Lavrenti Beria, who ran Josef Stalin’s KGB, once commented on the ease with which the feared organization he headed could convict any individual at will: “Show me the man and I’ll find you the crime.” But that was early 20th Century Soviet Union, and this is 21st Century America, you might say; we have all manner of procedural safeguards in place to guard against individuals being charged and convicted of things not truly evil or harmful to others. Ahh, were it so.
Just how easy is it in 21st Century America to run afoul of one or more of the many thousands of federal criminal offenses on the books? Just ask Former Speaker Denny Hastert, now under federal indictment for nothing more egregious or harmful to our nation’s well-being than trying to conceal from prying eyes payments of his own money to another individual, and then not telling the FBI what it wanted him to reveal in order to incriminate himself.
Many of these criminal offenses have been on the books for decades -- some conceived at the same time as our Internal Revenue Code a full century ago; others the offspring of the “War on Drugs” in the late 1960s. However, the zeal with which Uncle Sam’s agents target individuals who seek nothing more than to keep certain personal activities private, has become pronounced in recent years.
We live in a world in which the federal government not only makes it nearly impossible to engage in any private financial transaction, but actually resents the person – to the point of making them a felon -- who dares try to evade revealing to federal regulators and investigators what they are doing with every red cent of their own money.
From the massive, NSA-directed meta-data collection programs revealed two years ago by Edward Snowden, to the FBI’s continuing efforts to outlaw any encryption of electronic data by individuals or companies to which the federal government is not given the keys, America’s landscape is peppered with legal landmines set for people and businesses trying to keep a small part of their world private.
Guilt is now presumed from simply taking steps to avoid government’s prying electronic eyes.
The Hastert indictment is clear evidence of this alarming trend. The former Speaker faces a decade or more in federal prison, but not for allegedly committing any substantive criminal offense. Even if he eventually is acquitted, Hastert’s reputation already is ruined simply because he wanted private transactions to remain private; and because he elected not to incriminate himself when answering questions put to him by FBI agents.
As The Atlantic’s Connor Friedersdorf writes, Hastert is but the latest in a growing list of Americans “being prosecuted for the crime of evading federal government surveillance.”
One does not have to possess the standing of a former Speaker of the House of Representatives to earn such attention from Uncle Sam. Last July, Lyndon McLellan, a convenience store owner in North Carolina, had his life-savings of $107,702.66 confiscated by the IRS for violating one of the same financial reporting laws that ensnared Hastert. For simply trying to reduce the paperwork burden on his bank with regard to certain transactions relating to his savings, McLellan was forced to mount a long and costly legal fight in order to see his money again.
The use of tightly crafted and clearly defined financial laws can in fact provide legitimate tools with which federal prosecutors are able to strike at “real” criminals engaged in activities that seriously harm other people. However, contemporary financial regulatory powers go far beyond what could be considered reasonable weapons with which to prosecute, convict and imprison such individuals.
For example, most individuals do not know that if you engage in a financial transaction considered “suspicious” by an employee at a federally-insured financial institution, the employee is required to report that transaction to federal investigators. These Suspicious Activity Reports or “SARs” are mandated in addition to other federal paperwork, such as “CTRs” or Currency Transaction Reports, which must be filed by anyone depositing or withdrawing more than $10,000 cash at a bank.
Many of these financial reporting laws have been broadened considerably since 9-11; and almost all have criminal penalties attached to them. But they are only the tip of the “gotcha iceberg” with which the federal government can control individuals and businesses. As noted criminal defense lawyer Harvey Silverglate concluded in his 2009 book, Three Felonies a Day – How the Feds Target the Innocent, it has become virtually impossible for even the most intelligent and learned individuals to, “predict with any reasonable assurance whether a wide range of seemingly ordinary activities might be regarded by federal prosecutors as felonies.”
So, before jumping to any conclusions about Denny Hastert, consider for a moment just how easy it would be for any of us to suddenly find ourselves similarly charged, for wanting nothing more than to keep certain personal financial actions private from Big Brother.