Sneaking Suspicions
Archives-- March 7-13, 2004

This page includes posts from March 7-13, 2004 in the usual reverse order. Each posting on the home page is perma-linked to these archive pages.

March 12, 2004
In Memoriam



March 12, 2004
A local example of a national enforcement policy

For most types of citizen/government interaction, the government depends heavily on voluntary cooperation.

When most people decide not to bother complying, government often finds itself completely overwhelmed by wholesale scofflawing.

We can see this everyday on most major highways. When’s the last time you saw everyone driving 55 in a 55 mph zone?

Governments don’t always let things slide the way most of them seem to be doing about speed limits. When the issue touches their pocketbooks, most political entities are far more diligent about keeping up the mix of incentives and disincentives to bring us all into line.

During the months leading up to April 15, for example, I always look for news stories about tax law enforcement. There’s nothing like a juicy tax prosecution to remind the rest of us of the risks of not meeting our financial obligations to our fellow citizens.

There was a good one today in the News-Journal:

A federal grand jury has indicted two tax preparers on charges they included false itemized deductions on tax returns they prepared for Delaware residents.

Karin L. Long, 47, of Lewes and Rockaway Park, N.Y., is facing 26 counts of tax fraud and Melissa Meyer, 34, of Rehoboth Beach is charged with six counts of tax fraud. Both were also indicted on a count of conspiring to defraud the Internal Revenue Service.

* * * The fraudulent deductions totaled $213,968, according to the indictment. They were claimed for items such as training seminars, uniforms, gifts to charity and financial planning.

* * * The counts against Long carry a maximum 83 years in prison, and the charges against Meyers carry a maximum 23 years in prison.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Delaware typically maintains a conviction rate in the high 90s. (Cherry-picking has its advantages.) For that reason, I believe we’ll eventually see a later announcement about a plea bargain or two about these charges.

I'm sure you'll see several more examples of this national enforcement policy appearing in your own local newspapers over the next 5 weeks.

March 10, 2004
Not all that Libertarian--thankfully

Along with several other bloggers and National Review Online staffers, I took the new Libertarian Purity Test.

I scored a whopping 22.

If being a true Libertarian required being as out of touch with reality as many of these test questions implied, I'm in good shape.

March 10, 2004
Expressing an old sentiment in a new way

Today’s Washington Post ran an article about the increasing number of American deaths attributed to simply being too fat.

Andrew Sullivan took the opportunity to point out the relative dearth of religious commentary about the issue:

I mean, isn't gluttony a deadly sin? Shouldn't fat people be shamed, denounced, or loved and saved? This affects far, far more people than, er, well, you know where I'm going here. How many sermons have you heard inveighing against extra fries? Just asking.

Sullivan has a point.

William Trevor once wrote an intriguing essay on gluttony that appeared originally in the New York Times Book Review and later in Deadly Sins, edited by Thomas Pynchon. Two particular passages from that piece are well worth contemplating:

Gluttony has been numbered among the deadly sins we live with, presumably because it exemplifies an absence of the restraint that dignifies the human condition. Like its six companions, it is at best unattractive.

* * *

It is only in retrospect that the bloated figure seems lonely, that the passion that ordered its peculiarities seems in some way sinister.

Sullivan also made a suggestion about how best to deal with the implications of the new report:

What's to be done on a collective basis? I have an idea: nothing. If people want to eat themselves into misery and early death, it really isn't anyone else's business. If businesses want to cater to getting people fat and then helping them get thin, and no one is committing outright fraud, what's the problem? It's a free-ish country, and the gluttony and vanity industries are part of what keeps this economy going.

This comment struck me as a new way of expressing a familiar old sentiment about others who find themselves in difficulty:

"If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population." 

Of course, the man who said this eventually came to a different conclusion.

March 9, 2004
A double-edged conundrum

When it was first announced, the government’s food stamp program was touted as a way to make sure that the dollars given to folks who needed them would also be spent for their intended purposes.

Naturally, all-too-human instincts soon made a mockery of that suggestion, at least for those inclined to abuse the system.

Thanks to some technological advances, however, it’s possible to keep a lid on some of the corruption. This week the Fourth Circuit repeated that lesson to Saber A. Idias, the owner of the Nashville Supermarket in Nashville, North Carolina.

Food stamp recipients are now issued EBT cards that act like debit cards when swiped through a store’s point-of-sale device.

Besides being more convenient for the recipients and the store operators, the EBT cards also have an added advantage. They make it easier for the Federal auditors to determine if someone is gaming the system.

For example, a routine record review of this little supermarket store showed some surprising discrepancies between the EBT records and the sales tapes generated by the store’s single cash register. For example,

on three different days during that six-month span, the daily EBT debits exceeded gross sales as reflected on the register tapes. In other words, Idias rang up more on the EBT terminal in food stamp sales than he rang up on the register in total sales — even though total sales included purchases of items not eligible for food stamps.


The store owner essentially faced a stark choice of picking which crimes to confess to committing:

… Idias struggled to explain … how food stamp debits ever could have exceeded the Supermarket’s entire recorded gross sales for any given day…. [A]ccording to Idias and [his accountant], all sales passed through the Supermarket’s register and were recorded on the register tapes. By their own admissions, if food stamp debits exceeded gross sales, it was because Idias was exchanging food stamps for cash rather than merchandise….
Then, at oral argument before this Court, Idias’s counsel backpedaled even farther, claiming that the discrepancies between the food stamp debits and gross sales were the deliberate result of Idias’s attempted tax evasion. Again, counsel provided no evidence to substantiate his effort to trade one fraud charge for another.

Under these ugly circumstances, therefore, the Circuit Court had little difficulty upholding the termination of Nashville Supermarket’s relationship with the federal food stamp program.


March 9, 2004
Traffic Report

March 6 marked the 26th month of this site's existence.

As of that date, 189,850 visitors have viewed 242,857  pages.

Thanks very much for your patronage. This is still a lot of fun to do.


Stop by again soon.

March 9, 2004
OC's Prodigal Boy Returneth

Happy news, indeed.

Jeff Goldstein, once of Ocean City, Maryland, then of Protein Wisdom, then on long hiatus, has returned to blogging.

Welcome back!

Glad to see you've lost none of the attitude, either.

And a hat tip to Stephen Green for the announcement, too.

March 8, 2004
Religious fervor is no substitute for first filling out the forms

Sometimes I wonder who’s advising some of the folks who believe that they have the next great First Amendment case. 

The prospective plaintiffs might actually have a point, but there’s just no substitute for actually gathering together the facts that might support their claim before rushing into court.

San Jose Christian College sued the City of Morgan Hill, California over the City’s refusal to rezone a parcel of land previously used for the former St. Louise Hospital. The College claimed that the way it was treated violated its First Amendment rights to the free exercise of its religion. Among other counts, the Complaint specifically referred to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (“RLUIPA”).

The hospital acreage was zoned as a Planned Unit Development, which under the City code was not a huge hurdle for the College’s planned conversion of the property to a new campus for the school for up to 1200 students.

City officials asked the College to answer a few questions that will look awfully familiar to anyone involved with land use issues:

1. Site plan: Indicate landscape areas, easements and storm water detention areas....

2. Illustrative building elevations: The illustrative elevations shall indicate the level of architectural detail and quality.

3. Landscaping: A conceptual landscape plan needs to indicate the areas of existing landscaping and areas of proposed landscaping. The plan shall also identify the major types of plant material to be used (e.g., The species of trees and parking lot trees to be used, species of shrubbery to be used to screen parking lots, etc.).

The City also asked for more details about the prospective day and night class scheduling, the impact of college athletics and events, and seating limits for the theater/chapel—in other words, the kind of questions a land use agency would want to know about any prospective college campus.

Instead of completing the application with the answers to these and similar questions, the College gave the City a “scaled-back” proposal using only the existing buildings, and giving the impression that the facility would handle up to 400 students.

By itself, that kind of response was non-controversial. On the other hand, the College’s newsletters issued at around the same time gave a very different impression, telling its readers that the property would eventually support up to 1,600 students.

The City eventually denied the rezoning, citing the incomplete responses to the zoning questions. The College then filed suit.

After losing in the District Court, the College appealed to the Ninth Circuit. The unanimous panel was not exactly sympathetic:

If the zoning law is of general application and is not targeted at religion, it is subject only to rational basis scrutiny, even though it may have an incidental effect of burdening religion. If such a law burdens the free exercise of religion and some other constitutionally protected activity, there is a First Amendment violation unless the strict scrutiny test is satisfied (i.e., the law is narrowly tailored to advance a compelling government interest)…[citation omitted]. Similarly, if the zoning law is not neutral or generally applicable, but is directed toward and burdens the free exercise of religion, it must meet the strict scrutiny test [citation omitted]. Finally, if the zoning law only incidentally burdens the free exercise of religion, with the law being both neutral and generally applicable, it passes constitutional muster unless the law is not rationally related to a legitimate governmental interest.

In this case, there was nothing special about the zoning standards applied to the College’s application:

The record reflects that the city’s zoning ordinance applies throughout the entire City, and there is not even a hint that College was targeted on the basis of religion for varying treatment in the City’s application of the ordinance.

In addition, there was no evidence of anti-religious animus in handling this rezoning:

The record reflects no indication that the City’s action was motivated by the City’s disdain of College’s religious orientation, or by the message to be communicated to the students/parishioners at the Property. Thus, no viable impingement of speech claim has been asserted.

[Emphasis in original].

As for the RLUIPA claim, the College’s actions (and non-actions) were considered quite a bit more suspect than the City’s:

[I]t appears that College is simply adverse to complying with the PUD ordinance’s requirements. The City’s ordinance imposes no restriction whatsoever on College’s religious exercise; it merely requires College to submit a complete application, as is required of all applicants. Should College comply with this request, it is not at all apparent that its re-zoning application will be denied.

[Emphasis in original].

The Circuit panel therefore upheld the dismissal of the case.

It looks like the College has already moved on, in a sense. The college is now called William Jessup University. In 2002 it obtained a sizeable piece of acreage for a new campus in Rocklin, California, near Sacramento. The college’s website also announced that WJU entered into a sales contract for its San Jose property, but will continue offering classes in that city, but in leased facilities.

Some other appropriate use will surely be found for the former St. Louise Hospital property. One simply hopes that any new prospective owners don't take such umbrage at answering routine questions about their plans.


Contact Information:

Fritz Schranck
P.O. Box 88
Nassau, DE  19969


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Official small print disclaimer: This is, after all, a personal web site. Any opinions or comments I express here are my own, and don't necessarily reflect the official position of my work as a government attorney or any of my clients.

That fact may become obvious later on, but it needs to be said here anyway.

© Frederick H. Schranck 2002-2004