Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Tax Protestor Goes Down for the Count

My faithful readers know that I have an eccentric interest in tax protestors, those people who cling to crazy theories about why American's aren't legally required to pay income tax. Because criminal tax prosecutions require the government to prove that the defendant believed he had to pay income tax, every now and then a protestor does manage to get acquitted -- oddly enough, the more you can convince the jury that you really believe crazy tax protestor theories, the better off you are.

Well, the jury must have thought that Sherry Peel Jackson, CPA, ex-IRS agent and notorious tax protestor, whose crazy income tax theories can be viewed here, was smarter than she claimed, because they convicted her on four counts of failure to file.

I particularly liked her response at trial to section 1 of the tax code, which imposes a tax on the taxable income of "every married individual." When asked how she could have believed that this didn't apply to her, she testified "I couldn't find the definition of 'individual.'" Well, that clears that up, doesn't it?

It seems likely that Ms. Jackson will be the guest of the federal government for some time -- possibly up to four years, but I'm guessing about one year.

Protestors, if you read this, I hope you learn an important lesson from Ms. Jackson's conviction. If you don't like income tax, by all means agitate politically to get it repealed, but don't try to claim it doesn't exist. That craziness can land you in prison.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Too Good to Be True

The Bush Administration has long been defined by its remark that "we create our own reality." Getting bad press? Just make up your own press. The Republicans tried this a couple of years ago with "Jeff Gannon," a fake reporter who asked softball questions at presidential press conferences. Now, they've gone one better.

FEMA, perhaps concerned about the bad press it got for the incompetence it displayed during Hurrican Katrina, decided to make sure it got some good press for its handling of the California wildfires. How to ensure this? Simple: stage a fake press conference in which FEMA's own employees pretend to be reporters asking questions.

The fraud was so blatant, the chutzpah so unbridled, that even the Bush administration has backed away this outrageous stunt. DHS spokesman Russ Knocke called it "totally unacceptable," although White House press secretary Dana Perino contented herself with calling it an "error in judgment."

FEMA has announced that it is "reviewing [its] press procedures." Reviewing the press procedures? Did the procedures previously say "Have agency employees pose as reporters"? Yes, that one will have to be changed. And if the procedures still include "Secretly pay syndicated columnists money to promote government policies" or "Give press credentials to political operatives posing as reporters," perhaps those could be changed too. Sheesh.

Thursday, October 25, 2007


We interrupt our normal cyncial news commentary to note two celebrations I attended, one yesterday and one today.

My old colleage Doug Letter of the U.S. Department of Justice won the Tom Clark award, given once a year by the Federal Bar Association to a lawyer for outstanding government service. Over 80 government agencies nominated lawyers for this award, and the committee selected Doug. Doug has served at DOJ 29 years and is now the Appellate Litigation Counsel and also, more recently, the Terrorism Litigation Counsel in the Department's Civil Division.

Among the many lovely things people said about Doug at the well-attended ceremony, the one that rang truest to me was when Acting Attorney General Peter Keisler mentioned Doug's reputation for ethical lawyering and said particularly that Doug never hesitates when choosing to act ethically. That was absolutely my experience in my four years as Doug's colleague.

Litigation involves constant ethical dilemmas -- at least once a week (probably more often in trial practice, but we only did appeals), you face some situation where you could gain an advantage by skirting the rules or even by doing something that was perfectly within the rules but just a little bit questionable. I can't tell you the number of times where I was in such a situation, and I usually took it to Doug. He never hesitated. Even when no actual violation of any law or rule was involved -- even when I just said that doing the advantageous thing would make me uncomfortable -- he would immediately say that we shouldn't try to win that way. He always plays it straight. He's given up innumerable opportunities to gain some small advantage for the government, but he's developed a reputation for ethical action that causes colleagues, government agencies, and courts to trust him, and that's proven far more valuable in the long run. Well done, Doug, and congratulations on your well-deserved honor.

Today I attended a ceremony commemorating the life of Senator Paul Wellstone and his wife Sheila, who died in a tragic plane crash five years ago today, just 11 days before the Senator was up for re-election. Congressman Keith Ellison hosted the ceremony, and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar also spoke. Excerpts from the movie Wellstone! were shown, and then people shared stories of their memories of Paul and Sheila. It was very moving -- I had a vague understanding of Wellstone as quite a firebrand, but I didn't appreciate just how strongly that was true. His presence is missed.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Sign Me Up

I feel frustrated when the capitalist system fails to deliver products or services customers want -- I remember once going into a department store's shoe section and asking for a pair of galoshes, only to have the salesman, a hearty type, say, "Man, I wish I had a dollar for every guy that's been in here asking for galoshes. I'd be a rich man. We don't carry them."

What's wrong with this picture? If everyone was in there asking for galoshes, why didn't the store carry them?

So it's a pleasure to see the market deliver what we all so obviously want, a quiet hotel room. Apparently it's finally dawned on some hotel chains that guests don't like it when they can hear people watching TV in the next room or getting off the elevator or using the ice machine. They're actually thinking about noise as they build the walls, the doors, the electrical outlets.

Now I just need my refrigerator redone the same way.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Tough Talk

Our Vice President never tires of rattling his sabre. In his latest speech, he declares that the U.S. and other nations will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.

Just two questions for the Veep:

1. Exactly how will we stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons?

2. Given how thinly stretched our military is in Iraq, do we even have a credible threat of carrying out military action against Iran?

Answers accepted any time.

Dumbledore Comes Out

Stop the presses -- it turns out the rumors are true, Albus Dumbledore is gay. He was in love with his great rival Gellert Grindelwald, whom he defeated in a duel years ago.

Fans have long suspected something was up with Dumbledore's sexuality, because there's no reference to a wife or even girlfriend in his past. But wait a minute . . . there's no spouse in the picture for any of the Hogwarts professors. Snape, McGonagall, Flitwick, Trelawney, Sprout -- why are none of them married? They all spend their Christmas at Hogwarts. Even Gilderoy Lockhart, the hearthrob of middle-aged witches everywhere, doesn't seem to have so much as a girlfriend. And you never hear about the spouse of any of the lesser professor characters or the other staff -- Vector, Binns (OK, he's a ghost), Grubbly-Plank, Hooch, Pomfrey the nurse, Filch the caretaker. All single. Hagrid's the only one who so much as goes out on a date, and of course he's not exactly a professor.

On behalf of professors of the world, I object to this slanderous portayal of professors! We have love interests too, you know. Did J.K. Rowling have a bad experience with her professors at school? Is she settling some old scores?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Of Local Interest

Step into a DC taxicab, and you're almost guaranteed to feel like you're getting ripped off, whether you are or not. DC is about the only major U.S. city where taxi prices are determined by a "zone" system rather than by time-and-distance meters. Even if you've lived here forever (and I'm now about halfway) it's pretty much impossible to figure out the system. The zone map -- get this -- has northeast at the top, so it looks unfamiliar even to a regular rider. (The taxi commission finally came out with a map that has north at the top about a year ago, but I have yet to see it in most cabs). You're never sure how many zones you've crossed. And then the cabbies are always inventing charges for bags, fuel surcharges, and other charges that might be mythical but that might have been approved in some recent commission action you didn't notice. And of course the per-passenger charge is a longstanding headache.

And yet every now and then you do get the benefit of the system, which was (according to lore) designed to make trips cheap for high-powered lobbyists who need to jet around the capitol area. Just the other day I had to take a cab from the Omni Shoreham hotel to a restaurant in Georgetown at the height of rush hour and the trip seemed to go on forever, but only cost $8.80, I believe, and it might even have been the one-zone fare of $6.50. Whatever it was, I remember being pleasantly surprised. It was rare because feeling ripped off is so much more common.

Well, all of this is to end soon, or so says the mayor -- he announced today that D.C. cabs will have meters.

Let's just say that I'll believe it when I see it. A plan to switch to meters is announced about once every two years, in my experience, and it's never actually happened yet. Somehow the cabbies always manage to block it. They say it's because it will lead to more industry consolidation, but I believe the explanation I heard from a longtime cabbie once:

If cabs have meters, he explained, the meter keeps track of how much you earn. And if there's a record, you have to pay your income tax.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Sauce for the Gander

As Congress ponders whether to extend presidential power to engage in warrantless wiretapping without judicial supervision, we would all do well to ponder these words from a wise critic of excessive executive power: "In any country, if you don't have countervailing institutions, the power of any one president is problematic for democratic development."

The critic? Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Of course, she was speaking about Russia, but her words are equally applicable to the U.S.

Friday, October 12, 2007

A Moderate Moment

Illinois's legislature, overriding the state Governor's veto, has mandated a moment of silence at the start of the school day. Naturally, some people are upset that that new law is "a way to sneak state-sanctioned prayer back into public schools."

Liberals need to take a break from indignation now and then. Sure, the lawmakers are hoping that students will use the moment of silence to pray. Apparently the law even says that the moment is for "silent prayer or for silent reflection on the anticipated activities of the day." So I don't think there's much doubt about the purpose.

But so what? No one is forcing anyone to pray. Students can silently pray at any time, with or without this law. Students are required to be silent at lots of time during the school day -- when the teacher is trying to teach the class, just for example -- so there can hardly be anything unconstitutional about requiring student silence.

Sometimes you just have to accept that something is a perfectly legal work-around even though you don't like the underlying purpose and something slightly different would be unconstitutional. The unconstitutional aspect of school prayer is the state sponsorship inherent in teacher involvement. Just having everyone be silent for a few moments, with no one saying what to do during that time, is fine. Religious students can pray; others can focus their energies on the upcoming day or even think about something funny or mischevous. This isn't a problem.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Sad Story

I was somewhat disappointed to see the headline "Now I Know the Dead Stay With Us" in the Washington Post. It's a first-person account by a woman who lost her son and was distraught to the point of suicide, but who was comforted by a medium who claimed to transmit messages to her from her deceased son.

On the one hand, of course, it can't be all bad that someone found something that brought peace to someone in such distress. But on the other hand, the fraud is so palpable that it's hard to avoid being offended. Be sure to listen to the audio clip of the medium's session. It contains such gems as "he wants to . . . thank you very much for your act of kindness . . . he says to thank you . . . I've heard you talk, he's saying . . . he's joking with you, he wants to know if you're going to get a tattoo with his face on it, and he winks his eye at you . . . coming here today is not something he's against, because he's open, he's open minded . . . he seems very liberal, yet very conservative at the same time . . . he doesn't want to be remembered for the way he passed, for some reason, he wants to be remembered for life . . . he wants to be remembered if he made somebody laugh, or smile . . . he wants people to find the humor, even in him."

Is there a word in this that could not be delivered as a purported message from anybody's spirit? And this from someone the author called a "reputable medium." The story doesn't say whether the author paid money for these stunning words from her late son, but I'm guessing that even the most "reputable" mediums don't transmit spirit messages for nothing.

These frauds are eternal. Over 100 years ago, in Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain reported a session of similar pablum from a medium who reported that the deceased friend was living happily in the spirit world, but who couldn't get the spirit to correctly report what year he died, or whether by a natural death or by violence. As Twain concluded, "if this man is not the paltriest fraud that lives, I owe him an apology."

There will always be gullible people who fall for these fraudulent messages, but I might have hoped that they wouldn't include editors at the Washington Post. Why was this published?

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Terror Presidency's Lawyer

Just finished The Terror Presidency, the new book by my old friend and classmate Jack Goldsmith. I recommend it -- it's not the tell-all you might wish for, but it's a pretty interesting tell-some. Jack does his best job in explaining the competing pressures the administration is under: on the one hand, those charged with protecting the country are terrified of the next terrorist attack and urgently want to be aggressive in taking every step that might block it, but on the other hand, they face pressure to be prudent and cautious lest they take actions that some later administration, independent prosecutor, or international tribunal might view as criminal. And to top it off, the laws telling them what they can and cannot do are complex and ambiguous. My distaste for the administration's hubris is certainly not erased, but I have a better understanding of the pressures they face.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Not Free -- At Last!

I always know when something's up with those zany tax protestors, because the hits on my income tax pages start climbing. Yesterday, I had almost 2800 page loads from nearly 1600 different visitors -- a new record.

What's up? The nation's hottest protestors, Ed and Elaine Brown (or, as she likes to call herself, "Elaine Alice: family Brown") were finally taken into custody by U.S. Marshals after evading arrest for nearly a year.

Their strange saga began in January, when they were convicted in federal court of conspiring to avoid paying taxes on nearly $2 million in income between 1996 and 2003. Dissatisifed with the court's failure to accept their arguments that there is no law requiring them to pay income tax, the Browns stopped attending the trial about halfway through. In April, they were sentenced, in absentia, to 63 months in prison.

But the Browns had a strategy for avoiding the judgment: they holed themselves up in their "fortress-like" home with plenty of food, water, and ammunition, and threatened a fiery, Waco-like finish if they feds came after them: ''We either walk out of here free or we die,'' Ed Brown said. A series of colorful supporters, including Randy Weaver of Ruby Ridge fame, showed up at the Browns' New Hampshire place for rallies and press conferences and some provided them with fresh supplies.

With admirable (if somewhat frustratingly long) restraint, U.S. Marshal Stephen Monier decided to wait until he could plan an arrest that could take place without violence. That occurred late Thursday evening. Visitors to the Browns' place had dwindled since the Marshals arrested four of them two weeks ago for aiding and abetting the Browns. They welcomed a few supporters Thursday, but those supporters turned out to be U.S. Marshals, who arrested the Browns without incident. You might think that if you were holed up in your home avoiding arrest you'd be a little more careful about whom you let in, but then if you had that kind of smarts you might not be holed up in your home in the first place.

Throughout their ordeal, the Browns said that if only someone would show them the law that requires payment of income tax, they would pay immediately. Of course the law has been available on my web pages the whole time.

By the way, what's up with "Elaine Alice: family Brown"? Believe it or not, some tax protestors actually believe that inserting a colon into your name somehow protects you from tax liability. But that's considered a little wacky even among tax protestors.

Friday, October 5, 2007

The Man Who Wouldn't Leave

Face it, even if you'd had years of experience as a political consultant, you wouldn't have come up with as brilliant a strategy as the one Senator Larry Craig stumbled into. When the glare of the spotlight was hottest, and his own party was baying for his head, he did the one thing he could to take the pressure off -- he said he'd resign. Then, a month later, he simply announces that he'll stay! Now his story is old news. People don't seem nearly as exercised. The Post says that Republican Senators are "furious," but I think the general public isn't as concerned as it was before. In hindsight, Craig's strategy brilliantly managed to put things off until they'd cooled down.

Should Craig go? The public's also had time to grasp that what he did wasn't that terrible, apart from the hypocrisy involved. I haven't looked up the state law, but I have doubts that simply soliciting sex, even from a stranger, is really a crime at all -- if you say to someone in a bar, "would you like to go back to my place and have sex?" that's no crime, and I doubt the state could even make it one if it wanted to. That the sex involved in this case would have been homosexual rather than heterosexual is irrelevant.

On the other hand, I presume a state could make it a crime to actually have sex in a public place like an airport bathroom -- the state has a legitimate interest in protecting the equanimity of the public, particularly children, who might unwillingly see or hear it -- and therefore, if Senator Craig asked the police officer to have sex in the bathroom, that would be an inchoate crime. Of course, it's a little tough to know exactly what Craig suggested, since everything happened wordlessly. I guess it's possible that the coded signals Craig allegedly sent could mean "let's do it right here" to those in on the code. It would be up to the prosecution to prove that, and for a jury to decide, but personally I'm skeptical -- it would be tough to exclude the possibility that the alleged signals would just have been the prelude to slipping off to a private place like a nearby hotel room.

So it's not clear that the Senator really did anything so terrible that it would be grounds for leaving the Senate. I guess I would say that (if the police officer's allegations are true) it does show very poor judgment for a public figure to reveal his deepest secrets to a random stranger. But in the end, the most important factor seems to be that Idaho has a Republican governor (who would appoint Craig's successor if he left), whereas Louisiana (home of Senator Vitter, who's apparently been up to some other illegal sex) has a Democrat.