Check out this incredible display of hypocrisy vividly demonstrating the raw power of money. It’s a story about Bradley Birkenfeld published at DemocracyNow by Amy Goodman. Birkenfeld was a banker for the Swiss giant UBS. In 2007, he “blew the whistle on the biggest tax evasion scheme in US history.” He is preparing to head to prison tomorrow to begin serving a forty-month federal sentence. The written record is clear that Birkenfeld provided inside information to the U.S. Senate, to the IRS and the Justice Department demonstrating that more than 19,000 Americans have been hiding vast amounts of financial assets in secret UBS Swiss accounts.
None of these tax cheats–they have all cheated the U.S. government out of substantial tax revenue–is spending any time in jail. Who are these tax cheats who hid more than $20 billion from the U.S. government in secret Swiss accounts? Their names have not been disclosed according to Stephen Kohn, Birkenfeld’s attorney:
[T]hey’re all very rich people, very powerful people. They could be judges. They could be senators. They’re all rich. They’re all probably very powerful in their local communities. How guilty were they? . . . Every year they checked a box that was a lie on their tax form that permitted them to hide millions and millions in assets. Each time they checked that box, they committed a felony. So if they were doing it for fifteen, twenty years, these are large felonies.
But wasn’t there a possibility that these wealthy American tax cheats could have gotten caught without Birkenfeld’s efforts? After all, weren’t these rich tax cheats receiving bank statements from an big overseas bank? Nope. That “problem” was taken care of by a special arrangement between the bank and each of its tax cheat customers. According to Stephen Kohn:
They also had this thing called “mail hold.” The Swiss bank would never send them a letter, so no one could ever track it down. It was personal between that millionaire cheater and the bank. And all of their mail would be held in a secret vault. So when they traveled to Switzerland, they could sit and open all their mail, all their receipts, all their statements, and then shred them when they were done looking at them. In other words, the bank was actively facilitating the fraud, but each client was actively engaged. And these were not small frauds. These were major frauds by millionaires and billionaires. And right now, the American people don’t know who they were. Think of that. Fourteen thousand multimillionaires and, we know, billionaires had illegal accounts for years. They hold positions of authority in the United States. And the Justice Department has essentially given cover to every single one of them.
But wait! Why is Birkenfeld going to prison? Well, U.S. authorities have accused him of helping his own billionaire client hide assets–a man named Igor Olenicoff. Olenicoff ended up getting probation while Birkenfeld is going to spend four years in the slammer.
All of this goes to show you that there are some mighty powerful unwritten laws here in the United States. We are a country of two versions of justice, one for the rich and another for the poor. What kind of justice do the poor get? Consider another example: 750,000 people are arrested for possession of marijuana every year, the equivalent to the entire population of South Dakota. At the same time, large monied pharmaceutical companies crank out expensive drugs that mimic virtually every street drug out there, perfectly legally and in many cases financed by the U.S. Medicare system.
Yes, there are two versions of justice here in the U.S. It reminds me of that famous quote by Anatole France:
The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.
Anyone, rich or poor, who wants to cheat the U.S. government by stashing their possessions in an overseas bank account is welcome to do so. But if you cheat the government out of food stamps, God help you. Anyone who wants to produce mind-altering medication by starting their own pharmaceutical company is allowed to do so under the law. But if you grow marijuana at home, you’ll face the full weight of the law.