May 11, 2007–Michael Moore is reportedly under investigation by the U.S. Treasury Department for taking ailing 9/11 rescue workers to Cuba for a segment in his upcoming health-care docu “Sicko.”
The investigation provides another contentious lead-in for a provocative film, a fierce critic of President Bush. In the past, Moore's adversaries have fanned publicity that helped the filmmaker create a new brand of opinionated blockbuster documentary.
“Sicko” promises to examine the health-care industry the way Moore confronted America's gun culture in “Bowling for Columbine” and Bush's handling of Sept. 11 in “Fahrenheit 9/11.”
The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control notified Moore that it was conducting a civil investigation for possible violations of the U.S. trade embargo restricting travel to Cuba.
In March, Moore took about 10 ailing workers from the Ground Zero rescue effort in Manhattan for treatment in Cuba, said a person working with the filmmaker on the release of “Sicko.” The person requested anonymity because Moore's attorneys had not yet determined how to respond.
Moore, who scolded Bush over the Iraq war during the 2003 Oscar telecast, received the letter Monday, the person said. “Sicko” premieres May 19 at the Cannes Film Festival and debuts in U.S. theaters June 29.
Moore declined to comment, said spokeswoman Lisa Cohen. In a statement Thursday, “Sicko” producer Meghan O'Hara said the Treasury investigation might be an attempt to undermine the film. “Our health-care system is broken and, all too often, deadly,” O'Hara said. “The efforts of the Bush administration to conduct a politically motivated investigation of Michael Moore and “Sicko” will not stop us from making sure the American people see this film.”
After receiving the letter, Moore arranged to place a copy of the film in a “safe house” outside the country to protect it from government interference, said the person working on the release of the film.
Sept. 11 rescue workers “risked their lives searching for survivors, recovering bodies, and clearing away toxic rubble,” O'Hara said. “Now, many of these heroes face serious health issues, and far too many of them are not receiving the care they need and deserve.”
Treasury officials would not comment specifically about Moore's case. But department spokeswoman Molly Millerwise said OFAC is “required to investigate potential violations of these programs. In doing so, OFAC issues hundreds of letters each year asking for additional information when possible sanctions violations have occurred.”
The letter noted that Moore applied Oct 12, 2006, for permission to go to Cuba “but no determination had been made by OFAC.” Moore sought permission to travel there under a provision for full-time journalists, the letter said.
Moore was given 20 business days to provide OFAC with such information as the date of travel and point of departure; the reason for the Cuba trip and his itinerary there; and the names and addresses of those who accompanied him, along with their reasons for going.
“Sicko” is Moore's followup to 2004's “Fahrenheit 9/11,” a $100 million hit criticizing the Bush administration over Sept. 11. Moore's “Bowling for Columbine” won the 2002 Oscar for best documentary.
A dissection of the U.S. health-care system, “Sicko” was inspired by a segment on Moore's TV show “The Awful Truth,” in which he staged a mock funeral outside a health-maintenance organization that had declined a pancreas transplant for a diabetic man. The HMO later relented.
At last September's Toronto Film Festival, Moore previewed footage shot for “Sicko,” presenting stories of personal health-care nightmares. One scene showed a woman who was denied payment for an ambulance ride after a head-on collision because it was not preapproved.
Moore's opponents have accused him of distorting the facts, and his Cuba trip provoked criticism from conservatives including former Republican Sen. Fred Thompson, who assailed the filmmaker in a blog at National Review Online.
The timing of the investigation is reminiscent of the firestorm that preceded the Cannes debut of “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which won the festival's top prize in 2004. The Walt Disney Co. refused to let subsidiary Miramax release the film because of its political content, prompting Miramax bosses Harvey and Bob Weinstein to release “Fahrenheit 9/11″ on their own.
The Weinsteins later left Miramax to form the Weinstein Co., which is releasing “Sicko.” They declined to comment on the Treasury investigation, said company spokeswoman Sarah Levinson Rothman.