A new Michael Moore film is on the way and, just in time, more controversy.
The Treasury Department has confirmed it is investigating the firebrand filmmaker for taking 10 ailing 9-11 rescue workers on a trip to Cuba—allegedly in violation of a government travel ban to the island—to shoot a segment for Moore's upcoming health-care documentary, Sicko, due to hit theaters June 29.
We can hear the film's marketing team working on the tag lines now.
The Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, OFAC for short, sent a letter to the 53-year-old Moore stating it received information indicating he had traveled to the communist nation in March without appropriate permission. Under the U.S. government's comprehensive trade embargo, American citizens are forbidden to work in Cuba unless granted an exception.
"OFAC has information indicating that you claimed to qualify under the provision for general license for full-time journalists," the agency writes in the letter, a copy of which was posted on michaelmoore.com after the filmmaker received it Monday. "An application dated October 12, 2006 was submitted by Goldflat Productions, which included you, but no determination had been made by OFAC. OFAC Enforcement is conducting a civil investigation for possible unlicensed transactions under the regulations surrounding your alleged trip to Cuba."
The letter is signed by Dale Thompson, OFAC's chief of general investigations and field operations, who says Moore must now provide a detailed written report about his Cuba visit, including the dates of travel, reasons for going, the group's itinerary, group members' names, travel agency used, cost of transportation, and evidence that he is, in fact, a journalist reporting for a news reporting organization.
Should he fail to respond to the letter, Thompson says the OFAC at that point may impose civil and/or criminal penalties.
Moore quickly shot back with an open letter to U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, calling for an end to the probe and accusing the Bush administration of "abusing the federal government for raw, crass political purposes."
"For five and a half years, the Bush administration has ignored and neglected the heroes of the 9/11 community. These heroic first responders have been left to fend for themselves, without coverage and without care," wrote Moore. "I understand why the Bush administration is coming after me—I have tried to help the very people they refuse to help, but until George W. Bush outlaws helping your fellow man, I have broken no laws and I have nothing to hide."
In making his charges, Moore noted that Bush officials have known about the trip since October, but waited only until now—two weeks before Sicko's premiere—to take any action. He also cited the concerns of pro-Bush health-care executives who have warned employees not to talk to Moore and "want to harrass, intimidate and potentially prevent this film from having its widest possible audience."
Finally, Moore argued that the investigation was opened only after "misleading attacks" from conservative newspapers such as the New York Post, right-wing blogs and former Senator (and current Law & Order star) Fred Thompson, who's been touted as a possible Republican presidential contender.
Others in Moore's inner circle similarly portrayed the threats as an attempt by the feds to turn the tables on the outspoken Oscar winner, whose hit 2004 polemic, Fahrenheit 9/11, took the Bush administration to task over its response to 9-11 and the subsequent war in Iraq.
Sicko's producer, Meghan O'Hara, previously released a statement saying OFAC launched "a politically motivated investigation" and an attempt to prevent people from seeing the movie. She also said the workers who accompanied Moore are suffering ill health from exposure to chemicals at Ground Zero and have been unable to get the proper treatment in the States.
"President Bush and the Bush Administration should be spending their time trying to help these heroes get health care instead of abusing the legal process to advance a political agenda," O'Hara said.
The Treasury Department refused to comment, saying policy prevents them from discussing ongoing investigations.
Meanwhile, just in case the government attempts to confiscate the film, Moore has reportedly placed a copy of Sicko in a "safe house" outside the U.S. The film is scheduled to have its world premiere later this month at the 60th Cannes Film Festival.
Cannes, as Moore has previously stated, has been a good luck charm for him. His 2002 documentary, Bowling for Columbine, which explored America's obsession with guns, won the 55th Anniversary Prize before going on to win an Oscar. Two years later Fahrenheit became the first documentary ever to win the festival's highest honor, the Palme d'Or.
While he's been mum so far, Moore will undeniably use the Treasury Department investigation to stir up buzz for his latest flick. He parlayed attacks by the National Rifle Association into big bucks for Bowling for Columbine, and the politically charged controversy over Fahrenheit translated into a domestic gross of $119 million, the highest tally ever for a documentary.