AIRPORT CUSTOMS INCIDENT: MONDAY, FEB. 5th
Monday evening, February 5, Samoa News photojournalist/columnist Barry Markowitz had his camera gear, laptop, ipad, local cell phone, medical prescriptions, blood sugar testing supplies and his cpap breathing machine seized by American Samoa’s Airport Customs for refusing to pay excise taxes on these items.
In an internal memo, Mr. Markowitz expressed to Samoa News management that he felt his US Constitutional 1st Amendment journalistic freedom rights were violated by both the demand for the tax and the seizure of his equipment.
Barry also expressed that the seizure of his medical supplies was in his view a violation of the American Disability Act.
Subsequent to this incident, Acting Director of Customs, Keith Gebauer, reached out to Mr. Markowitz, but as of publication, they had not met or communicated with each other.
Mr. Gebauer and Director of Commerce, Mr. Keniseli Lafaele sent the Samoa News the following letters via email about the incident.
The first letter was received Feb. 07, 2018 from the director of Commerce, the second from “Acting” Customs Chief Mr. Keith Gebauer on Feb. 08, 2018. Samoa News formatted the letters only.
DOC DIRECTOR’S LETTER:
It is with the deepest sincerity that we apologize to our good friend, Mr. Barry Markowitz, for the events that occurred as he attempted to pass through American Samoa Customs on Monday evening. The incident was the result of a miscommunication between the Department of Commerce and the Customs Office, and should not be indicative of our efforts to promote tourism. Nor was it a reflection of our proud tradition of hospitality and congeniality.
Our appreciation to Mr. Markowitz cannot be overstated, nor can our regret for his mistreatment. A talented and distinguished journalist, Mr. Markowitz has been a long-time friend of American Samoa. He has been an invaluable advocate in promoting the territory to global businesses and travelers. As director of the Department of Commerce, I assisted him with his efforts to attend and provide coverage on the ceremony for Hawaiian Air’s inaugural Airbus A330-200 service on the Honolulu to Pago Pago route. To this end, I wrote a letter to the executive leadership of Hawaiian Air on February 4th, supporting a request to provide Mr. Markowitz with a fully-covered round-trip flight so he could provide coverage on this significant event. Needless to say, we considered ourselves fortunate to have him in attendance.
Additionally, we appreciate the fine work of our local media, and reiterate our support in the unhindered freedom of press. Obviously, Customs agents do not have the power to circumvent first amendment rights, and efforts are being made to ensure that individual rights are respected and maintained. Relevant agencies are already determining appropriate policy adjustments to ensure that rights are protected and that visitors will be met with hospitality when entering the territory.
Again, we wish to convey our sincerest appreciation to Mr. Markowitz and to our media partners. In order to expand tourism and economic development in the territory, it is imperative that government agencies and media collaborate. In addition to our apology, we hope that Mr. Markowitz might find solace in the knowledge that the executive government is working diligently to ensure that relevant policies are in place to protect future travelers.
Keniseli Lafaele —Department of Commerce — Government of American Samoa
ACTING CHIEF OF CUSTOMS LETTER:
RE: Barry Marcowitz incident on February 5, 2018
I was made aware of the incident involving Mr. Marcowitz after the passengers were cleared on Monday’s Hawaiian Air flight. At the time of notification, I confirmed that his property and other personal effects had been returned prior to him leaving the airport. On Tuesday morning, I was contacted by email and text message by a Director regarding the incident. I informed the Director that Mr. Marcowitz’s property had been returned and that I would reach out to Mr. Marcowitz as well.
This is certainly not the first impression we wish any visitors to experience when they arrive into the Territory. The Customs Division has a responsibility to secure our borders and collect any excise or fees due but always in a manner that is professional, respectful and lawful. In this particular incident, it was an error on our part, and I wish to express our sincerest apologies for any difficulty and inconvenience Mr. Marcowitz experienced as result of our poor judgement. I take full responsibility for the actions of our Customs agents. We have addressed our internal issues at the Airport operation. Again, on behalf of the Customs Division, we extend our apologies to Mr. Marcowitz. We are available at his convenience, should he need any further explanation or assistance from us.
Respectfully, Keith Gebauer — “Acting” Chief of Customs