Small-Town Rebels Activists Use Off-The-Wall Legal Claims To Tie Up Bureaucracy In Its Own Red Tape
Leroy Murray threatened to ruin the credit of Internal Revenue Service agents by filing bogus commercial liens against them.
John Hern forced the state to get a court order to perform a routine business inspection of his foundry.
Hit with restrictions on how she can use her land, Avon lady Rose Christmann mailed city leaders homedrawn, legal-looking papers demanding they pay her $525 million for violating her civil rights.
The trio of Coeur d’Alene residents contend that bureaucrats and elected officials increasingly abuse their power to regulate and tax - a common complaint in the get-government-off-my-back 1990s.
These activists are part of an emerging conspiracy-minded, antigovernment network that’s gaining credibility with some mainstream politicians.
They are bolstered by the information age and traditional Idahoan independence and galvanized by GOP landslides and a maligned federal bureaucracy. These self-described patriots, constitutionalists and angry right-wing prisoners of conscience are waging their revolution with paper, not guns.
Their weapons are fax machines, videotapes, cassettes, computer networks and software. Their ammunition is the existing judicial system, antiquated common law and idiosyncratic interpretations of the U.S. Constitution.
Though linked to the militia movement, many aren’t interested in arming themselves against the government.
“This is not about a bunch of kooks hiding out in the woods with guns,” says Gorden Ormesher, a retired builder trying to pay property taxes with promissory notes.
“It’s about normal people who just want to take their government back.”
Although impossible to gauge, the number of people taking action appears small.
Their tactics rarely work as designed: County recorders refused to file Murray’s liens; Hern’s shop eventually was inspected; Christmann’s demands are being ignored.
Such uprisings also are cyclical. Protesters piqued curiosity a decade ago when they flooded Inland Northwest courts waving the Magna Carta and the Articles of Confederation to support their views.
In today’s political climate, however, they are gaining the ears of those who influence public policy.
“They have been bombarded with regulations like the rest of us,” says Mike Reynoldson, director of the Idaho Republican Party. “They are trying to initiate change and that’s commendable.”
Idaho State University sociologist James Aho says the rebellion provides a hometown window on America’s slide to the right.
“Things that were being asserted in extremist camps and ridiculed by the general public are now being accepted increasingly in the mainstream,” he says.
About 750 area residents applauded conspiracy author Larry Nichols last fall when he suggested President Clinton was a mob leader involved in murder and drug money laundering.
The same groups that sponsored Nichols also brought in speakers like Montana militia founder John Trochmann and Arizona sheriff and Brady Law-buster Richard Mack last year. More than a thousand people attended at least one of these events.
Benewah County commissioners considered requiring every resident to own a gun and ammunition after constitutionalists collected 1,000 signatures in support.
Gary DeMott, a leading distributor of constitutionalist information, successfully lobbied the Statehouse this year for anti-federal government resolutions such as a demand for greater state sovereignty.
U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth, R-Idaho, is holding hearings into the mysterious black helicopters many say are behind a government plot to spy on the public.
Aho estimates nearly one in five Americans believe in conspiracies. “It seems to make sense of anxieties,” he says.
Not surprisingly, there’s often justification for those anxieties, he says.
Drug enforcement agents officers now say armed agents used black helicopters to search for marijuana crops. Court records of the 1992 siege on Randy Weaver - the seminal event among the new insurgents - indicate the government’s handling was “at best clumsy and at worst criminal,” Aho says.
That kind of government scrutiny sparks revolt.
Coeur d’Alene officials three years ago said Christmann was illegally selling cosmetics from her home. The dispute escalated until the 72-yearold Avon lady landed in jail.
When tabloid television shows caught wind of it, the city backed off.
Last month, the city sought an injunction against her. Christmann responded with a 60-page “commercial affidavit of truth” that sought $25 million each from 21 city and county officials.
“It’s completely worthless,” says Steve Scanlin, an Idaho deputy attorney general.
The paperwork for Christmann’s claim offers a glimpse into how the movement works.
Scanlin is convinced the document was prepared on software circulating throughout Idaho. On some similar papers he’s seen, writers forgot to delete the prior author’s name.
The document, and many others, originated with DeMott, founder of the Idaho Sovereignty Association and regional director for the North Idaho Freedom Council. The Boise resident is a political lobbyist and a clearinghouse for anti-government literature.
“We were all guilty of falling asleep while the mechanism was very carefully put into place - the rules, the regulations,” DeMott says. “The bureaucracy is ever-expanding, so we’re just going to cut off the money.”
Those efforts range from liens to land deed filings that seek “allodial title,” an 800-year-old English term that’s supposed to eliminate the need to pay taxes.
It doesn’t, says Carl Olsson, deputy attorney general.
These moves typically are designed to gum up government - not make protesters rich. Their rationale is that real order can return only when the system is stymied.
For a decade, the owner of Hern Iron Works has battled the county and state on issues from building permits to chemical waste. Officials say he has more building code violations than anyone in recent memory.
Hern is not a constitutionalist - he describes himself as an active libertarian - but believes it’s sometimes necessary to buck the establishment. He does so in more traditional fashion: He just says no.
“He only let us on the property for an inspection after we got a preliminary injunction,” says attorney Scott Reed, who represents the state. “This is nothing new for him, though. He’s an authentic.”
Hern says he’s merely standing his ground.
“Gandhi led a spiritual strike, resisting what were immoral laws,” he says. “When you’re not hurting your neighbor, it’s nobody’s business what you’re doing.”
While most attacks on bureaucracy languish, DeMott, at least, has made other in-roads. He was a force behind legislators sending a letter to the federal government this winter demanding it “cease and desist, effective immediately, mandates that are beyond the scope of its constitutionally delegated powers.”
Simply put, that letter is a toothless demand that the federal government stop making demands of the state unless it comes up with money.
Where it’s all going is anybody’s guess.
DeMott predicts Idaho “will lead this nation in a return to a consolidated republic.”
DeMott’s groups work closely with the Northwest Liberty Network, a constitutionalist umbrella organization that boasts 1,000 members in North Idaho and includes groups like Concerned Citizens of Idaho.
“I’ve traveled from Hawaii to D.C. to Florida talking to people,” says vice president Eva Vail. “We’re finding more and more people who want to listen.”
Aho says November’s dramatic election may have lent more legitimacy to the movement than it deserves. “It appears everybody believes this when in reality it’s a small number of people who are really organized,” he says.
For some, it’s not about social revolution anyway.
“I don’t want to bother anybody and I don’t to be bothered,” Hern says. “Folks like me just like to be left alone.”