Helms: Probe O's bias on Cuba

Reno asked to look into no-defector policy

Angelos rips senator

May 26, 2000|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In the latest chapter of a tale involving foreign policy, labor law, the Republican National Committee and the Baltimore Orioles, Sen. Jesse Helms asked federal authorities yesterday to investigate the Orioles for alleged hiring discrimination against Cuban defectors.

Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a vocal critic of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, asked Attorney General Janet Reno to determine whether the Orioles blackballed Cuban defectors as a goodwill gesture to Havana after a Cuban team played two exhibition games against the club last year.

"I ask that you initiate an immediate review of the hiring practices of the Orioles," Helms, a Republican from North Carolina, said in a letter to Reno. "Cubans who seek refuge in the United States - even if they happen to be baseball players - deserve the full measure of protection provided by U.S. law."

A spokeswoman for the Justice Department said that Reno would be reviewing Helms' letter "and considering his concerns."

Orioles owner Peter Angelos has denied discriminating against Cuban defectors. The team avoids encouraging Cubans to defect to the United States, he has said, but it would consider hiring defectors once they are here.

Yesterday, Angelos declined to discuss the details of Helms' letter, saying instead, "the irresponsible statement of Senator Helms clearly establishes him as the best argument for term limits."

The dispute was triggered last week when the Washington Times asked Orioles vice president Syd Thrift about the team's apparent lack of interest in Cuban players.

"We - Mr. Angelos in particular - feel it best not to do anything that could be interpreted as being disrespectful or ... encouraging players to defect," Thrift told the newspaper.

That unleashed criticism from several directions. The issue of Cuban defectors was already sensitive in Washington, thanks to the fiery debate over 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez.

Last week, Republican National Committee chairman Jim Nicholson called Angelos, a major Democratic contributor, "a liberal trial lawyer" and compared the alleged Orioles policy to "placing a `No Hire' sign in front of immigrants who risked their lives to escape the repressive communism of the Soviet Union or a Jewish family fleeing Hitler's Nazi Germany."

Some two dozen Cuban baseball players have defected to the United States in recent years, including Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, star pitcher for the Orioles' biggest rival, the New York Yankees.

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