TAMPA — For 15 years, Al Fox has been working on his own from his native Tampa on one of the most intractable problems in U.S. foreign policy: the nation's relations with Cuba.
Since founding his Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation in 2001 to advocate for cooperation with the island nation, Fox has taken part in more than 100 delegations to Cuba, helping bring about pioneering partnerships between the two nations and changes in U.S. policy.
Now, Fox is facing $100,000 in civil penalties from an agency of the U.S. Treasury Department called the Office of Foreign Assets Control. The agency accuses Fox of arranging two trips to Cuba in 2010 and 2011 without obtaining proper licenses.
Why these two trips were singled out in the enforcement action remains unclear; the Office of Foreign Assets Control does not comment publicly on pending litigation.
Fox, 71, a former Washington lobbyist who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2006, says he is innocent and will fight the allegations. A hearing is set for February.
Fox's attorney, Arthur Heitzer, questions whether his client has been targeted by individuals who won't accept that relations between the United States and Cuba are improving and who seek to punish those who played a role in the change.
"Al Fox is the last U.S. victim of the Cold War against Cuba," Heitzer said.
Said Fox: "I won't voluntarily pay a penny of that fine. I have done nothing wrong. I have done good work."
Fox had a hand in a number of new links among U.S. and Cuban interests, including a coral reef research partnership between Tampa's Florida Aquarium and the National Aquarium of Havana, and a 2014 accord among four nations on oil spill cleanups.
Fox also helped secure charter flights between Tampa and Cuba in 2011 when he brought the late Steve Burton, former head of the Hillsborough Aviation Authority, to the Washington, D.C., home of Cuba's representative in the United States.
The civil action against Fox stems from work on the oil spill and aviation agreements.
In 2010, leaders from the U.S. oil industry met in Havana with their counterparts from Cuba for the first time to discuss drilling safety. This led to the multinational oil spill accord.
Then in 2011, a 15-member Tampa delegation, including Burton, flew to Havana on the inaugural charter flight from Tampa International Airport. Growth in charter traffic has helped land Tampa daily commercial flights to Havana starting later this year.
Fox is accused of illegally providing travel services for the 2010 and 2011 groups, then engaging with them in business that was not authorized under his license.
Today, many restrictions against travel and trade involving Cuba have been eased under executive orders by President Barack Obama. But before this normalization of relations, arrangements for plane tickets, hotel reservations and other travel services could be made only through a travel services provider licensed by the Office of Foreign Assets Control.
Fox was not a licensed provider but says he did not conduct travel transactions for the delegations. Rather, he recommended they use Flor Caribe, a travel agency focused on Cuba that did hold a license from the federal office. The company has since gone out of business.
"Is it wrong to give advice?" Heitzer asked. "Is that what constitutes providing a travel service? It shouldn't."
Fox said he is unclear what business the office believes he conducted in Cuba in 2011 and says the federal agency hasn't provided him specifics yet.
He said the business conducted during 2010 might refer to the oil meetings, which he attended.
But Fox facilitated the meetings from within the United States, he said, by reaching out to the Cuban government and suggesting they meet with the oil executives. Whether he was authorized to attend the meetings in Cuba is a question raised by the federal action.
In 2010, Americans were granted a license to travel to Cuba on a case-by-case basis unless their visit was for professional research, in which case they were granted a general travel license.
On his trip that year, Fox was issued a license by the Office of Foreign Assets Control for humanitarian purposes.
The timing of his visit was no coincidence, though, Fox said. Still, he contends that he fulfilled his humanitarian obligations by delivering medical supplies to families and churches.
"I then attended the oil meetings that I pushed to happen," he said. "I did not engage in business. I was not paid."
Heitzer said the nature of the work conducted by Fox's alliance was covered under the general professional research license.
The alliance's goal since its inception has been to encourage Americans to visit Cuba so they can see that the island is not a threat to the United States and lobby elected officials to lift the embargo.
"He has taught the U.S. about Cuba for years. That is his professional research," Heitzer said.
Doug Jacobson, a lawyer in Washington, D.C., whose practice involves nations under sanction, said the federal office works slowly, so issuing a fine years after the alleged offense is not uncommon. Jacobson has no connection to the case against Fox.
Fox's alliance once was licensed to take politicians and businessmen on fact-finding missions to Cuba, but his last application to the Treasury's office in 2005 was rejected. He hasn't submitted an application since then.
Heitzer noted that his client also has pushed for the Treasury Department to close its Office of Foreign Assets Control in Miami in the belief that the city's Cuban dissident population can influence decisions made there. The work should be done only in Washington, Fox has said.
"Hundreds of thousands of people visit Cuba each year, many bending the line here and there without doing any public good on their trip," Heitzer said.
"But they come after the guy who has provided a public service."
Contact Paul Guzzo at email@example.com or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.