Patriots for Profit

Far-right extremists are making fortunes by promoting questionable financial schemes

Double your money, courtesy of God. Exempt yourself from taxes with the purchase of a $250 "passport" from a separatist nation within a nation. Survive the Y2K crunch by investing in "silver certificates," even if they do cost twice as much as silver.

Invest in land to be safe from the marauding urban hordes or get in on the "Prosperity Triad" and earn $250,000 a year. "Monetize" your liens, and cash in those "sight drafts."

Pony up for freedom and you, too, can help save the republic.

Across the United States, men and women speaking the peculiar language of the antigovernment "Patriot" movement have devised schemes to turn the cause into cash. They have made outlandish promises to investors, telling them that they can get rich even as they help turn back the tide of the "socialistic" New World Order.

Playing on the fears and passions of those who resent American government, some of these entrepreneurs are growing wealthy, driving luxury cars and flying in Lear jets.

They are the patriots for profit.

They are not the first to tailor an appeal for money to an extremist audience. In the 1920s, Ku Klux Klan leaders made fortunes selling memberships to some 5 million people, and in the 1970s and 1980s followers of the racist and anti-Semitic Posse Comitatus set up bogus "warehouse banks" and other scams that turned out to be ripoffs.

But it has been in the 1990s that the number and scope of similar programs have mushroomed.

Today, major federal and state criminal investigations of several programs based on spurious "common law" theory are under way. In March, a federal grand jury in Florida indicted principals in what prosecutors describe as a humongous Ponzi scheme — a program that raked in millions of dollars by telling antigovernment Christians that they could double their money.

One outfit that markets a silver-backed "currency" that's supposedly meant to wreck the Federal Reserve System is being probed by the authorities. Another, claiming that it runs its own independent nation, is under investigation for possible fraud. Around the country, people are going to prison on similar fraud charges.

Double Your Money?
Here are some leading cases:

· For almost five years, Tampa-based Greater Ministries International Church has suggested that it would double the money, within 17 months, of those Christians who donated "gifts." Although Greater's leaders claim to support overseas missionaries, ex-offender programs and other good causes, little tangible evidence backs up that assertion.

In March, leader Gerald Payne and six other principals were indicted on a variety of federal fraud charges. They face possible prison terms of several decades.

· The Washitaw Nation, which claims that its "empress" is the rightful ruler of a huge swath of land in Louisiana and contiguous states, has been selling driver's licenses, passports and motor vehicle registrations around the country. It also tells its "citizens" that they are exempt from state and federal taxes, and many believe they are immune to the law.

Now, a federal and at least two state investigations are looking into possible fraud involving these sales, money laundering and offshore banking.

· The Montana Freemen, who made national headlines with their 81-day standoff with federal agents in 1996, were probably the most prolific scammers of the 1990s. For years, under the tutelage of leader LeRoy Schweitzer, the Freemen promoted the use of bogus financial instruments — and they were remarkably successful in passing such instruments themselves.

But last year, authorities accused the Freemen of trying to pass 3,432 "sight drafts" totalling $15.5 billion, with actual losses of $1.8 billion. This March, a federal judge sentenced the Freeman principal players to lengthy terms in prison — in the case of Schweitzer, who is now 60, to 22 1/2 years.

· NORFED, or the National Organization for the Repeal of the Federal Reserve Act & Internal Revenue Code, describes itself as a "nonprofit organization dedicated to using all its revenue to restore an honest monetary system." Starting last October, NORFED began selling its own "American Liberty Currency."

The money is supposedly backed by silver stored in an Idaho vault but is sold at almost twice the price of real silver — something the group says is needed to carry on its antigovernment battle. Half a dozen federal and state agencies are reportedly investigating the group.

· Freedom's Call, based in Littleton, Colo., is "a foolproof turn-key wealth-building formula" run by reputed common-law activists Chuck and Linda Meyers. While the group describes itself as "dedicated to the peaceful preservation of individual freedom" and complains that "freedom in the U.S.A. is rapidly becoming extinct," its chief focus is money.

It has three levels of membership in its "Prosperity Triad," costing $999, $5,999 and $16,999, respectively — levels which come with home study materials and seminars at resorts and during "luxury cruises." But it claims that members have "$250,000 realistic potential earnings in just one year," money to be earned by recruiting new members.

· The First Amendment Church of Truth and Sanity (facts), run by Adrian, Mich.-based extremist Rick Strawcutter, recruits people to become "missionaries" — at a cost of $125. For that price, they get a "freedom manual" and two copies of a recruitment video. Those who sign on are then urged to recruit others, for which they receive $25 of each $125 fee.

If those second-level missionaries recruit others, the original joiner gets $5 of each new fee. According to Militia Watchdog, an Internet-based group that monitors the radical right, Strawcutter's operation "is a pyramid scheme cloaked as a church."

There are a plethora of other, similar programs. Among the most popular are a variety of "untaxing" schemes, revolving around the common-law idea, derived from the Posse, that Americans can declare their "sovereignty" from state and federal government. Once sovereign, the theory goes, individuals are exempt from taxes.

These schemes have been remarkably successful, selling at seminars and over the Internet.

One of the most popular recent tactics of antigovernment moneymakers has been to file property liens against those seen as enemies. While the liens are invariably bogus, they have been used widely, by the Freemen among others. In a process known as "monetizing the lien," people have used the liens as "collateral" to write bogus checks.

On occasion, the liens have been transferred to offshore banks, with checks then written on accounts with those banks

Many other antigovernment extremists trade on fear — fear of the Biblical "end times," or, more popularly, of the collapse of Western civilization because of the Y2K computer bug. A common Y2K theme has been the idea that when the computers crash, government checks to minorities in the inner cities will stop.

Then starving Hispanics and blacks will flood into the rural parts of America, armed to the teeth and willing to stop at nothing in order to wrench food from the tables of white Christians. Based on this or similar scenarios, guns, dried food and other items are being sold by the truckload.

One product of Y2K hysteria has been the development of "covenant communities" — rural settlements set up, essentially, as self-supporting, defensive groupings ready to weather the coming storm. Bo Gritz, for example, has long been selling land in his Almost Heaven covenant community in Idaho. Others are doing the same elsewhere.

Some of those hawking land, liens and all manner of programs probably believe at least some of what they are saying. But whatever their motivation, the fact is that thousands of people are being separated from their money, usually to no good purpose.

And the victims are remarkably easy to dupe, officials say, because they are already so entrenched in the bizarre belief systems of America's antigovernment movements.