Wednesday, February 4, 2015

How Uncle Sam Became a Bank Robber

How Uncle Sam Became a Bank Robber


During her confirmation hearings last week, Loretta Lynch, President Obama’s choice to succeed Eric Holder as attorney general, called civil forfeiture, a form of legalized theft in which the government takes people’s property without accusing them of a crime, “a wonderful tool.” Lynch, currently the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, suggested that innocent owners need not worry about getting hammered by this tool, because forfeiture “is done pursuant to supervision by a court,” and “the protections are there.”

In light of a forfeiture case that Lynch’s office had abruptly dropped the previous week, her assurances rang hollow. The case, involving $447,000 that the government stole from a Long Island business and sat on for nearly three years, illustrates the injustice inflicted by seizures in which a “crime” that harms no one becomes an excuse for bank heists that enrich the agencies perpetrating them.

Since 1970 the humorously named Bank Secrecy Act has required financial institutions to report deposits of $10,000 or more to the Treasury Department, because such large sums of cash are obviously suspicious. You know what else is suspicious? Deposits of less than $10,000, because they suggest an attempt to evade the government’s reporting requirement, which has been a federal crime, known as “structuring,” since 1986.

In 2012 a Nassau County, New York, detective decided the banking records of Bi-County Distributors, a family-owned business that sells cigarettes and candy to convenience stores, were “consistent with structuring.” That judgment was enough to trigger an IRS seizure of all the money in the account, which caused an immediate financial crisis for Bi-County’s owners, brothers Jeffrey, Richard, and Mitch Hirsch.

For the next 32 months, the Hirsches struggled to keep their business afloat, relying on credit extended by longtime vendors. In all that time, the brothers never got a hearing before a judge. Instead they received a series of offers from Lynch’s office, which refused to give the money back but said the Hirsches could have part of it if they surrendered the rest.