Controversy trails Michael Moore like a shadow—or is that the other way around? The lefty filmmaker, whose “Roger & Me,” and “Bowling For Columbine” and “Fahrenheit 9/11,” all put pins in the proverbial cushion of power, is needling people again—this time with “Sicko,” his sardonic attack on the American health-care system. Moore has been playing both offense and defense in the run-up to the film’s partial release this Friday in New York and Los Angeles, promoting his film on the talk circuit, speaking out on health-care issues, and deflecting charges that his documentary violated standards of objectivity and professional conduct.
The film’s final section has Moore in the hottest water: he leads about eight rescue workers who became sick after 9/11 on a pilgrimage through old Havana, where they buy prescription drugs cheaply and receive free health care, courtesy of Cuba’s socialized medicine. Moore’s not-subtle message: why can’t these folks afford this kind of treatment back home? The problem is, his stunt may violate a 45-year-old restriction against Americans spending money in Cuba without a government-issued license. The Treasury Department, which oversees the licensing process, evidently agrees and has opened an investigation of Moore and company for potential unlicensed travel. Any convictions mean fines of up to $65,000 per person, and, of infinitely more value, confiscation of the Cuba footage before the film’s general release on June 29.
The multimillionaire-dollar question is: under what auspices did Moore get his people to Cuba? Moore, producer Harvey Weinstein and attorney David Boies claim that the group traveled on a legal “journalistic endeavor,” presumably under a license granted to members of the press who can provide evidence to the Treasury that they are regularly employed by a news organization. (Moore's spokesman, Chris Lehane, insists that Moore's group traveled legally, yet he wouldn't say if they actually attained any license from Treasury.) But the subjects of “Sicko” aren’t "regularly employeed" as journalists. NEWSWEEK has learned that Moore’s production company, Dog Eat Dog productions, credentialed the interviewees itself—in essence, knighting them as journalists—and then flew them from Miami to Cuba on a charter flight reserved for licensed travelers. Is that good enough? “Moore is not allowed to travel with companions unless they’re also licensed by the Treasury to travel to Cuba as journalists,” says David Cibrian, international trade attorney at Strasburger & Price. “ Journalists don’t bring people from elsewhere to interview in Cuba. People go to Cuba to interview Cubans.”
One final mystery is what documentation Moore’s party presented to U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel in order to legally board a flight from Miami. Treasury claims, in a May letter to Moore, that it has “no record” of issuing the necessary paperwork for Moore to travel. But Angel Marques, public affairs liaison in the Miami Office of Customs and Border Protection, says no one gets on a flight from Miami to Cuba without showing a Treasury license. “I don’t know what charter service Moore used, but it’s safe to say that he would have been asked for paperwork before boarding,” Marques says.
But it might not only be Moore who’s in trouble. The Treasury Department wouldn’t comment on an open investigation, but at least one New York newspaper has reported that the government is investigating each person in Moore’s entourage to see if they violated licensing rules for Cuba visits. The interviewees themselves were aware of Moore’s tactics, but they didn’t think there was anything illegal about them. “What I gather is that Michael applied for this license [a special license for nonjournalists such as technicians employed by a news organization] some time back and they [the U.S. Treasury] didn’t tell him no, but they never gave him an answer,” said Billy Mahr, 54, whose nervous teeth-grinding, following his work as a volunteer 9/11 rescuer, brought him in to conflict with the health-care system. “We figured well, they’re not telling us not to go, so we can go.” That said, Mahr says he doesn’t really care what action the government may take against him. “Bring it on,” he says. “I wish they wouldn’t bother investigating and just come get me,” says Reggie Cervantes, a fellow Cuba traveler. “At least then I’d get three meals a day and free health care.”