Last week, the Justice Department charged former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Dennis Hastert with five federal felonies. Each of them carries a minimum of five years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine.
Did Hastert use his political power and connections to enrich himself? Yes, he did, for the entire time since he left Congress in 2007. But that has absolutely nothing to do with the charges against him.
Instead, Hastert was indicted for (a) “structuring” cash withdrawals from his bank accounts so as to avoid federal bank reporting requirements; and (b) lying to the FBI about what he was doing with his money. Although FBI leaks quickly claimed Hastert was paying off a high school student for alleged sexual abuse decades ago, he hasn’t been charged with anything related to that.
This has serious implications for you, and is a reason why you need asset protection. For instance, did you know that your banking habits could land you in a federal prison? Many people don’t. The truth is that thousands of federal laws have almost certainly made you a federal criminal … without your knowledge.
Federal Criminal? Ignorantia Juris Non Excusat
There’s a legal brocard that “ignorantia juris non excusat” (ignorance is no excuse) when it comes to lawbreaking. Descended from Roman jurisprudence, it removes lack of knowledge of laws as an excuse — the price we pay to ensure that willful blindness can’t be the basis of exoneration. Without this principle, we can be quite sure that everyone from street-corner panhandlers to Wall Street executives would claim ignorance in court, wasting everyone’s time.
But ignorance of a law’s existence — or even misunderstanding of a law’s “spirit” — is often taken into account when judges issue their sentences. Indeed, when somebody does something a law was clearly not intended to cover, many prosecutors don’t even press charges.
But not always. Take the “structuring” rule Hastert is accused of violating. It’s explicitly intended to combat money laundering, fraud and tax evasion. Under the Bank Secrecy Act of 1970, U.S. banks must file a “currency transaction report” for deposits or withdrawals of more than $10,000 in currency. Banks suspicious of specific transactions are required under threat of penalty to file a “suspicious activity report.” (Of course, this has made ALL banks suspicious of ALL large cash transactions.)
But the Justice Department freely admits that Hastert didn’t intend or commit any money laundering, fraud or tax evasion. Instead, it acknowledges that he had entered into an arrangement with another individual that is perfectly legal and standard when arranged by lawyers as part of a court case. He withdrew the money in batches because he didn’t want this private arrangement to become public knowledge.
Federal Criminal? They’ll ALWAYS Find SOMETHING on You
The fact that Hastert is a hypocritical and sleazy ex-politician-turned-lobbyist is of no consequence here. (Although the fact that he eagerly helped create the laws he is accused of violating is worth noting.) Neither is the nature of the alleged incident he was paying to conceal.
Instead, what matters is over-criminalization: converting trivial, harmless acts into major felonies. For example, the postal worker who flew a gyrocopter on to the U.S. Capitol lawn to protest the corrupt role of money in U.S. politics faces up to nine years in prison on multiple felony charges. Three U.S. restaurateurs were sentenced to eight years in federal prison for “importing lobster tails that were the wrong size and that were packaged in clear plastic bags rather than in cardboard boxes,” which violated a Honduran law that they didn’t even know existed, and the Lacey Act. People have served time in federal prison for faking sick days and getting lost in federal parks.
Federal appellate judge Alex Kozinski wrote an essay entitled “You’re (Probably) a Federal Criminal.” In it he gave numerous examples of federal felony statues that are so absurd — such as inadvertently misfiling a tax return — that no one with a sense of justice would ever use them. Indeed, if all these laws were enforced as written, “Any attempt to go after all criminals would sweep up millions of people.”
But selectivity is precisely the point of many of these laws. As crusading lawyer-journalist Glenn Greenwald points out, “When everything — even trivial transgressions — can become a serious felony, it empowers law enforcement to punish whomever they want.” When federal prosecutors want to punish someone for a crime they can’t prove, they just rummage around in their “bottomless bag of federal offenses” to turn that person into a criminal — for something else entirely.
Federal Criminal? Protect Yourself From a Predatory Government
If Dennis Hastert is guilty of a crime that the government thinks worthy of punishment, it should charge him, prosecute him with due process, and convict him in front of a jury of his peers. Instead, the Justice Department has turned him into felon over something else entirely so it can punish him without having to do any of that.
We are all Dennis Hastert, whether we know it or not. Not in the sense that we have something to hide … but rather that we are equally vulnerable to deliberate misuses of the law by government.
That’s precisely why even law-abiding, honest and upstanding people like us urgently need to protect themselves. It’s why you need asset protection, up to and including locating some of them offshore. After all, when it comes to the Feds, ask not for whom the bell tolls … it tolls for thee.
Offshore and Asset Protection Editor