A state appeals court has ruled against a former Tioga County police chief who admitted spreading lies that two Lebanese-American men were involved in terrorism.

According to court documents, James DeVita, then police chief in the village of Owego, made the allegations after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

The chief admitted going around town in uniform, claiming that pizza shop owners Michael Yammine and Hassid Kazan, both naturalized Americans and fathers with long-standing ties to the community, were drug and gun runners in league with Osama bin Laden. He also admitted knowing that the claims were false, the court said. Neither of the men is Muslim.

Last June, the state Supreme Court ruled for the shop owners in a slander lawsuit against DeVita and awarded $200,000 each for damage to their reputations and their business. The police chief, who retired about the same time, appealed the decision. But last week the appellate court upheld the damages, which will likely come out of the village’s insurance policy.

The two men have lived in the area for 20 years and were well acquainted with DeVita before the incident, said their lawyer, Matthew Butler.

“They hunted with (DeVita); they were friends,” Butler said.

One civil-rights advocate said that despite increased discrimination against people of Middle Eastern descent, he was surprised to hear that a police chief would be involved.

“In the post-9/11 era, it’s become all too easy to make false allegations against people who are either Muslim or Arab or perceived to be so,” said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington, D.C. “That’s not uncommon, but I don’t recall ever hearing about an authority figure making those kinds of accusations.”

Butler said DeVita never apologized to the shop owners and failed to explain his actions in court.


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