How Sovereign Citizens Helped Swindle $1 Billion From the Government They Disavow (Published 2019) – The New York Times

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One day in 2015, Barbara Lavender’s husband returned from a U.F.O. conference and handed her a business card. It bore a red theater-curtain background, a vintage microphone and gold-and-white lettering that read: “Sean David Morton, Radio Host, Public Speaker, Author, Director, Screen Writer, Actor.” The polymathic Mr. Morton, Jeff Lavender told his wife, was U.F.O. royalty.
Mr. Morton had spent years whisking E.T.-obsessed tourists to Area 51 for $99 a pop, then leveraged his following into stints on the wee-hours conspiracy show “Coast to Coast AM” — at one point, the nation’s No. 3 talk-radio program. He dabbled in other fringe arts, such as remote viewing and psychic predictions about earthquakes, elections and the stock market. But by the time Mr. Lavender saw him talk in Southern California, Mr. Morton had shifted to something truly fantastical: instant debt relief.
He’d been peddling a workshop called “The Sovereign Factor: The Revolution Starts With You” — a nod to what is known as the sovereign citizens movement. A loose network of perhaps tens of thousands of far-right antigovernment extremists, sovereigns share certain conspiratorial beliefs and, sometimes, a desire to profit off a government whose legitimacy they deny.
“Do you realize,” read Mr. Morton’s workshop description, “you are ALL considered ‘Incompetent,’ ‘Wards of the State,’ ‘Residents’ and the ‘Chattel Property’ of the US Federal government, until you declare your Emancipation? Learn all the secrets about how to get the government off your back and out of your life once and for all!!” One of these secrets was called the “bond process.” By submitting the right set of papers, Mr. Morton said, you could wipe out your mortgage, tax bills and student loans.
Mr. Morton’s message had appeal beyond the tinfoil-hat crowd. In America after the Great Recession, plenty of people with upside-down mortgages and student debt were inclined to believe anyone offering help. Ms. Lavender, listening to her husband recap the workshop, was intrigued. Years earlier, she’d borrowed $48,000 to help her son attend college. She and her husband had worked in the mortgage industry in Southern California for decades, but educational debt was unfamiliar terrain. “I had never gone to college myself,” she told me recently. “I took out a loan I shouldn’t have.” Ms. Lavender lost her job and deferred the payments, and the interest kept piling up. By the time she held Mr. Morton’s business card in her hands, she owed $70,000.
She realized a U.F.O. gathering was an unusual venue for debt-relief advice. Her husband’s annual get-togethers with the “X-Files” crowd were a hobby for him, and a good-natured punch line for their family. But the size and intractability of her loan balance weighed on her; also, she trusted her husband, and he thought Mr. Morton’s bond process was worth checking out. She told me, “I think he probably was enticed by it because it might have been a little tiny kick in the pants to the government.”
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