Date: Sat, 24 Jan 1998 06:24:04 -0600
From: Linda Thompson <email@example.com>
Subject: 2 of 3 - Boston Phoenix Yellow Rag Whoring
This is the article to which part 1 of this message was my reply.
The Boston Phoenix
January 22 - 29, 1998
There's a 13-starred flag hanging upside down on Route 1A. Rolls of yellow plastic police tape have been looped around the trees in a huge circle around the property -- not just the single yellow ribbon typical of crime scenes, but ribbons and ribbons, fluttering, with a big sign reading FEDERAL FDIC FRAUDULENT EVICTION ZONE, as if there were some danger of missing the point.
To get up to the big house, where John and Rhetta Sweeney have been in a standoff with federal marshals on and off since June, visitors must apply to "ironhand," a sometime militia member living on the property.
At the top of the hill, what's left of the old Meyer mansion looks a little the worse for wear and tear. There are planks nailed over the windows, and reporters aren't allowed inside, so interviews take place on lawn chairs, in scarves and mittens, as ironhand paces ceaselessly along the perimeter.
The Sweeneys' problem morphed from a private foreclosure battle into a politicized public spectacle a year ago, when Rhetta Sweeney posted the family's complex legal history on a Web page under the heading "Qui-Tam: In the Name of the People." Since then, their case has attracted the attention and loyalty of people all over the US, who see them as typical victims of a government beholden to banking interests. Strangers started coming out of the woodwork. Against all demographic odds -- John Sweeney, after all, graduated from Bowdoin and inherited a $2 million estate -- the Sweeneys have taken on the luster of populist heroes.
But the kindness of strangers came with a price, as the Sweeneys -- increasingly isolated on their chilly hill -- are bound to realize, especially if their final settlement offer (in FDIC hands at press time) is rejected. Eleven years ago, they initiated this battle in an attempt to salvage their lifestyle. But somewhere between then and now, they cast off from their landed, conservative moorings. Distance has opened up between the Sweeneys and the community where their family has occupied a central place for four generations, and the neighbors' support for them has faltered and diffused. Part of that is because of the Sweeneys' new radical agenda, but most of it is because of the new friends.
The Sweeneys' new friends -- with their Montana license plates and their Internet aliases -- don't blend in in Hamilton. Among them is Linda Thompson, who volunteered to represent them in negotiations with the government, and whose resume includes a brief stint on the David Koresh legal team. Thompson has called for the arrest of the president of the United States by armed militia members. Postings on her newsgroup, the Associated Electronic Network, the FBI in the Oklahoma City bombing. In 1994, the John Birch Society condemned her for being too radical, according to the Anti-Defamation League's militia guide, Danger: Extremism -- The Major Vehicles and Voices on America's Far-Right Fringe.
Thompson, like the others, was drawn to this case for its potential as an object lesson in governmental harassment. For ironhand, Hamilton's potential significance merited shutting down his trailers in Belfast, Maine, giving up his income for an indefinite period, and uprooting his cat, Max, who is not accustomed to strangers.
"What's going to happen here is so much truth is going to come out no matter how it turns out," says ironhand, 50, who spells his alias without capital letters because that's how it appears on the Internet.
Hamilton, population 7300, is the kind of town where horses figure into traffic flow and gas stations put up Christmas decorations. Down the street from the Sweeneys is the Myopia Hunt Club, cofounded by John Sweeney's great grandfather, where Prince Charles plays polo when he's in the US. In short, the Sweeneys' neighbors are used to a set of problems that includes historic preservation and the disappearance of wetlands; standoffs between US marshals and right-wing militia members are a relatively new phenomenon. The Sweeneys were pillars of the community, but people are getting, as Boston attorney Peter Twining puts it, "fatigued." People choose their words carefully here.
"It's become a strident conversation," says Twining, who is chairman of the town's board of selectmen. "This is not a community that prides itself on strident conversations."
The trouble started in 1987, when the Sweeney family was in serious debt. John Sweeney had just lost money in a failed business deal, and a bank was foreclosing on one of the three houses on the property. So Rhetta Sweeney came up with a plan. She borrowed $1.6 million from ComFed bank, in Lowell, with which she planned to pay off existing debts and then subdivide and sell off part of their 14-acre estate.
Most of the $1.6 million went to pay off the debts. According to Rhetta Sweeney, ComFed loan officers implied that she would receive an additional $900,000, which would allow her to develop and sell the land. This pledge was not made in writing, and the money never came through. A $1 million purchase-and-sale agreement for part of the land was not accepted by the bank. The Sweeneys were not able to pay back their debt. ComFed foreclosed in November 1989. The Sweeneys sued the bank for breach of contract, fraud, and unfair business practices.
The jury ruled in favor of ComFed on counts of breach of contract and fraud, in March 1990, but state superior court judge Katherine Izzo then ruled in favor of the Sweeneys on the unfair business practices count. In her decision, which was written on January 29, 1991, she awarded the Sweeneys more than $3 million in damages.
So the Sweeneys seemed to have won their case. But there was a catch: ComFed had failed in late December, and went into receivership under the Resolution Trust Corporation, a government trust. (The government took over 130,000 such loans in New England during the height of the S&L crisis.) As a result -- according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) -- the case had moved from state to federal jurisdiction on January 11, so the Izzo decision was already void when Izzo wrote it. By the time the Sweeneys discovered their victory, in the opposing counsel's files a month after it was written, it had already been snatched away.
The Sweeneys have been trying to reinstate Izzo's decision ever since, first in the federal district court, where they lost the case, then in the court of appeals, where they also lost the case, and then in two appeals to the Supreme Court, which both times refused to hear the case. They accuse opposing lawyers and judges of collusion and conspiracy at multiple levels.
Now, after an ideological transformation John Sweeney, 58, describes as "one of the positives of all this," he and his wife are asking not only for their property, but for FBI investigations into the federal judge who ruled against them; and John Hanify, the Boston lawyer who represented the government in that case; and judge (now Supreme Court justice) Stephen Breyer, who ruled against them in the court of appeals; and US Senator Edward Kennedy, who Rhetta Sweeney says has ignored their pleas because he is beholden to Hanify connections for "getting him out of the Chappaquiddick mess."
Meanwhile, Izzo's decision in their favor, which they have posted on their Web page, reminds them on a daily basis of the world they have lost. It is a source of constant pain.
Throughout the 11-year battle, the Sweeneys have appealed for support from all possible sources. When they returned from a Thanksgiving holiday in 1994 to find their home padlocked, the couple got in their car and drove straight to Washington, where they appealed to then- senator William Cohen, who was a classmate of John Sweeney's at Bowdoin. Through Cohen's assistance, Rhetta Sweeney testified three times before congressional committees. The Qui-Tam Web site (named after a law that allows citizens to charge government contractors with fraud) features sympathetic quotations from Cohen, who is now secretary of defense, as well as from Senator Alfonse D'Amato (R-New York), Senator John Kerry (R-Massachusetts), and Representative Peter Torkildsen (R-Danvers).
But none of those figures have been much in evidence since June, when the FDIC gave up on negotiations and ordered US marshals to seize the land. The support that came most readily -- and most proactively -- was from right-wing activists. That, says John Sweeney, is thanks to Rhetta's Web site, http://www.qui-tam.com, whose address is now emblazoned on the side of the carriage house.
"This would never have been possible without the Internet," he says. "It was a decision my wife made a year or so ago, that making copies of pages -- reams of things -- to try and get those out one at a time" was futile.
Thus, the Sweeneys -- good Republicans, landed suburbanites -- began a strange ideological journey that has deposited them far from home.
"It appears we've all been kind of asleep here," says John Sweeney, a former Green Beret. "Our lives are changed forever. We will no longer do as we have in the past, living in a comfortable area with our eyes closed as to what is happening. We no longer can, and no longer will, sit idly by and figure that the system is working."
It is because of this new mission that the Sweeneys have refused the FDIC's multiple settlement offers, which included a proposal to give them one house and 5.3 acres of land for a price of $1. John Sweeney has dismissed the negotiation process as "not about money," but about silencing the Sweeneys' fraud and collusion charges. The Sweeneys are holding out hope that eventually they will work with the FBI to investigate these charges. In fact, says Rhetta Sweeney, it's "time to start thinking about criminal charges against people like [former acting FDIC chairman Andrew] Hove," who ordered seizure of the land in 1994. "They keep threatening us with armed federal agents. We have to start looking at federal extortion criminal statutes," Rhetta Sweeney says. Now she knows she is not alone, she says. "There is a growing populace of good American people who are not going to tolerate what are clear thug tactics."
Walking down the hill from the interview, ironhand says that although he remains present on the Sweeneys' terms -- one of them is a strict no-weapons rule -- he's seen the Sweeneys' ideas change= quite substantially during the time he's known them.
"I'd say it's more that [John Sweeney's] ideas have come into line with mine than the other way around," says ironhand.
In the town of Hamilton, no one seems certain whether it's really the Sweeneys -- garden club stalwarts, descendants of ambassadors -- who are unsettling the community to this extent. Some have even taken it upon themselves to rescue the Sweeneys from their new friends. In the standoff's most theatrical moment, state representative Forrester "Tim" Clark (R-Hamilton) arrived at the house two weeks ago wearing camouflage, stashing a pistol under the seat of his car and warning that, under the influence of the militia members, the situation could become "another Waco," the Boston Globe reported. Clark told reporters that militia members "are in charge as far as I am concerned, not the Sweeneys."
As neighbors distance themselves from the Sweeney cause, they cite the presence of outsiders -- the license plates from Maine and Alabama and Montana -- as the element that has changed their minds. Over the past week, the local Hamilton-Wenham Chronicle received eleven letters -- nine of which were anonymous -- urging the Sweeneys to accept the results of the judicial process and end the standoff. One letter to the Salem Evening News, from an attorney neighbor named Paul Perkins, complained about "out-of-state supporters of unknown character and motives who have contributed to a tense atmosphere unbecoming to Hamilton."
Whether it is the presence of militia patrolmen, or sheer exhaustion, or closer legal scrutiny, people in Hamilton seem to have accepted the idea that the Sweeneys will have to give in. Some roll their eyes -- as one local woman did -- and say, "The saddest part is that they can get away with it." Debtors all over America will get the message that "if I get enough of these wackos off the Internet, I can get away with it," she adds. Others are sad about the ruin of a well-loved family.
"In the local newspapers, you're beginning to feel it -- a sense of tragedy and sadness because of the situation of the family, tempered by the sense that ultimately, the law needs to be respected," Twining says.
The Sweeneys themselves rely on visitors for information about how their case is seen outside their circle of supporters. On top of their hill in Hamilton, from a house they have not left since January 5, they complain of rarely seeing their three daughters, and envision a period of rest once the standoff is over. They routinely express gratitude for the support of the people of Hamilton.
They do not seem to realize that support is dwindling. When she heard the contents of Perkins's letter, Rhetta Sweeney became irate, and suggested that Mr. Perkins himself was interested in muffling the fraud because he worked in the same Boston firm whose lawyers had defended the Resolution Trust Corporation in the 1991 district court case. "What I would say is that [the neighbors] support us in asking for the authorities to stop this. . . . What I would want to ask is, `Paul, are you really interested in the safety issue, or are you interested in your retirement fund from Ropes & Gray?,' " she says. "As a major lawyer, [Perkins] had to know. Especially since he worked for the firm hired by the FDIC to terrorize us."
"What exactly is your concern, Paul? Is it your bank account?" asks Rhetta Sweeney. "We have had nothing but upstanding people who come here," she adds, in reference to the militia members. "Paul, why didn't I hear from you?"
Ellen Barry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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