What's in a Name?

Qusair Mohamedbhai just wanted to open a bank account. Instead, he was labeled a terrorist.

"I remember she asked a lot of questions," says Hilsher, who watched the exchange. "Where he went to school, why he was here, what brought him here or something. I've worked as a teller at a bank before, and it just struck me as a lot of personal questions."

Anderson left the cage for a while, then returned and told Mohamedbhai that he didn't have sufficient identification to open an account. He left and returned about an hour later, armed with a passport and a visa. This time around, he barely made it inside.

"I got about five steps in the bank, and all the tellers were huddled around each other," Mohamedbhai recalls. "I looked the teller in the eyes, and I remember there was this look of fear, just totally scared. She called out to me, 'You cannot have an account here.' She yelled this from across the bank, literally fifteen, twenty feet away. So I was like, all right, screw this, I need to get an account going, need to get my first paycheck deposited, need to pay rent, I don't care about this bank, I'm a new young attorney, woo-hoo, you don't want my business, fine, this is a small problem, I'll go to another bank."

Identity crisis: Qusair Mohamedbhai had a new job as 
a lawyer, not a terrorist.
Jim J. Narcy
Identity crisis: Qusair Mohamedbhai had a new job as a lawyer, not a terrorist.
Credit rating: Dan Heidel heard terrorizing news about 
his friend at a business meeting
Jim J. Narcy
Credit rating: Dan Heidel heard terrorizing news about his friend at a business meeting

Mohamedbhai went down the street to First Bank, where he opened an account without any trouble.

He'd almost forgotten the bizarre exchange at Commercial Federal -- until Heidel told him that his name had been connected with a terrorist-fraud incident at the bank.

Now, the more he thought about it, the angrier he got. He called his parents, and they said that sort of thing just happens in this country: Americans are racist toward Muslims. But that explanation didn't sit right with Mohamedbhai. He talked to a friend he played volleyball with, a Saudi Arabian man with a thick, Arab accent and a long, bushy beard. The friend fed him the same line, saying that he and his family were hassled every day and that Americans are just racist toward anyone who is Arab or Muslim.

"And that was the idea that stuck in my mind," Mohamedbhai says. "That these Americans are just racist against people with Arab last names, that's just the way it is. But I felt like that wasn't true, and that it shouldn't be like that. And I started getting cheesy and stuff and thinking I'm going to have kids one day, they're going to have my last name, and this has got to stop. That this has never happened to me. And if it's happening to me, what do you think must be going on with these hard-core guys? What about the exchange student from Kuwait?"

Mohamedbhai contacted Ryan Ross, a private investigator often used by his law firm. He asked Ross to run his name -- as well as several variations of his name -- through every database he had access to, to see where the confusion had come from.

"I did the standard database contact-information background check," Ross remembers. "And that certainly did not produce anything that indicated to me that anyone had identified him in the past as a terrorist."

Which meant that the trail started -- and ended -- with Commercial Federal and Colorado Cheque Connection. Stuck, Mohamedbhai asked around his office for the name of a good civil-rights lawyer and was referred to Darold Killmer and Mari Newman. He retained the attorneys, but hesitated about going so far as to file suit. The last thing the somewhat shy Mohamedbhai wanted was to be the face of a prominent racial-profiling case.

"There are obviously worse things that can happen to a person," Mohamedbhai says. "But to me, being called a terrorist, I would rather be called a pedophile or a racist. When you really think about what they are calling you, it's bad. And having an Arabic last name, living in America and having people accuse you of being a terrorist and being a foreigner, it's not a good thing."

On August 3, 2004, Killmer notified both Commercial Federal and Colorado Cheque Connection that his firm was representing Mohamedbhai in connection with the denial of service. A week later, Commercial Federal responded to Killmer's letter by noting that the bank had conducted a "thorough investigation" of the matter, had spoken with all relevant employees, and had determined that Mohamedbhai was denied the account because of insufficient identification.

In her own response, Genevieve Babcock-Elder told Killmer that "I, in my capacity as owner of Colorado Cheque Connection, and as the individual directly involved in the new account inquiry by Commercial Federal Bank, categorically deny all of the allegations involving your client."

But when Zachary Lane, an intern at the office of Killmer, Lane & Newman, had delivered the letter of representation to Babcock-Elder, he'd overheard a comment so odd that Killmer had him make an official statement. As Lane recalled it, "She took the envelope and asked, 'Are you with Killmer?' I told her, 'Yes, I am with Killmer, Lane and Newman.' She then said, 'Well, okay.' Feeling that I had no more business with Ms. Babcock-Elder, I turned and walked toward the door and opened it. As I took my first step through the doorway, I heard her say, presumably to a co-worker, 'This must be about that camel jockey.'"

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