The New York Times has a story today about the "sovereign citizens" movement and its adherents' nasty habit of filing huge liens against people they've targeted:
MINNEAPOLIS -- One of the first inklings Sheriff Richard Stanek had that something was wrong came with a call from the mortgage company handling his refinancing.Scammers sell con artists and poorly informed people on the notion that this is an effective way to make money and/or protest alleged sins of the government -- the existence of the income tax, for instance. I generally have no sympathy for people who fall for this cockamamie notion, and I really have no sympathy for the snake-oil peddlers who recommend this course of action. The ideas are idiotic and the punishments are deserved:
"It must be a mistake," he said, when the loan officer told him that someone had placed liens totaling more than $25 million on his house and on other properties he owned.
But as Sheriff Stanek soon learned, the liens, legal claims on property to secure the payment of a debt, were just the earliest salvos in a war of paper ... a tactic that, with the spread of an anti-government ideology known as the “sovereign citizen” movement, is being employed more frequently as a way to retaliate against perceived injustices.
Over the next three years, [a] couple, Thomas and Lisa Eilertson, filed more than $250 billion in liens, demands for compensatory damages and other claims against more than a dozen people, including the sheriff, county attorneys, the Hennepin County registrar of titles and other court officials.
"It affects your credit rating, it affected my wife, it affected my children,” Sheriff Stanek said of the liens. “We spent countless hours trying to undo it." ...
Sovereign citizens believe that in the 1800s, the federal government was gradually subverted and replaced by an illegitimate government. They create their own driver's licenses and include their thumbprints on documents to distinguish their flesh and blood person from a "straw man" persona that they say has been created by the false government. When writing their names, they often add punctuation marks like colons or hyphens.However, in the case of Thomas and Lisa Eilertson, I have a slight bit of sympathy:
Adherents to the movement have been involved in a host of debt evasion schemes and mortgage and tax frauds. Two were convicted in Cleveland recently for collecting $8 million in fraudulent tax refunds from the I.R.S. And in March, Tim Turner, the leader of one large group, the Republic for the united States of America, was sentenced in Alabama to 18 years in federal prison. (His group does not capitalize the first letter in united.)
Mr. Eilertson, interviewed at the state prison in Bayport, Minn., denied being anti-government or belonging to any movement....Now, I don't know if the Eilertsons were the sort of horrible parasites who, according to both Rick Santelli and a wide variety of mainstream pundits, are just as responsible for crashing the economy as any banker, because they recklessly took on a mortgage they couldn't afford. (Their foreclosure was in 2009, the year in the Great Recession when we reached peak unemployment.)
Mr. Eilertson, who had no previous criminal record, said his actions were an effort to fight back against corrupt banks that had handed off the couple's mortgage time after time and whose top executives never faced consequences for their actions.
"It seemed like we were being attacked every day," he said. "We needed some way to stop the foreclosure.
"We tried to do our part with as much information as we had available," he said, though he conceded that "it kind of got out of control eventually."
Well, I'm sorry, but even if they were utterly irresponsible, I don't hold them as accountable as I do the banks. The Eilertsons may have gotten hooked on a form of economic crystal meth, but the banks were economic-crystal-meth dealers, and the mortgage system was, ultimately, an economic-crystal-meth cartel, selling serious weight. The product was highly toxic and the bankers knew it. They crashed the economy and got away unscathed.
OK, maybe I'm naive to think that the Eilertsons aren't pure evil. (I may not be alone in that -- this story says that their actual time in prison will be 120 days if they have no other felony convictions, and that the charges will be reduced to misdemeanors if they pay restitution and have no parole violations for five years.)
But here's the thing: people who got into mortgage trouble had hardly anywhere to turn. The financial system failed them. Politicians failed them -- very much including the Obama administration. (NSA abuses and drone strikes may top your list of Obama's failings, but at the top of my list is his utter failure to get real mortgage relief to people who needed it.)
So what do you in that case? The Eilertsons, unable to hold the responsible parties to account, kicked the dog, in a very nasty way. Attorneys and local officials saw their credit ratings damaged. Bankers seemed unreachable.
I wish there were some progressive force, in or out of government, that might have helped the Eilertsons. But inside government, all we have are moderate-conservative corporatists and extremely conservative corporatists. The teabaggers and Paulites don't give a crap about the victims of the Great Recession. And the left is weak and ineffectual and apparently unwilling or unable to rally heartlanders on aeconomic matters.
So the dog gets kicked.