Friend of mine is currently having fed problems. So far, the representatives of the Unnamed Federal Agency are choosing to show the velvet glove rather than the iron fist. But my friend is savvy enough to know the iron fist is there and could slam down with deadly force at any time. With care, I think my friend will be okay.
As we discussed this creepy fed business recently, I said (knock wood) that while many acquaintances of mine had had fed encounters over the years (which nearly never ended well), I’d never had one myself.
Then I remembered. A few years before I was “Claire Wolfe, Freedom Writer,” I not only had a close fed encounter. I initiated it myself.
While no innocent was harmed and a sort of justice was actually done to the people who needed justice, I now view the whole business as a study in naiveté. And an example of how the compulsion to Do the Right Thing can lead good-hearted people to behave stupidly around those who don’t care about right or wrong but only care about power and coercion.
It all started with a news clipping sent to me long ago by one of my former clients from my years in the midwest. The clipping said that another client of mine had been arrested and charged with 114 counts of fraud against the federal government.
Now that arrest was actually just fine. The fraudly client — call him Gerald — was dirty as sin. I had no doubt he’d done precisely everything he was accused of. And more that the prosecutors hadn’t discovered.
I knew this because during the years I worked for him, he kept asking me to do the very things described in the article. I was responsible for advertising and promotion for Gerald, and years after I left him and moved across the country, he was accused of inflating ad and promo charges, sometimes by extreme amounts, so he could bill his various federal clients for expenses he never actually incurred.
Now the thing you have to understand about Gerald was that he came across as slightly dumb. He had a team of people around him, some very honest, some totally crooked; but all were loyal to him while at the same time treating him as if he wasn’t quite smart enough to function in the real world and needed to be protected by his subordinates.
Yeah, it’s kind of weird. But when he’d ask me to do the crooked things he was eventually busted for (“Can you submit a second set of invoices saying you charged me $30 hour instead of $15?”), the combo of Gerald’s seeming dimwittedness and my own honesty would prompt me to respond along the lines of “Gerald, you can’t really mean that. You can’t have thought out the consequences. No, I can’t submit two sets of bills.” And the subject would be dropped. For the moment. But later he’d come back with a similar request, some other way of using his advertising to inflate his billables to his clients.
The thing that should have tipped me off about Gerald’s actual degree of awareness was that in every, single case — with every, single one of these requests — the people carrying them out would look (and be) guilty while every dime of the take went straight to Gerald. He never offered a cut or a kickback. It was “you do this out of personal loyalty to me.”
Anyhow, after I left, a woman took my place — call her Geraldine — who was much better at the job than I ever was. But who, to her own eventual chagrin, was a loyal team player. I never would have expected that of her. I viewed her as tough and strong-minded to the point of being scary, but I guess you can’t know some things. Submit inflated bills? Sure. Hide contracturally unbillable charges inside billables? Can do. Shave a little on the ethics here? Falsify a document there? Done. So I learned from the article.
I knew Geraldine. Had known her for years and recommended her as my replacement. Didn’t particularly like her, but she was talented, hardworking, and certainly no sink of graft and corruption. She just turned out to be a particularly mindless follower.
And there in that clipping was the information that poor, loyal Geraldine now had 54 federal counts against her and potentially faced most of the rest of her life in prison.
The clipping was only eight or nine paragraphs long. But having spent years around Gerald, that little news article spoke volumes to me. I knew he was guilty. I knew Geraldine had done everything she was accused of. But Gerald was claiming Geraldine initiated the whole slimy business and that he was her innocent victim.
And that just got my Righteous Do-Gooder steam up. I picked up the phone, called the federal courthouse back there in the midwest, and ended up on a conference call with the two leaders of the prosecution team. I told them who I was. I told them Gerald had pushed me for years to do the very same dirty deeds Geraldine carried out for him. I said she might be technically guilty, but I could tell them one thing for sure: that every dime of the profit went to Gerald himself. No form of benefit ever went in Geraldine’s direction. Or anybody else’s. “Everything went straight into Gerald’s pocket. Am I right? I’m right, aren’t I?” I asked.
The prosecutors laughed at that. “You know our man,” they said.
My aim was to keep Geraldine from going to prison. I didn’t care what happened to Gerald, but I was incensed that he’d try to pin so much blame on her. And I wasn’t going to let that pass.
I was so ridiculously naive. Today I know that bringing 54 federal charges against some team-playing little fraud enabler doesn’t mean, “We want you in prison for decades.” It means, “Look, we have the power to terrify you into turning state’s witness and we’re going to use it.” It’s just a typically ugly fed tactic to gain “compliance.” And surely Geraldine — a fine, upstanding civic-minded citizen until all that business happened — would have rushed to comply. She’d have been just fine had I stayed out of the whole affair.
In the end, here’s what happened. I was put on the witness list for a trial 2,500 miles from my new home. The prosecutors arranged an airline ticket for me. On the scheduled day I drove nearly three hours to the nearest Big City airport — only to be told by airline personnel that my ticket had been canceled and I needed to call the prosecutors. The ticketing agent handed me a phone.
That morning they’d wheedled Gerald into a plea bargain. So they didn’t need me. Perhaps the fact that Geraldine’s predecessor was on her way to verify Gerald’s culpability helped prompt the plea. But perhaps not. If prosecutors bring 54 charges solely to arm-twist some hapless underling into turning against the boss, then they bring 114 to provoke plea bargains from the real villain. Nobody is actually in danger of a long sentence — unless they stand in defiance, which neither Gerald nor Geraldine was motivated to do. It’s all just a giant game of power.
Gerald pleaded guilty to some lesser charge or fewer number of counts. He went to prison for a shockingly short time and had to pay back some of his ill-gotten profits. But I didn’t really care about that.
Geraldine eventually pleaded guilty to one charge and got a wrist-slap of probation — which is no doubt exactly what she’d have gotten without my “help.”
I received a check (a pretty generous one, I thought) for the mileage to and from the airport. And that’s the last I ever heard about My Former Client the Crook or the criminal case against him. Until somebody told me he was back in business a few years later. Never heard a word about what Geraldine did with the rest of her free life.
Today on the rare occasions when I look back on what I did, I feel like an idiot. I was incredibly naive about the tactics fed prosecutors use — though I suppose I can excuse myself my saying not many knew back then what dirty-dog deeds they stoop to in order to “win.” And I was silly for thinking they would ever have believed Gerald’s “innocent victim” stance. Follow the money — and there was Gerald, not Geraldine. They knew that before they ever got my phone call.
But my friend from the top of this post — the friend with the potential fed problems — and I share a trait that’s probably common to readers of this blog: we want to Do The Right Thing. We can’t bear to let injustice stand if there’s one, single thing we can do to stop it. And unless we are extremely wary, that trait potentially makes us dangerous to ourselves and others when we’re dealing with nasty, foul, ruthless, lying fed-type people.
If I was dumb, naive, and a
snitch Good Little Citizen way back then, they were perfectly willing to take advantage of my eager stupidity. In that particular case, no harm, no foul. But in how many cases has some ignorant Goody Two-Shoes like me actually been hurt or hurt somebody else by cooperating with feds?
Fortunately, I believe my friend is wary enough to stay out of trouble. And I’ve grown both more wary and more wise in the years since I tried to “help” someone who was never in as much danger as my righteously indignant and foolish self imagined.
Today, on principle, I wouldn’t knowingly talk to anybody connected with fed law enforcement, let alone initiate contact or offer them help. As conniving, stop-at-nothing bad guys go, feds are at least as rotten as most of the people they persecute. I’m just glad that on the one occasion I was naive enough to deal with them no evil came of it.