Commentary

Allowing government to profit from prosecutions hurting the innocent

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More than likely, most Americans missed the recent press release from the Office of Inspector General for the Treasury Department which acknowledged that criminal investigators improperly enforced structuring laws against dozens of honest, hard-working Americans.

The reason most of us would not give the press release a second glance is because most Americans did not know that the federal government used a law intended to target drug dealers, members of organized crime, and terrorists to seize millions in legally obtained income from honest, hard-working Americans simply because these individuals deposited cash in a manner which the government deemed to be suspicious.

For the most part, it is also likely that most Americans have never heard of the Bank Secrecy Act which requires banks to report the cash deposits of its customers. Standing alone, the deposit of legally obtained income is not a crime. However, when federal investigators identify a pattern of cash deposits in amounts of less than $10,000, the government immediately attributes the source of the income to some nefarious or criminal conduct. As far as the government is concerned, guilty until proven innocent. So why should any of us care?

Imagine waking up one morning after years of working hard to build a successful business to the knock on the door of an agent from the Internal Revenue Service. Even worse, imagine being told by that IRS special agent that your troubles were just beginning and that you were going to be indicted simply for the manner in which you had been depositing your business income. And if that was not enough, consider being told by that same IRS special agent that the federal government had seized all your bank accounts, accounts which contained the funds you needed to run your business, pay your employees, and support your family. While it might be nice to say that this has never happened, the sad truth is that the knock on the door has become a reality for many hard-working Americans.

One such story involved Miguel and Susan Ventura, the owners of Miguel’s Pizza, a landmark business that sits in the shadow of Natural Bridge in Slade, Ky. Miguel and Susan migrated to Slade in 1984 with barely a nickel to their names. Upon arriving in Slade, with the help of family, they carved out a niche in the community which began with an ice cream store.

For nearly 30 years, Miguel and Susan labored through long days to build what has become a very successful business that caters to the thousands of visitors who travel from around the world to see the Red River Gorge where they enjoy the breathtaking scenery and participate in what has been described as the third best rock climbing location in the world.

Unfortunately, because of their success, Miguel and Susan drew the attention of the Internal Revenue Service Financial Task Force, which noticed deposits of cash from their legal business income.

Apparently, in the eyes of the federal government, people cannot be successful unless they engage in criminal activity. In the eyes of the government, working hard and accumulating wealth was considered illegal criminal activity which justified the illegal seizure of thousands of dollars of money which Miguel and Susan worked years to earn; money which they had set aside for retirement and as part of their legacy, a legacy they would one day leave to their children.

Although most of those targeted by the IRS and federal government immediately panicked and agreed to forfeit thousands of dollars of seized funds, Miguel and Susan Ventura were different. They knew they had not done anything wrong other than work hard and run a successful business.

Just prior to trial, the federal government told them they could end the nightmare of this outrageous investigation and prosecution simply by agreeing to enter a plea of guilty and forfeit more than $700,000 to the government and hand over a piece of land which they had bought to grow their business.

Of course, doing so would force Miguel and Susan to close their business, sell their home, and, if possible at their age, start rebuilding the American dream which had taken them nearly 30 years to achieve.

As incredible as the case of Miguel and Susan Ventura might sound, their story is just one of more than 1,800 cases which the federal government has now acknowledged were improperly prosecuted over the years. The federal government has finally admitted that federal prosecutors and investigators were encouraged to establish task forces and pursue investigations which were described as “quick hits” in order to seize thousands of dollars which the government knew would be quickly resolved through negotiation, rather than pursuing actual cases which involved criminal activity such as drug trafficking and money laundering.

Although it is refreshing that the federal government has finally admitted its outrageous conduct, it is simply too late for the hundreds of honest men and women who were prosecuted, convicted, and sent to prison for nothing more than the crime of being successful. Because of the federal government’s program of what has become “prosecutions for profit, the reputations of many men and women have been destroyed; many of them have lost everything; their businesses have been destroyed and their families have been ruined. Even though the federal government has invited more than 1,800 property owners to send petitions for return of their funds, this gesture is simply too little too late.

So, what happened to Miguel and Susan Ventura?

Unlike many others, Miguel and Susan chose to fight the federal government. You see, Miguel and Susan knew the only crime they had committed was living the American dream and building an incredibly successful business over more than thirty years.

After a week-long trial, a federal jury returned a verdict of not guilty on all 109 counts which the government had brought against them.

Although Miguel and Susan eventually recovered the money seized from them, they never received a nickel in interest on the money the government held for several years. They never received a penny to reimburse them for the money they had to spend to defend themselves and prove their innocence. Even worse, they never received an apology from the federal government which improperly targeted them simply for their success.

It is likely that the case of Miguel and Susan Ventura was what James Madison had in mind when he said, “Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power.”

It is time to end the abuse of power; it is time to end prosecutions for profit; it is time to end the abuse of power and rein in an out-of-control federal government.

Mark Wohlander, a former FBI agent and federal prosecutor, practices law in Lexington.

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