Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Richmond Tea Party above the law, demands preferential treatment

It's an old story: people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. A few weeks ago, the Richmond Tea Party sent a bill to the City of Richmond demanding that Richmond refund fees that the Richmond Tea Party had paid for large tax day rallies in Kanawha Plaza Park. Now the Tea Party is complaining because the city went back and checked the Tea Party's account (probably in preparation to issuing the refund requested) and discovered that the Richmond Tea Party had failed to file required tax returns.

The city, as a matter of routine, sent the Richmond Tea Party a letter (seen above) requesting that the group provide copies of its tax filings. This is routine. If you ask any government taxing authority for a refund they are going to pull up your account to see exactly what your status is. They are going to verify your claim and check to see if they owe you more money or if you have any outstanding liabilities that you haven't paid.

The Richmond Tea Party has been loudly demanding that the laws of the City of Richmond be applied impartially, but now they are upset that those laws are being applied to them. Apparently all Richmonders are equal, but some Richmonders are more equal than others.

The Richmond Tea Party's claim of differential treatment doesn't stand up to serious scrutiny. Underlying their complaint is the false claim that the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement are essentially the same thing. The standard trope to employ in this case is to say that comparing the two groups is like comparing "apples and oranges." That comparison does not come close to capturing the difference between the two groups. Comparing Occupy Richmond to the Richmond Tea Party is like comparing apples to . . . motor oil.

Occupy Richmond is a loosely organized group of individuals: it has not filed any incorporation papers that I know of. As a result, when the City of Richmond engages Occupy Richmond, from a legal standpoint it is engaging a multitude of individuals. The Richmond Tea Party is an incorporated, centrally organized group with a top down leadership style. Both organizations have the strengths and weaknesses of their chosen forms.

The strength of Occupy Richmond is its fluidity. Its weaknesses are its inability to quickly make a decision and act on it. Because it is an ever-changing group of individuals, legally the City of Richmond must act against them as individuals, as it did when it arrested several Occupy Richmond members on October 31, 2011. Occupy Richmond will "pay" for its occupation of Kanawha Plaza through the individual fines and penalties--including jail time--incurred by its individual members.

The strengths of the Tea Party of Richmond include its centralized management, its ability to raise lots of cash--much of it from corporate donors, and its limited liability conferred by its status as a corporation. In exchange for certain fees and responsibilities, the Richmond Tea Party gets to be treated as a person for many if not most legal purposes. In exchange for all the privileges and rights that come with incorporation--including the special rights conferred by the Citizens United decision--a corporation also has many responsibilities. The Richmond Tea Party's weaknesses include the fact that it is required by federal, state, and local laws to file tax returns, reports, and other paperwork. Another weakness is that corporations are required to have addresses and registered agents for service of process. When the City of Richmond wants to engage in law enforcement against the Richmond Tea Party it doesn't have to raid its campsite at 1:00 AM--all Richmond has to do is send a registered letter.

It is clear from the comparison above that Occupy Richmond and the Richmond Tea Party are--legally speaking--very different things: like comparing apples to motor oil. And if these two groups are different in terms of what they are, so too are the laws they are alleged to have violated very different.

Certain individual Occupy Richmond activists have been arrested and charged with sleeping overnight in a public park. The City of Richmond is enforcing that law against the individuals who broke the law and refused to leave the park. The Richmond Tea Party appears to have fallen behind in its filing of tax returns and other paperwork. The City of Richmond is enforcing the laws that apply to the Richmond Tea Party as a corporation. Both Occupy Richmond and the Richmond Tea Party are being treated appropriately by the city in accordance with their different legal status as a group of individuals on the one hand, and a corporation on the other.

The Richmond Tea Party has enjoyed a few weeks of criticizing Occupy Richmond as scofflaws, but it appears now that the Richmond Tea Party may have broken some laws itself. I for one hope that the city's audit of the Richmond Tea Party is complete and thorough, because after all, we have to apply the law equally to everyone and the The Richmond Tea Party shouldn't think it deserves special treatment.

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