New Militia Tactic: 'Paper Terrorism'
Radical groups file bogus liens and set up 'common law courts' as part of growing crusade against government.
Don't like the judge who gave you a speeding ticket? Impeach him. Ticked off at the building inspector who's pressing you on some local ordinance? Slap a million-dollar lien on his property.
Since the Oklahoma City bombing - now back in the news with the Terry Nichols trial - armed militias have been on the decline around the country.
But other favorite tactics of radical antigovernment types - "common law courts" and the filing of bogus liens - have seen a dramatic increase.
Phony property claims have been filed against government officials in at least 23 states, and there now are an estimated 131 common-law courts in 35 states.
These are not just frivolous or harmlessly wacko operations. And some officials are concerned that the recent pillorying of the Internal Revenue Service for bullying taxpayers could exacerbate the problem by creating more animosity toward government officials.
While their tactics are different, many of those involved are closely connected to violent antigovernment types. The Montana Freemen, the "Republic of Texas," Carl Drega (the New Hampshire man who recently killed a judge, two state troopers, and a newspaper editor before being killed), and Terry Nichols himself - all got their start with what law-enforcement authorities have begun to call "paper terrorism."
Sometimes this bureaucratic bullying turns violent. Stanislaus County, Calif., clerk-recorder Karen Mathews was beaten and threatened with death by nine conspirators whose phony documents she refused to record. (The nine have since been convicted and will be sentenced this week.)
"As strange as it seems, these people honestly and sincerely believe they are at war with the government, and that includes paper terrorism," says Ms. Mathews, who has become a poster child for local officials who see themselves as under attack. "My assailants told me it's one more battle in their war against America."
Meanwhile, authorities are scrambling to catch up. Seventeen states have passed laws dealing with bogus liens. US Rep. Charles Schumer (D) of New York is sponsoring legislation that would extend the federal law against threatening federal judges to cover state and local officials. The chief justices of the nation's state supreme courts are formally studying how to fight common-law courts. And the National Association of Attorneys General is holding a domestic terrorism conference in Missouri next week to discuss the issue. (Karen Mathews will be a main speaker.)
Court of a different kind
One of the most infamous cases involved a Missouri teen-ager stopped last year for speeding. When the judge refused to drop the charges, the girl's father, grandfather, and 18 others convened "Our One Supreme Court," found the judge "guilty" of treason, conspiracy, and fraud, and placed a $1.5 million lien on all of his real and personal property - everything but his wedding ring.
Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon vowed to "send a clear message that we will not tolerate such tactics as retaliation against those who enforce the laws of our land." He filed a lawsuit to remove the liens against Associate Circuit Judge Patrick Flynn's property, and won convictions for "judicial tampering" against 18 of them.
Liens are claims against the property of another as security against alleged debt by the property owner. But the problem with such liens is that even the baseless ones can be difficult to remove - sometimes taking years and large legal expenses. In some cases, property owners don't even know a lien has been filed until they try to sell their property. And not everyone can count on the state attorney general to take up their cause.
Common-law courts go by different names around the country: "United Sovereigns of America," "We the People," "Family Farm Preservation." Many are patterned after the "Posse Comitatus," an antitax, antigovernment group active in the 1970s and early 1980s whose members believed federal and state governments were illegitimate. Many adherents of today's groups also are part of the "patriot" and "Christian Identity" movements that many militia members support.
"Financial crimes perpetrated by so-called common-law courts are part of the 'patriot' movement's current arsenal of tactics," says Stefan Leader, a security expert. "Such crimes seem to be motivated by a mix of political ideology, religious belief, and greed."
Testifying before Congress in May, US Secret Service investigator Kevin Foley said, "Some of these fictitious instruments have been labeled Certified Bankers Checks, Comptroller Warrants, Lien Drafts, and Republic of Texas Warrants. Hundreds of millions of dollars of these fictitious instruments have been submitted for payment to financial institutions and government agencies."
In one notorious case, a disciple of the Montana Freemen - Elizabeth Broderick of Palmdale, Calif., who called herself the "lien queen" - issued $800 million in phony warrants and scammed Californians out of more than $1 million. She had been charging $200 for seminars and $100 for "comptrollers warrants" - blank checks she claimed were backed by liens against Uncle Sam totaling more than $1 billion.
In the end, federal prosecutors shut the "lien queen" down, and in March a federal judge sentenced her to 17 years in prison - but not before she had set many other people on the same path.
A study by the California Senate Office of Research estimated hundreds of residents attended her seminars. "Many started producing their own bogus liens, checks, and other documents and, in many cases, trying to record them in county recorder's offices and the California secretary of state's office," says the study by Gregory deGiere.
Leaning on bogus liens
In several states, new laws prohibit the filing of false liens, make it easy to remove them if filed, and impose civil penalties on those filing them. Oregon, Texas, and Florida are among those with tough laws. "But with a lot of these laws, it's too soon to know if they'll be successful," says Mark Pitcavage, a militia expert who teaches law-enforcement officials about domestic terrorism.
Meanwhile, Karen Mathews continues to work behind bullet-proof glass in her Modesto, Calif., office. So far, she says, her county has spent more than $200,000 to protect her from further attacks.