Thursday, June 19, 1997 — Nothing He Can Do

Today, an extended business conversation in Patrick’s office. We’re planning the opening of a new business office in Newport, DE, and we’re very much in need of a sign out front to alert passersby of its existence and hours. Our associate in the venture explains that the township has harsh regulations concerning signs. The owner of the building we’re leasing was fined for putting a ‘For Rent’ sign on his own property. Permits are required, no sign can be within 40 feet of the street – although our building front is less than 20 feet from the street – without an exception that involves an architectural study and other rigmarole. All this in what looks like a lower-middle class neighborhood. Townships in Pennsylvania, it turns out, are just as difficult. A new Italian restaurant on Rte 202 – one probably containing every dollar of its owner’s savings – had to replace the attractive awning displaying the name across the front of the building because the owner had already exceeded the maximum signage allowed in the zoning code. I protested that all this was restraint of trade. Patrick smiled and brandished his well-worn copy of the Constitution.

‘It’s also in violation of the first amendment,’ he pointed out.

‘Yeah, it’s nuts,’ our associate said. ‘You’ve heard about the underground oil tank thing?’
We told him no. He explained that the Pennsylvania EPA had issued a regulation making it illegal to sell a house with an underground fuel oil tank. Acquaintances of his had been trying to sell a house for $180,000. They had a buyer and were ready to close when a real estate agent who didn’t like the commission split informed the EPA that the sellers had an underground oil tank, put in maybe 40 years ago, long before they bought the house. To date, they’re out more than $12,000 for four different ground studies at $3,000 apiece, with no end in sight. They still can’t sell the house, the buyer’s gone, and their equity has basically been consumed by the EPA requirements. Patrick read the part from the Constitution about no seizure of private property without just compensation.

‘If they are destroying the property value of a place on behalf of the public good,’ he said, ‘then they have an obligation to compensate the owners for it.’

‘Owners!’ our friend exclaimed. ‘If they can take away a half million-dollar house for nonpayment of $4,000 in property taxes, then there isn’t any ownership. You’re just renting it from the state.’

I thought of the unpaid $4,800 annual tax bill on my own house in New Jersey, which had languished on the market last year at a giveaway price of $135,000 with no takers. Taxes.

Our friend was getting heated. ‘Did I tell you about my friend John Gridley?’ he asked. This was a guy, he told us, who had a nice small business of his own, paid his taxes, broke no laws. Then he hired an employee who proceeded to embezzle $150,000. He trusted her to deposit the company’s receipts, and so she took her power of attorney to the bank and proceeded, over the course of a year’s time, to cash every large check that came in. The bank never asked any questions, had no legal liability. When Gridley belatedly discovered her crime, he still couldn’t believe she had done it.

‘This was the most innocent-looking girl in the world, apparently, ‘ our friend said, ‘and come to find out, she’d done this at least a couple of times before.’

While Gridley was struggling to recover from the loss, the IRS arrived to hand him a tax bill for the embezzled money. He explained what had happened, but they didn’t want to hear it, and they padlocked the business.

‘Now,’ our associate concluded, ‘every cent he earns from his new job goes into an account controlled by the IRS. There’s nothing he can do about it.’

Nothing he can do. Is he one of the ones who insistently repeats the two-part national mantra? America is still the greatest nation in the world. At least it’s still a free country…

Patrick was responding to the Gridley story. ‘The IRS has been exporting its methods to other parts of the government, too. Did you know that in this country, the feds can seize all your assets if you are suspected of engaging in drug trafficking? And it’s illegal to use money you are suspected of having earned from drug trafficking to pay for your legal defense against drug charges. Where’s the ‘due process’ in that?’

‘Or the presumption of innocence,’ I put in.

And then, of course, we wound up talking about the police. I hadn’t heard that thanks to Clinton’s new law enforcement bill, there were no longer any meaningful boundaries between townships. The cops could set a speed trap and pursue suspects as far as they wanted.

‘A cop is a cop?’ Patrick inquired.

‘A cop is a cop.’

And America is America. Whatever that means anymore.