Sunday, July 26, 1998
It's easy to file false papers and harass government aids
By Pat Flannery
Phoenix, Az - Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley learned an ugly little secret a few years ago: It's simple to file phony public records.
The county's chief prosecutor was trying to sell his condo when the deal hit a wall. An unknown enemy had blocked the sale by recording a fake document with the Maricopa County recorder. It was a lien - a document claiming Romley owed someone money and attaching that debt to his property.
State Sen. Tom Freestone has a similar story to tell. As a county supervisor, Freestone got a call from a reporter bearing stunning news. Someone had recorded a lien on Freestone's home.
In both cases, the liens were bogus. Neither man owed a dime. But paperwork suggesting they did had been recorded in the Maricopa County Recorder's Office.
Romley and Freestone were the victims of paper terrorism attacked by fake documents recorded against their property with the sole purpose of wreaking havoc and creating a legal headache. The practice has become alarmingly common in states with large pockets of anti-government activism, particularly in the West.
"It's easy as hell," Romley said. While the targets often are public officials, the average person can also be trapped.
Washington Rep. Karen Schmidt warned her fellow state lawmakers lact year that the problem is spreadng to a wide range of victims. In a letter that was also posted on the internet, she said paper terrorism has grown from a trend to a full-scale tactic used upon businesses private individuals, governnent services and elected officials.""
Average citizens might not know they have been victimized, even if hey go to the Recorder's Office to check, because a sophisticated database search is often required to find bogus documents. Only local title ompanies have such a database. And the problem isn't likely to pop up until a title company is doing research for a sale.
Recent events in the Phoenix area graphically demonstrate how easily he system can be abused. Regency House Church, a group led by an imprisoned swindler, recorded nunerous false deeds on vacant houses the church doesn't own. Church members - then moved in.
A Tempe man was about to close a deal on a house when he discovered Regency House members had moved and and changed the locks.
When police are called in such cases, they're often put off by Church members waving the sham deeds.
Even a bankrupt Phoenix nursing home and a private Apache Junction residence have been in the sights of Regency House.
But there there seem to be few consequences. While Jason Bullard, the inmate who leads Regency house, is being closely eyed by prison officials, federal prosecutors have been unwilling to prosecute him him because church members evenually moved out of HUD's houses.
Police and HUD investigators are now working with the Maricopa County attorney to determine whether Regency House members can be prosecuted under state law for their shenanigans. Ironically, it was a state Department of Corrections employee who notarized some of the bogus documents.
For nearly a decade, law-enforcement agents and public officials from Montana to Texas have been targeted by fake liens, deceptive deeds and other forms of harassment filed by common criminals, anti-government militia and so-called patriot groups.
These public officials have learned the hard way what county recorders, title companies and a good number of antisocial cranks have known for years: Just about anything, bogus or not, may be publicly recorded with virtually no effort and plenty of effect.
It's hard to know just how prevalent the problem is because victims often discover they've been victimized until long after a false claim has been recorded.
But Robert Lindfors, a Phoenix lawyer and underwriter who represents several title companies says it happens often enough that legislatures around the country are being asked to pass laws to combat it.
Lawmakers in several states, including Arizona, have passed new laws that stiffen the penalties for filing false documents or make it easier for victims to clear up their resulting legal problems.
But Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell said there isn't much that can be done to stop the bogus filings because of the nature of public document recording.
The process is designed simply to bring a document to public attention, putting it on the legal record, so to speak. Yet recording a document does not, in itself, mean a document is legally binding.
In fact, state law allows recorders to reject documents only if they do not fit a few well-defined criteria: they must be legible, with half-inch margins, 10-point type and a headline. They also must be signed and notarized.
"The legality of a document is really not up to us to ascertain," Purcell says. "How do we know, unless we research it and check? And there's no way we could."
It would take a staff of hundreds to authenticate every document. Purcell's office records an average of 4,500 documents a day and as many as 100,000 a month.
Since content can't be checked, all variety of odd legal claims constructed from thin air may be put onto the recorder's rolls for the $9 recording fee.
Freestone, who was once a county recorder himself, saw all sorts of oddities recorded, from private prophecies to music lyrics, from invention blueprints to property claims on the moon.
Since the late 1980s, criminal defendants have learned to use the system to punish police, prosecutors and judges.
Their activities are made all the easier by home computers. Simple programs can produce what appear to be authentic legal documents and link viewers via the Intemet to a vast array of property records and information about potential targets.
Militant anti-government groups use the system to a variety of ends. Some make common law claims. For example, they will research and copy century-old land patents and record certified copies of those patents. They assert that it then entitles them to ownership of the land in question.
Others run scams that help them raise money for property training and weapons. For example, they will file a bogus lien against an individual or business, then try to borrow money with the lien as security.
Some anti-government zealots file claims of sovereignty in which they renounce their citizenship and refuse to recognize the authority of the federal or state governments. They believe it gives them the right to ignore laws ranging from firearms statutes to driver's licensing.
Others simply harass public officials by recording false liens against them, then recording new documents forgiving the bogus debts. Forgiveness of the debts is reported to the Internal Revenue Service creating a potential tax liability.
In some cases, anti-government groups have even created "courts" in which mock trials are held for public officials they dislike. If those public officials are found "guilty" bogus liens or judgment are recorded against them.
The Southern Poverty Law Center credits Posse Comitatus, a longtime right-wing anti-government movement, with dreaming up the method of harassing public officials.
"It happened to me when I was on the count' Board of Supervisors,' Freestone said. "The, came in to wreck your credit ... because they didn't like what you said, or just saw a comment in the newspaper."
In Freestone's case, the man claimed Freestone and several other public officials owed a huge debt. He apparently was angry at government.
"I never knew him or heard of him," Freestone said.
Because it was discovered before Freestone tried to sell his property, the lien didn't pose a threat to his finances. A deputy county attorney cleared up the matter quickly, at public expense.
Jim Blake, chief of the Maricopa County Attorney's Office criminal trial division, said his office has prosecuted at least four anti-government "freemen" in the last decade for filing false documents.
Prosecutors initially used a public records law making it illegal to certify. notarize or record a documents the filer "knows to be false or forged." The crime, although a felony, was often bucked down to a misdemeanor, but one defendant that Blake prosecuted landed an 18-month jail term. After prosecutions began, there was a notable decline in such activity.
"They only like to do it when they think nobody's going to do anything to them," Blake said.
Last year, the Arizona Legislature gave prosecutors another tool by beefing up Arizona's harassment law to make it a felony to file fake liens against public officers.
If a public official finds his property tied up, he can have public attorneys clear it at public expense. Private citizens pay their own way.
It usually means paying a title company for research and a lawyer to file papers in court. The process can take months and run into hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
Lindfors said property owners who suspect they have been victimized are well-advised to pay for a title search, lest they learn of a false claim against their property at the last minute, when it could interfere with a pending sale.
A state law allows victims to recoup damages from anyone filing a false claim on their property. But finding the culprit and collecting a judgment can be difficult.
Maricopa County recorder
OFFICES: 111 S. Third Ave., Phoenix;
222 E. Javelina, Mesa.
BASIC RECORDING CHARGE: $9.
TYPES OF DOCUMENTS:Deeds, liens, judgments, mortgage releases, declarations of homestead, Uniform Commercial code filings. Basic forms are available at most office supply or stationery stores.
AVERAGE NUMBER OF FILINGS DAILY: 4,500.
PERCENTAGE SUBMITTEDD BY TITLE COMPANIES: 80 to 85.
NUMBER OF EMPLOYEES PROCESSING DOCUMENTS: 28.
RECORDS CAN BE SEARCHED BY: Names of parties or date of transaction.
RECORDS CANNOT BE SEARCHED BY: Address, legal description or parcel number.
Pat Flannery may be reached at (602)444-8629 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
via e-mail. http://www.geocities.com/old_crazy_atheist/0920lein.html