they collapsed.
"Despite all that's been written, a lot of this hasn't come
In part due to Sellitto's efforts, the suit -- originally filed
last August -- is a shape-changer. Amended complaints are frequently
filed with the federal court in Washington, D.C.
It started with fewer than 700 plaintiffs; now it has more than
4,000 and the number is growing. Unlike claims under the federal
compensation funds, the litigation is open to those who were not
next of kin or dependents
The litigation tries to push limits -- claiming, for example, the
deliberate affliction of emotional distress in favor of, say, fiancés
who watched television knowing those they loved were dying in front
of their eyes.
"I think we'll make some new law in this case," says Sellitto,
a graduate of Villanova and Seton Hall Law School.
The lead litigator is South Carolina lawyer Ron Motley, who made
billions of dollars for 36 states by suing tobacco companies --
and scores of millions in fees for himself. Fees he's now using
to bankroll the case against terrorism.
Co-counsel is Allan Gerson, a Washington lawyer hired by families
of victims of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland,
in 1988. He is given credit for an impending, formal Libyan admission
of guilt -- and a $3 billion settlement.
The plaintiffs in the Al Baraka case -- which asks for $1 trillion
in damages -- pay nothing to be listed in the litigation and won't
be charged fees or expenses unless a settlement or favorable verdict
is reached against some or all of the 117 defendants.
"No one believes this case was brought for money," says
Sellitto. "It was designed to cripple terrorism."
Ultimately, its most important product might be the truth. Unfettered
by politics, embarrassing business connections or geopolitical considerations,
Motley, Gerson, Sellitto and crew can go far in pressing Saudis
for answers. Sellitto says the case already has cost Motley's firm
$13 million -- more than the entire budget of the commission established
by Congress to find the truth about 9/11.
"We've decided to give everything we've learned to the commission
for its investigation," says Sellitto. "We know we've
already learned more than it has."
Bob Braun's columns run on Mondays and Wednesdays.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (973) 392-4281.
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