Sunday, June 24, 2018

The “Criminal Mind” When It Comes to Income Tax Fraud, Political Crimes and Voting

Meshing headlines about tax fraud and influencing elections
Let’s talk about the kind of frightfully improper influence and interference with our political system and process the criminally minded might be inclined to wield, that we may need to fend off, including actions by those lawbreakers willing to commit tax fraud.  A warning however: This discussion is ultimately headed toward what you may find to be an unlikely turn.

First, we are forever bedeviled by Trump headlines in an increasingly Trump-centric media universe?  Let’s just surrender to the trend and general convention these days by starting with one . . .

There’s a new set of headlines burbling recent days, including in the New York Times, about Mr. Trump and his family being engaged in tax fraud.  The New York State Attorney General is suing Trump’s “charity,” essentially Trump himself together with family members involved, for, as we said, tax fraud.  Mixed into the stew of asserted misuses and self dealing to benefit Trump (using the charity to “settle legal claims against” Trump’s “various businesses, even spending $10,000 on a portrait of Mr. Trump that was hung at one of his golf clubs”) is the abuse of the charity to politically benefit Trump, to “curry political favor” giving control over the charity funds it raised to senior Trump campaign staff, who decided how to use them.  Among other things there was a disguised illegal campaign contribution to Florida’s attorney general, Pam Bondi.  Not mentioned by the Times in its article is that this was at the same time that Bondi’s office, like the New State Attorney General, was to consider investigating Trump’s sham university.

According to the Times:
The petition notes that Mr. Trump himself signed annual I.R.S. filings, under penalty of perjury, in which he attested that the foundation did not engage in political activity. “This statutory prohibition is absolute.”
The Times accompanied the story reporting the facts with an editorial run the same day drubbing Trump’s so-called charity with its “gifts to himself” calling it “just another of his grifts” and saying that from its pretenses of being “in the public interest” the charity is not “remotely what it purports to be.”

The main Times article includes, with an insert in its web version, an opportunity to read the lawsuit itself, but, as harshly as the Times express its sentiments about Trump grifting, it does not pick up the fraud language itself in those formally stated charges, that the Trump charity has conducted itself in a “persistently fraudulent and illegal manner.”  MSNBC did pick that up however, spicing up its coverage with a worthwhile interview with Trump biographer David Cay Johnston:  New York A.G. files fraud lawsuit against Trump family, foundation.

Johnston remarks that Trump has had two previous income tax fraud trials.

Headlines this last March reported that Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner was engaged in illegal activities in his real estate business, regularly falsifying filings for work permits by declaring “that the company had no rent-regulated tenants in the buildings, when in fact they had hundreds.”  This allowed Kushner to gentrify the buildings more quickly and likely subjected tenants to harassment as they tried to live with quiet enjoyment of their premises amidst construction work.  At the time, a lawyer friend of mine (actually a Trump-loathing Democrat) who does a great deal of work for another major developer in New York worried about possible unfairness if Trump’s son-in-law were to be selectively prosecuted for activities engaged that are actually part of a pattern widespread abuse across the city by many, many people in the real estate industry. 

Indeed, amongst the powerful, Trump is surely brazen and perhaps sometimes more extreme, but he does many of the same things that other powerful and wealthy people do that should be stopped when they do them too.  If you have read Jane Mayer’s “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right” you know that the Koch brothers and those in their club of billionaires exerting heavy influence on our national politics using charitable organizations to do so whenever they can.  In New York City where Trump hails from, charities are heavily intertwined with politics and were used by Mayor Michael Bloomberg (who has hoped to be a Republican nominee for president) to secure a third term as Mayor.  Forest City Ratner, a real estate developer, created New York charities for the purpose of developing its Atlantic Yards project and then used one of its charities to run a candidate (Ms. Delia Hunley-Adossa) against the local city council member opposing the project.

The point is that far too many of the wealthiest and most powerful do engage in such abuses.  In fact, they probably often also do cross the line where there should be prosecution and consequences.  Still, how often do we ever see them suffering such consequences?
As for such prevalence of abuse, try this for another taste, a very likely tax fraud by Trump where  “the available evidence suggests” that Donald Trump illegally sidestepped paying gift tax by “selling” two Manhattan condominiums to his son at what was apparently barely half their true value in order to masquerade a gift as a business transaction.  According to the Washington Post article reporting it, the “fraudulent failure to file” a gift tax return by Trump if it involves any “overt act of evasion” would make this a serious felony on his part normally entailing the possibility of serious fines and prison.  See: This Trump real estate deal looks awfully like criminal tax fraud, - Two tax lawyers break down the president’s sale of two condos to his son.  By David Herzig and Bridget Crawford August 4, 2017.

Most people reading this probably already have a pretty good grasp that there is much to be troubled by of this nature going on in the world.  But I am headed with somewhere different from what you expect.  I think it is terrible when the wealthy shamelessly cheat on their income taxes.  And it is awful when they change the laws to legalize what should be illegal cheating.  Worse still is the unequal political power and influence wielded by the wealthy by virtue of their retained and accumulated wealth. The so-called charities for which the wealthy take self-serving deductions although they are not true charities are abominable.

Part of what needs to be done is to cut the wealthy down to political size and strip them of some of this out-sized power. . . .  In fact, one of the things that the New York State State Attorney General lawsuit seeks as a remedy in its Trump Foundation tax fraud lawsuit is a court declaration that Mr. Trump’s three eldest children be banned from the boards of nonprofits based or operating in New York or operate in New York.

Nevertheless, in the unlikely case that Donald Trump or any of his minions are convicted of felonies and jailed for such abuses, including as the case may be, unfairly influencing the political system for their own benefit, there is one thing that I would not want to take away from them: Their right to vote.  While I may worry and be concerned about the disproportionate influence their wealth has in the political system,  I am not afraid of their right to express themselves politically by exercising their right to vote as individual citizens. . . . That is something that I would never take away from them, no matter how much their bad actions have connected them to abuse of the political system.   

The idea that Trump might be convicted of a felony may seem like an academic question to muse about, fanciful given that Trump has expressed a willingness to pardon himself for federal crimes, and given that he may actually be able to do so because he is president.  On the other hand, Trump’s violations of the Constitution’s emoluments clause (just another aspect of his self-serving, cheating-the-public brazenness) are surely, among other things, grounds for impeachment and removal from office if ever there is ever a congress willing to do so. At that point he wouldn’t be president with pardon power.  Also, his pardon power does not extend to state and local crimes.

All such speculation notwithstanding, this discussion is not really intended to be about Trump himself.  It has been perspicaciously observed that (sorry Bobby De Niro), `Trump negativity,’ facile and in isolation, does not, amount to any kind of coherent world view.  So rather than have this particular discussion be about Trump, it was intended only that Trump provide an easy to identify stand-in reference for what is going on more broadly in our culture and how extreme and flagrant it’s gotten.

With the forgoing as the juxtapatory context it was meant to provide, now let’s move on to what was meant to the key point of this little disquisition in most in need of attention. . . .

. . .  It also concerns someone charged with tax fraud.  It also involves efforts to proscribe as out-of-bounds and illegal that same someone’s attempted participatory influencing of the political system. . .  That effort at political influence is being severely punished.

Here’s how it was reported in the day’s headlines for Democracy Now (emphasis and bracketed insertion are mine):   
In Texas, a black woman sentenced to five years in prison for voter fraud has lost her bid for a new trial. Crystal Mason was convicted of illegal voting in March, after she cast a provisional ballot [A provisional ballot is used to record a vote when there are questions about a given voter's eligibility, and so that whether a provisional ballot is counted is contingent upon the planned verification of the voter's eligibility] in the 2016 presidential election despite having a past felony conviction for tax fraud that prevented her from voting. Mason says she did not know that she wasn’t allowed to vote in Texas due to her criminal record. According to a 2016 report by The Sentencing Project, policies restricting the voting rights of convicted felons disenfranchise more than 6 million people. Crystal Mason’s supporters are demanding charges be dropped, arguing that her conviction was racially biased. This follows a voter fraud conviction in Iowa, where Terri Lynn Rote—a white woman—was convicted of the same crime, after she tried to vote for President Trump twice. Rote was sentenced to two years’ probation and fined $750.
(According to what I have been reading and researching, this article that you are reading will Google higher if I include a link to the New York Times version of the story rather than only giving you the Democracy Now link that Google’s algorithm ranks lower.)

Whatever may happen to the likes of Trump, the Koch brothers, or those of their ilk who have good lawyers and connections if they ever get charged for income tax fraud in the first place, Crystal Mason, convicted of tax fraud, served three years in prison and was still serving out the rest of an even longer sentence on probation when “at the behest of her mother, she went to her local church to vote in the 2016 presidential election.”  Now she is being sent to prison for five more years for wanting to vote.

Within the Democracy Now headline telling of the story the far less serious consequence (in effect just a $750 fine) for the white woman consciously doing a far more execrable thing by voting twice for Trump makes this obviously a racial justice issue.  But with nationwide mass incarceration with arrests, prosecutions and convictions all disproportionately targeting and penalizing people of color across the board for the same or similar crimes, the entire criminal justice system is one giant racial justice issue.  And if race is inherently also politics, which it is, then it is also important to understand this population from a political prisoner standpoint.  That makes it all the more nefarious that these people who have been convicted should be deprived of their votes, and also thus voting power of people of color diminished overall. . . 

 . . . The flip side, of course (see the Ava DuVernay Documentary 13th), is to understand the political thirst of many to take these voting rights away: Arguably, without disenfranchisement of convicted felons, Florida would always be a blue state in national presidential elections.

It needn't be this way.  Allowing prisoners and convicted felons to vote could easily be the rule: Maine and Vermont permit prisoners to vote, and that’s the general rule followed by most countries in the world.  In Europe most countries respect the European Court of Human Rights ruling that automatic disenfranchisements resulting from convictions are against human rights, that a presumption of universal suffrage should obtain unless the government can specifically rebut it.  The United States is an outlier in placing the most voting restrictions on those convicted of crimes.

The logic is very thin for saying that loss of voting rights should be an automatic consequence of felony crime convictions.  The basic argument is usually: “If you aren't willing to follow the law, you can't claim the right to make the law for everyone else.”  That sort of side-steps the big-picture parallel that in a system that’s ever more rigged, when the privileged elite of our country “aren't willing to follow the law,” they do change the law with dismaying consequences “for everyone else.”

Conversely, those who do not see this as a basis to strip voting right point out the lack or proportion or relationship:
The argument rests on collapsing “the law” into a single entity: Because I violated a law, I am no longer allowed to affect any law, even if the law I violated was relatively trivial and the law I’d like to oppose is, say, a repeal of the First Amendment.
And what about unjust laws, laws that so arguably ought to be broken as a matter of conscience by whistle-blowers like Pvt. Manning or Edward Snowden, those who protested the Trump inauguration, or laws that are civilly disobeyed as Martin Luther King, Jr. suggested because they were in need of the repeal that only the visibility of civil disobedience would bring.  And how many of us have follow all laws strictly every day of our lives never erring?

That then is the juxtaposition offered. .   Tax fraud?  Criminally convicted?  Wanting to do something frightful to influence elections? . .  I am very afraid when Trump, the Kochs and the rest of their club manipulate our electoral systems, including when that manipulation extends to such things as income tax fraud concerning foundations and charities deployed for such purposes, but I would never seek to deprive them of their right to vote as individuals if they ever get convicted for such exploits. And I don’t fear their votes!  Conversely, Crystal Mason’s persecution for “voting while Black” will likely send a discouraging message to other potential voters of color and is part of an overall pattern of racially discriminatory voter suppression. . .  Why is that being allowed to happen?: Because the individual vote of Crystal Mason and the 6 million other United States citizens who might rise and vote along with her if duly re-enfranchised are feared by those in power seeking to prevent our elections from more democratic outcomes

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