‘Sovereign Citizen’ Leader Goes on Trial for Tax Fraud

Federal prosecutors opened the trial of one the nation’s most prominent “sovereign citizens” leaders by portraying him as nothing more than a con man who used antigovernment ideology to peddle illegal debt- and tax-relief scams to the financially troubled.

But James Timothy Turner, delivering his own opening statement at the trial that began Monday in Montgomery, Ala., cast himself as the victim. “I discovered things that big Washington government doesn’t want you know,” he said. “They’re trying to shut me up.”

Turner faces 10 tax charges, including conspiring to defraud the federal government, attempting to pay his own taxes with a fictitious financial instrument and attempting to obstruct an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) investigation. He faces up to 164 years in prison and large financial penalties if convicted on all charges.

Based in the southeast Alabama town of Ozark, Turner, 57, heads what may be the largest and most organized group of antigovernment sovereign citizens in the country – the Republic for the united States of America (RuSA).

Much of the testimony during the first day of Turner’s trial focused on financial schemes Turner taught during seminars across the nation from 2006 to 2010. Using what he called “Freedom Documents,” Turner claimed to be able to help clients absolve themselves of mortgage, tax or credit card debt. For as little as $50 for a few minutes of his time to well over $300 for a two-day seminar, Turner purported to expose the secrets of the legal and banking systems.

In reality, he was teaching his clients how to dupe unsuspecting bankers and court officers, federal prosecutor Justin Gelfand said. Turner and others would spend Saturday mornings around a color printer making dozens of fraudulent bank bonds to sell to clients. “They’re designed to look real enough to make the government accept them,” Gelfand said. “[But] they’re, in fact, worth nothing more than Monopoly money.”

According to the federal indictment handed down last September, Turner is accused of using a fictitious financial instrument, purportedly valued at $300 million, to pay his own taxes and to have assisted others who wanted to get out of paying their taxes. Those people included Thomas Frye, a 59-year-old pharmacist from Andalusia, Ala., who is serving a prison sentence for attempting to pay a $250,000 income tax debt with bonds Turner helped him create.

Frye testified on Monday that he met Turner in the parking lot of a Walmart in Enterprise, Ala., to pick up the bogus documents. It was there that the two affixed the documents with red thumb prints next to their signatures – a tell-tale sovereign tactic.

But shortly after Frye sent the bond to the IRS, he and his wife, Kathy, were indicted for conspiring to defraud the government. He was sentenced to six months in prison to be followed by six months of house arrest. Frye said that when he approached Turner to find out what went wrong, Turner said he “was sorry to hear that, and told us to hang in there.”

Most of the charges Turner now faces stem from his early days as a sovereign citizen, just as he was getting turned on to the ideology. Sovereigns generally believe that they – not judges, juries or police – get to decide which laws to obey and which to ignore. In recent years, sovereigns have clogged up courts with indecipherable filings, much like what Turner was teaching, and in some cases have lashed out violently against law enforcement officials, often during traffic stops.

Turner, however, went further than most sovereigns. In audio recordings gathered by undercover IRS agents that were played in court, he bragged of being better than others in peddling financial schemes and expressed his dreams of leading a nation of “the sovereign people.” In 2010, when Turner was part of a group called the Guardians for the free Republics (GFR), he sent letters to all 50 governors demanding they step down. The following year, he formed RuSA, which grew to have a presence in nearly every state, and proclaimed himself the president of a government-in-waiting that would rule the country after the U.S. government collapsed.

Despite all his bombast, prosecutors argued that Turner was nothing more than a huckster. “It was all about the money for Mr. Turner,” Gelfand said. “All about the fraud.”