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UNITED STATES v. MYERS

September 21, 1994

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
CHARLES J. MYERS, Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: MILTON I. SHADUR

 Charles Myers ("Myers") was convicted of various crimes, including tax evasion and fraud in connection with a series of religious scams. Having completed his lengthy prison term, Myers is currently serving a probationary period, one of the conditions of which is that he seek gainful employment so as to be able to satisfy another condition -- that of payment of his fines and of making restitution to his victims. Because the efforts of Probation Officer Torrance Wilkins to enforce that obligation are incompatible with Myers' present desire to be trained by his church to become a foreign missionary, Myers has moved to bar the probation officer from requiring him to land a paying position instead. Myers argues that such compulsion violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, but for the reasons discussed here that contention proves unsuccessful. Accordingly Myers' motion is denied.

 Background

 Following a nearly three-week trial in this pre-Sentencing Guidelines case in June and July 1986, Myers was found guilty by a jury of 47 counts of federal mail fraud and violations of the tax statutes. Among the primary charges was Myers' sale of bogus tax shelters through investments in recordings of Bible stories for children. Myers sold master tapes to investors for $ 12,000 cash plus a $ 48,000 note and then fraudulently represented via an opinion letter that the entire $ 60,000 was at risk for tax purposes (entitling the investors to investment tax credits and depreciation deductions), when in reality the $ 48,000 notes were a sham insulated from the investors' personal risk by secret "buy-back" agreements. Though Myers' promotional literature specifically disavowed the existence of any such arrangement, investors testified that Myers sent them buy-back guaranties in envelopes marked "Put in Safe Deposit Box." One investor exercised that option and got his money back.

 Besides defrauding the tax collectors, Myers also tricked the individual investors as well. By establishing a network of ostensibly distinct entities he was able to project the illusion that the deals involved different sets of sellers, marketers and financiers, all dealing at arms length. Unknown to his investors, however, each of those corporate actors was in fact controlled by Myers. Myers expanded the deception by making phony offers from fictitious parties to buy the tapes for $ 60,000 and by falsely inflating reports of the sales of the tapes. Thus the $ 60,000-per-tape sale price was a bogus number fabricated by Myers, rather than a true reflection of the tapes' fair market value. *fn1"

 In addition to that illegal scheme, Myers engaged in a range of other misconduct also bearing on his character. For example, he was convicted of offenses relating to his position as an anti-taxation advocate. After having been audited by the IRS, in 1983 he formed a tax protestor movement called the "Tax Free Club," from which platform he conducted seminars and appeared on radio and television to spread the spurious message that Americans have a Fifth Amendment right to decline to report their income. Then he founded the Northbrook Bible Church (complete with church stationery) as a religious trust to accept donations for his tax "services," and he began to go by the title Rev. Myers, D.D. (claiming to have received a "Doctor of Divinity" degree from Zion Faith College).

 At Myers' trial the government introduced evidence of fees totalling more than $ 7,000 paid by people to attend his seminars. Each person unfortunate enough to have followed Myers' groundless advice by filing an "exempt" W-4 form (on the basis of the Fifth Amendment) was later assessed a $ 500 frivolous return penalty, and at least one such client was indicted by the State of Illinois on that basis.

 Unfortunately the list of Myers' transgressions did not end there. Myers was also convicted for failing to file annual personal income tax returns for certain years during the 1980s and for agreeing in 1985, in exchange for a $ 10,400 cash payment, to backdate a lease document for someone who came to Myers for tax advice (but who later proved, to Myers' dismay, to be an undercover IRS agent). Also captured on the undercover agent's concealed audiotape was Myers' offer to help the agent establish a bogus religious trust for tax evasion purposes.

 It is perhaps an understatement to say that all of that added up to a flagrant pattern of fraudulent activity. As this Court characterized Myers' conduct at the time of sentencing (Tr. 25):

 
That is, indeed, overall the most egregious tax fraud case that has come before me. It should not be limited, indeed, by labeling it a tax fraud. It is one of the most egregious cases of any kind of fraud that has come before me. It must be, in my view, responded to in kind.

 Based on that assessment this Court sentenced Myers to an 11-year term in the custody of the Attorney General. In part the Judgment and Commitment Order obligated Myers to pay $ 85,000 in fines to the government and to make some $ 3,000 in restitution payments to the individuals injured by his deceptive activities (see Myers' current motion ("Motion") Ex. 9). *fn2"

 Throughout the entire period of his trial and internment, Myers has never expressed any degree of remorse, much less owned up to his responsibility in creating hardship for others. To the contrary, he has in the past inundated this Court with a series of letters expounding an array of reasons as to why he should be let off the hook notwithstanding all of the evidence against him and the jury's adverse determination. *fn3" All of Myers' pro se motions to that end have been found wanting and have been denied without exception.

 Myers was released from prison on March 26, 1993 (reflecting his earning of good-time credits), and he is now serving a five-year period of probation running concurrently with his mandatory release supervision set to expire on April 5, 1997. Although the conditions of his probation include the requirement that he fulfill his responsibilities to pay his fines and restitution, he has made no such payments since his release. In that respect, even though he still professes to be destitute Myers has declined to go out to seek a job despite the emphatic exhortations of his probation officer to do so. *fn4" And Myers' reason for eschewing gainful employment is the subject of his current motion.

 Myers' Current Motion

 Myers claims finally to have found his true God. Now he aspires to perform missionary field work for the Church of Christian Liberty ("Church") based in Arlington Heights. To qualify for that endeavor he is participating in what Senior Pastor Dr. Paul Lindstrom has characterized (in a letter to Probation Officer Wilkins, Motion Ex. 6) as a special "customized training program for one person" under the supervision of various Church personnel. Pastor Lindstrom anticipates that Myers' training will last approximately two more years (including a stint in the Philippines, travel restrictions permitting), *fn5" after which he will be "sent out to one of [the Church's] mission fields" to establish Christian schools in faraway places (id.).

 Of course the catch in that arrangement in terms of Myers' court-ordered obligations is that such employment does not pay any salary, so that he would be in no position to reimburse the government or his other victims. In fact, far from discharging those financial obligations, Myers' activities have actually incurred new debts in the form of "deaconal expenses (food pantry, thrift shop, housing, etc.)" -- items that the Church expects him to repay (id.).

 Myers' decision has provoked Probation Officer Wilkins to insist that Myers find a more lucrative occupation. In addition to several oral admonitions, the probation officer wrote Myers on May 5, 1994 that he had not been excused from pursuing a salary and instructing him to "do [his] very best to find employment no later than June 8, 1994" (see Motion Ex. 9). *fn6" In an effort to pursue the missionary lifestyle of his choosing free from Wilkins' contrary commands, Myers has filed the current motion entitled "Motion To Bar Probation Office From Compelling Defendant To Abandon His Religious Vocation And Using His Governmental Position To Force His Own Religious Beliefs." In a supplement to the motion (cited here as "Supp. -- ") Myers explains (Supp. 2):

 
The original intent of the Motion to Bar was to give the message to the court that Mr. Myers was not refusing to pay his fines and pay his restitution, but that presently he was sincerely committed to a program of religious instruction and service, which made it impossible at this time to afford to pay fines and restitution; Mr. Myers was not writing off this obligation entirely. . . . He simply wants to become a missionary, and not be forced to quit and abandon this endeavor because his probation officer says he must in order to pay off his fines and restitution.

 Myers thus attempts to paint his prayer for relief as no more than a temporary respite from his fine payments and restitutive obligations, the present enforcement of which he contends is incompatible with the free exercise of his religious convictions.

 That portrayal seems somewhat disingenuous. It would appear that Myers' completion of the program to enable him to operate as a foreign Church emissary would likely enable him to live out the remainder of his years without ever needing to secure a compensable job. After all, concurrently with his assertion that he intends to make good on his debts just as soon as he qualifies to become a missionary, Myers alternatively attempts to derive rhetorical advantage from his advancing age (Supp. 8) and from his argument that the only work he can see himself getting would necessarily be something excessively undesirable along the lines of flipping burgers (id. ; Motion 2-3).

 All of that might well lead to questioning the sincerity of Myers' assertion that his desire for religious training is intended not to evade but merely to defer satisfaction of his fines and restitutive obligations until a later date. *fn7" But it is unnecessary to accept Myers' invitation to pass on his actual sincerity vel non, for even on a favorable resolution of that issue Myers' current motion fails. It fails because he has not established any violation of the First Amendment in any case. Put simply, Myers has not established that the enforcement of an obligation to seek employment to repay his debts interferes with his right to free exercise of religion.

 For starters, Myers' argument is effectively foreclosed by the latest word on freedom of religion to have emanated from the highest secular authority on the subject. In the course of holding that Oregon could deny unemployment benefits to two Native Americans who had run afoul of the state's laws proscribing hallucinogenic drugs, despite their argument that their sacramental use of peyote was protected activity ( Employment Division, Dep't of Human Resources v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, 878, 108 L. Ed. 2d 876, 110 S. Ct. 1595 (1990)), the Supreme Court explained that "if prohibiting the exercise of religion . . . is not the object of the [government action] but merely the incidental effect of a generally applicable and otherwise valid provision, the First Amendment has not been offended." It went on to expand on that concept ( id. at 878-79):

 
We have never held that an individual's religious beliefs excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the State is free to regulate. On the contrary, the record of more than a century of our free exercise jurisprudence contradicts that proposition. As described succinctly by Justice Frankfurter in Minersville School Dist. Bd. of Ed. v. Gobitis, 310 U.S. 586, 594-595, 84 L. Ed. 1375, 60 S. Ct. 1010 (1940): "Conscientious scruples have not, in the course of the long struggle for religious toleration, relieved the individual from obedience to a general law not aimed at the promotion or restriction of religious beliefs. The mere possession of religious convictions which contradict the relevant concerns of a political society does not relieve the citizen from the discharge of political responsibilities (footnote omitted)." We first had occasion to assert that principle in Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145, 25 L. Ed. 244 (1879), where we rejected the claim that criminal laws against polygamy could not be constitutionally applied to those whose religion commanded the practice. "Laws," we said, "are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices . . . . Can a man excuse his practices to the contrary because of his religious belief? To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself." Id., at 166-167.

 Smith thus dictates an examination of the legitimacy of the governmental action (here the enforcement of the probationary condition) in and of itself, divorced from consideration of unintended effects that may happen to prove inimical to religious pursuits. That teaching is highly instructive in the present context, where the United States seeks nothing more than to implement a facially unobjectionable directive, a standard condition of probation requiring former miscreants to seek employment to enable them to pay their fines and to repay the victims of their crimes. In light of Smith, the ...


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