By Jane Sutton
MIAMI (Reuters) - A New York man agreed on Tuesday to pay a $6,500 fine to settle a long-running dispute with the U.S. Treasury Department over a trip he made to Cuba as an unauthorized tourist 14 years ago.
Zachary Sanders, now 38, said he was 23 and had been living and teaching English in Mexico when he decided to go to Cuba for a couple of weeks in 1998.
"I wanted to learn about how a socialist country worked in practice," Sanders said in an interview. "I had no illusions. ... I'm not like some diehard supporter of the (Cuban) government or anything like that."
The United States has long restricted U.S. travel to Cuba as part of a 50-year-old trade embargo aimed at punishing Cuba's communist government. The actual restrictions and the degree of enforcement have varied with different U.S. administrations and with the evolving state of U.S.-Cuba relations.
Sanders did not obtain the required U.S. Treasury license to visit Cuba and a U.S. Customs agent became suspicious when Sanders returned to the United States through the Bahamas without declaring that he had been to Cuba. The agent also seized an undeclared box of Cuban cigars from Sanders' luggage.
Two years later, Sanders received a letter from the Treasury Department asking for details of his expenditures in Cuba. He said he was scared, had lost the receipts and missed the deadline to return the form.
Another two years went by and the department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) reviewed his case during a Bush administration crackdown on travel to Cuba, notifying Sanders of its intent to fine him for failing to return the form. In 2008, an administrative law judge fined him $1,000.
Both sides appealed, and on the final business day of the Bush administration in January 2009, a Treasury administrator raised the fine to $9,000. He reasoned that the original fine was too low to discourage people from ignoring OFAC forms.
Sanders had a constitutional right not to provide incriminating evidence against himself, said his lawyer, Shane Kadidal of the Center for Constitutional Rights.
By the time the fine was issued, Sanders had successfully battled cancer, completed law school and been admitted to law practice in New York, where he is a sole practitioner who mainly represents poor immigrants.
He also passed the bar exam in New Jersey, but was denied admission to that state's bar because he acknowledged that he had gone to Cuba knowing it was illegal.
Sanders sued OFAC, the Treasury Department and the Justice Department in federal court in 2009, appealing the fine as arbitrary and capricious. He lost and then turned to the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York, where Tuesday's settlement agreement was filed.
Kadidal said Sanders' fine was still far greater than most Americans pay for violating the travel ban, and suggested he had been singled out because he was "an ideological traveler."
Civil penalties for tourist travel to Cuba can range up to $7,500 for the first trip and $10,000 for subsequent trips.
OFAC resolved more than 200 such cases for "a standard $1,000 settlement" from 2001 to 2004, Kadidal said, and dismissed many others with no fine at all.
Under the Obama administration, which has relaxed restrictions on travel to Cuba, OFAC has generally pursued cases against financial institutions and manufacturers that violate the embargo, rather than individual travelers.
The case is Sanders vs. Szuben, Case No. 12-601 cv in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
(Reporting by Jane Sutton; Editing by David Adams and Will Dunham)