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October 30, 2007 - The Union (CA)

Column: Scales Of Justice Tip To White Collar Crime

By Jeff Ackerman, publisher of The Union

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A few weeks ago a guy called to discuss one of my weekly ditties, wherein I essentially advocated for the legalization of marijuana. Not because I think everyone should smoke it (who would eat all the pills and drink all the vodka?), but because it doesn't make sense to fill up our prisons with pot smokers and growers, and there is a good argument to be made for taxing it. Especially when you can generate millions in much-needed government funds you could use for parks, libraries, schools and pork for the proverbial barrel.

The caller went on to detail his own running battles with law enforcement, since he is one of many in these parts who happen to grow marijuana, which is the county's most profitable crop (and you thought it was grapes).

"They (cops) came into our home in the middle of the night, guns and shotguns drawn, dragged us nude out of our beds, threw us on the floor and handcuffed us," the caller told me. "Seems they could have handled it differently."

By different he might mean the way they handle white-collar criminals. I don't remember a single arrest of a so-called white-collar criminal where cops made the arrest in the middle of the night, guns drawn, and dragged the suspect(s) out of bed nude. And there is no data to suggest that white-collar criminals don't sleep naked, or that they don't have weapons in the home. Last I heard, Dick Cheney had a shotgun, and I suspect Enron's Kenneth Lay had a handgun or two in one of his many mansions.

For those who may not know the difference between blue and white-collar crime, it goes something like this:

Blue collar: Walk into a bank, tell the clerk you have a bomb tucked inside your Banana Republics and demand $100,000. If captured instead of shot 38 times, you spend 25 years looking down at Bubba from the top bunk of your jail cell.

White collar: Steal $100,000 from the bank vault you are supposed to be keeping an eye on and, when an auditor finds out, wait for the phone to ring so you'll have time to put on the makeup for the police mug shot (or provide a high school yearbook photo). As soon as the fingerprinting is done, go home on what they refer to as your "own recognizance," which means everyone who is anyone knows you from the local service club or inner circle. You eventually apologize and agree to a plea bargain that requires you to repay the money you stole, but there is no jail time. After all, you only stole the money because your aunt needed shoes and gasoline prices had climbed above $3.25 a gallon.

The scales of justice have never been balanced, no matter what the beautiful Latin script on courthouse walls tries to tell us.

According to the FBI, the term white-collar crime was coined in 1939 by some professor and has since become synonymous with a full range of frauds committed by business and government officials.

Some examples include adoption scams, antitrust scams, bank fraud, Medicare fraud, securities scams, investment fraud, lottery scams, mass marketing scams, identity theft, insurance fraud and a host of others. There's no end to the ways to take advantage of trusting and unsuspecting people.

Most of the time, white-collar crooks prey on folks (such as retirees) who can least afford to lose the money.

In an editorial following the discovery of four prominent citizens who had defrauded local health-care programs, which led to the bankruptcy filing of the community hospital, the Roanoke Times & World News noted that, "White-collar crime rarely prompts the outrage or draws the lengthy prison sentences of street crimes.

"It leaves no violated or bleeding victim; its perpetrators are often church-going community leaders who stand before the judge wearing tailored suits and repentant expressions. Yet, such financial crimes can devastate an entire community rather than robbing a lone victim. Their impact can last for years, stealing crucial services or lifetime's savings through crimes invisible to their victims."

The suspects in that case, the editorial noted, acted not out of need, but greed.

As he waits for his own legal troubles to make their way through the local judicial system, my pot-growing telephone friend must be wondering just a little bit about those scales of justice that Equity holds in its hands.

He might also be wondering how he'd look in a white-collared shirt.

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