WEST PALM BEACH — On the same day that the would-be Christmas Day bomber, pleaded not guilty to terrorism charges in a civilian courtroom in Detroit, the man behind one of the most controversial decisions regarding terrorists was in West Palm Beach.

Speaking before a crowd of more than 700 at the Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, the first African-American U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was the guest of honor at a luncheon sponsored by the Forum Club of the Palm Beaches.

As the chief justice official for the Obama administration, Holder is known for his controversial decision to treat suspected terrorists as criminal defendants in civilian court instead of treating them as enemy combatants.

Before the enthusiastic crowd, Holder defended his stance, stating that it gives the United States the best chance at success against the terrorists. In his 20-minute address, Holder alluded only briefly to the failed Christmas Day attack by terrorism suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, reiterating President Obama’s remarks that national security is priority one.

Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian man, allegedly tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Dec. 25 with an explosive hidden in his underwear.

“In this time of war – and yes, we are at war – the protection of our national security is and will remain our top priority,” Holder said.

But Holder spent the majority of his time speaking about an executive order from the president for the Department of Justice to crack down on financial fraud.

He said, “The protection of our economy is an essential component of our larger security goals.”

Holder cited the Ponzi schemes of Bernard Madoff as the reason for a new anti-fraud task force designed to “prevent, prosecute and punish financial fraud.”

Madoff, who pleaded guilty in March 2009, is serving a 150-year sentence in federal prison in North Carolina for what could be the biggest Ponzi scheme in history, according to The Associated Press. The scheme destroyed thousands of people’s life savings, wrecked charities and gave the financial system another big jolt.

The new task force, created last month by presidential order, will focus on four types of financial crime: mortgage fraud; securities fraud; misuse of federal stimulus and bailout money; and predatory lending and scams aimed at minorities, the elderly and the disadvantaged.

Holder said South Florida is ripe with mortgage fraud.

“No one in South Florida needs a lesson on the destructive consequences of widespread mortgage fraud,” he told the audience. “To those who see the victimization of others as an avenue to wealth, take notice: If you fabricate a financial statement, if you propagate an investment scheme, if you are complicit in an act of financial fraud, you’re writing your own ticket to jail.”

While Holder cited the seriousness of money crimes, it was clear from the audience questions that many other issues were on the minds of the people, such as race relations, airport security, and Haitian immigration.


Photo: U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder