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Common Law Bruises Big Apple

New York City is caught unawares by common-law ideology when almost 100 city employees were arrested for tax evasion.

New York City has won dubious fame for its Mafia crime families, its Wall Street financial swindles, even its subway slayings. But until last December, few thought of the Big Apple as home to common-law separatists.

Nearly 100 city employees — corrections and sanitation workers who included some ranking officials — were arrested for tax evasion that month. They were allegedly using kits sold by antigovernment common-law groups to illegally refuse to pay taxes. Another 40 city workers were suspended or disciplined in the scam.

Officials say many of those arrested were motivated by simple greed. But about a third appeared to have been followers of either a black separatist group called the Moorish Nation or a more general "Freeman" philosophy.

Police were still seeking the alleged ringleaders, Moorish Nation members Anthony Davis and Leroy Gordon. Davis, Gordon and others allegedly distributed the tax kits at prices ranging from $200 to $2,000.

Moorish Nation members reject the Constitution, which they say was written for whites, and profess allegiance to the "Free Moorish Zodiac Constitution." They believe they are descended from inhabitants of the lost city of Atlantis, and New York members describe themselves as citizens of such places as the "Republic of Queens."

The case underscores the breadth of the growing movement of Freemen, typically white separatist "sovereigns" who advocate common-law — a doctrine involving rejection of the federal government, setting up of bogus alternative courts, and refusal to use driver's licenses and vehicle tags.

The irony is that black groups like Moorish Nation are adopting an ideology with roots in the white supremacist movement.

"Moorish Nation is the flip side of the Montana Freemen," says Chip Berlet, an expert with Political Research Associates, referring to the group involved in an 81-day 1996 standoff with the FBI.

"They share the idea that the current government is false. It's a case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend."