IRVINE, Calif. -- Peymon Mottahedeh adjusted the knot of his Statue of Liberty tie and smiled broadly as he surveyed the cacophonous conference room inside the Atrium Hotel. More than 200 attendees swarmed vendors' tables as they waited for the seventh annual "Health and Freedom" tax-protesters conference to begin last March. Peymon -- who is known in tax-protest circles by his first name only, like Madonna or Prince -- had good reason to smile. At $50 a head, "Health and Freedom" in 2006 represented another substantial payday for the organizer and emcee of the annual gathering of tax protesters, which in recent years has attracted a variety of extremist speakers including Hutton Gibson, actor Mel Gibson's father, and Holocaust denier Willis Carto, founder of the Institute for Historical Review.
Slick brochures for this year's conference promised to show attendees how to "Wipe the IRS off of Americans' lives!" and provide answers to burning questions like "Is the One-World Government Coming?" and "Are The FBI & CIA Harming Americans?"
An Iranian immigrant, Peymon founded his "Freedom Law School" in 1992 from the living room of his apartment. Peymon speaks at tax-protest events around the country, hawking his "Freedom Packages," which range from $4,000 for the "Simple Freedom Package" to $6,000 -- plus $2,000 a year in maintenance fees -- for the "Royal Freedom Package ('For those who wish to live free AND be treated like Royalty!')". The packages come with a guarantee that the school's "Dream Team" of experts will write to the IRS on the behalf of any customer who is harassed for failing to file tax returns. (In 2005, the Justice Department prosecuted 1,256 people for tax crimes, up 43% since 2001.)
At this year's "Health and Freedom" symposium, Peymon glad-handed the crowd of mostly male, mostly graying attendees, who greeted him warmly on the first morning of the two-day event. While they waited for the lectures to begin, some attendees sipped from sample cups of Amazonian berry juice that one vendor offered as the exotic product in a multi-level marketing business he excitedly described as "a pyramid scheme." Others flipped through brochures advertising New Age author John Grey's Mars/Venus oxygen spa (which features an infrared sauna developed by NASA) and examined handouts depicting photographic evidence of satanic hand signs employed by global conspirators including Spiderman and the twin daughters of President Bush.
Peymon's keynote speech, "Can You Live Free of IRS Tyranny?" was little more than a Freedom School infomercial yet received heavy applause. Other presenters included Tim O'Shea, a chiropractor who warned that vaccines are "slowly killing us," and William Rodriguez, an amateur magician and former World Trade Center janitor who explained that explosions in the basement of the North Tower just before the planes hit were "What Really Happened on 9/11."
The real action of the weekend took place during breaks between speakers, when eager crowds formed at nearly every vendor's table, transforming the conference into a virtual swap meet of extremist and conspiracy-theory wares. Willis Carto's American Free Press needed two display tables for its revisionist history books and back copies of the Holocaust-denial magazine Barnes Review, another Carto creation. Both tables were nearly emptied by Sunday afternoon. Nearby, inventor Brian David Andersen tried to rouse interest in his specially developed "wearable vitamins" (made of super algae, white powder gold and pinot wine at $225 a pair) and a "tri-vortex" six-outlet power strip which purportedly transforms electricity in your home into "left-hand energies that are biologically friendly, safe, healthy and energizing" for a mere $199.
Another vendor offered $5 pamphlets on "Satanism in the Mormon Church" as well as a self-test for those who suspect they may be victims of "electronic mind weapons." Telltale signs include "streetlights going out as you pass under them," "hot needles deep in your flesh, especially when you are trying to sleep," "fake loud bird calls which follow you everywhere" and "inescapable voices that follow you in your head."
One conference-goer indulged in a cleansing foot bath offered by a representative of the far-right American Independent Party, in which impurities in his internal organs were purged from his body through the soles of his feet by passing a laser pointer back and forth across his stomach for 20 minutes while his feet soaked in a tub of water.
Sitting at his own table, the ever-charming Peymon cheerfully peddled his own brand of Freedom.
Cash, he informed all potential students, is highly preferred.