Guest Commentary by Roy Korte, assistant attorney general with the Criminal Litigation, Anti-Trust and Consumer Protection unit of the Wisconsin Department of Justice
There is a common tendency to ignore people who engage in anti-government conduct. In many cases, that may be the wisest course of action. However, when there is a clear violation of the laws, action must be taken. Failure to act when warranted will only encourage and embolden extremists and may result in escalating levels of harassing and criminal behavior.
The following account details the tactics, impact, and governmental action against such conduct, including recommendations of best practices based on Wisconsin's experience.
Anti-government activity occurring in Wisconsin runs the gamut from renunciation of citizenship to claims that an extremist's name has been copyrighted or trademarked and therefore use of such name, as in legal documents, violates that copyright or trademark. Extremists also use the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), a set of laws designed to deal with consensual commercial transactions. For example, offenders have filed phony multi-million dollar UCC liens against public officials in retaliation for the foreclosure of their home.
Wisconsin also has an ongoing problem with demands for social security numbers of public officials. In some cases, these records have been used to file federal form indicating that the public official has received money from the extremist.
A new tactic of anti-government extremists is bankruptcy proceedings. Extremists have followed-up the filing of phony liens with bankruptcy petitions against public officials. Despite the fact that the petitions are often dismissed, the filings continue to cause financial problems for the victims. Extremists have filed Chapter 11 (reorganization) bankruptcy, listing numerous public officials as "delinquent creditors," thus using the bankruptcy process to reveal the assets of public officials. In addition, individuals have attempted unsuccessfully to assert that the bankruptcy filing should stay criminal cases pending against them.
Others have been prosecuted for simulating a legal process by filing simulated writs of habeas corpus, criminal complaints, declaratory judgments and civil summons and complaints. In addition, persons purporting to act as administrative law judges have been filing "Administrative Judgments," which they claim have legal effect.
The conduct described above has had many real and serious impacts. Foremost is the sense of harassment and intimidation that naturally accompanies such conduct. There is often uncertainty as to whether the documents are real or require some action, since many people have little if any familiarity with real legal documents and the form and language used by extremists can be confusing.
On occasion, extremists have threatened or suggested threats against the public officials responsible for filing these documents. Additionally, the time, attention and resources that are used to deal with the conduct diverts officials from other necessary duties. There is also considerable cost involved in prosecuting these cases.
The filing of liens also causes actual or potential credit or financial problems. In one case, a civil action had to be filed to completely remove the liens from the public computer database at considerable cost to the state. Even more disconcerting were the substantial and continuing credit problems caused by the bankruptcy petitions.
Finally, there is another indirect impact that has potentially serious consequences for all levels of government: Such conduct may discourage people from holding or running for public office, thus having a detrimental effect on the ability to retain or attract qualified officials to representative democracy.
All of these effects must be considered when deciding to investigate, prosecute, and sentence individuals engaging in such conduct.
III. GOVERNMENT REACTION/PROSECUTIONS
In response to the activities described above, action has been taken by state, local and federal authorities in Wisconsin. Local district attorneys have pursued cases involving extremists. The Wisconsin Department of Justice (WDOJ) now operates a Domestic Security Unit that investigates anti-government extremist activity, and conducts trainings for law enforcement, public officials and prosecutors. Federal authorities have also initiated investigations and prosecutions against individuals who file phony tax forms with the IRS.
The WDOJ has initiated a number of prosecutions, including in one case involving an individual who fled Wisconsin after being charged with simulating legal process by sending out phony court hearing notices and declaratory judgments. The accused issued the documents against law enforcement officers who he was charged with assaulting.
Additionally, another extremist was recently convicted of criminal slander of title. He was sentenced to five years in prison followed by extended supervision. Two other individuals were convicted the same year of simulating legal process when they served a judge, clerk of court, prosecutor and three law enforcement officers with a phony summons and complaint. Information indicates that they have engaged in similar conduct in other states including Michigan and Missouri.
It is interesting to note that many of the documents used by extremists are identical or share common characteristics. This suggests a common source or documents or connection among such persons. But despite the seeming existence of a pervasive network, the prosecutions appear to have had an impact: the level of such activity by others in the counties where the defendants reside has greatly decreased.
Wisconsin is not unique in the issues and offenses it faces by anti-government extremists. However, some of the tactics employed by Wisconsin extremists in the recent past bear watching, as they may be a prelude to other illegal activity. The WDOJ has worked on several fronts to deal with such conduct and continues to do so. The Department operates on the belief that an aggressive stance on such conduct will serve to diminish its occurrence and protect public officials and private citizens from harassment and intimidation by those who reject all forms of governmental authority.
Roy Korte has been an assistant attorney general with the Criminal Litigation, Anti-Trust and Consumer Protection unit of the Wisconsin Department of Justice since 1992. Mr. Korte has provided training regarding extremist activity to Wisconsin prosecutors, law enforcement officers and other public officials. Mr. Korte also monitors extremist activity in Wisconsin and has been involved in the investigation and prosecution of a number of anti-government extremists.