February 22, 2024

Getting Away With Murder

The rule of law is supposed to protect us from abuses of power. What happens if we allow it to be eroded?

Last week, Russian political activist and dissident Alexei Navalny died in a Siberian prison camp, where he was serving a 30-year sentence for what most observers agree were specious, purely politically motivated convictions.

Navalny had been an opponent of Vladimir Putin, the country’s current president, and one of Putin’s most vehement critics, calling Putin’s political party one of “crooks and thieves.” Young and charismatic, Navalny had repeatedly tried to run for elected office in Russia, but the Russian government attacked him at every turn, accusing him of being a political “extremist”; charging him with various crimes, including “organizing illegal demonstrations,” corruption, embezzlement, fraud and contempt of court; placing him under house arrest; censoring his access to the internet and social media; imposing huge fines on him (and his family members) and liquidating his assets.

As might be expected, Navalny’s death has produced renewed outrage against Putin, and U.S. President Joe Biden has announced new sanctions against Russia in response.

Stories like that of Navalny have traditionally served as cautionary tales about the concentration of power and the superiority of the U.S. system of government. Dictators are laws unto themselves, but America is “a country of laws and not of men,” or so the saying goes.

And yet, what we are seeing in case after case — at the federal, state and local levels of government — is the radical abandonment of that principle in favor of shredding the law to “get” whoever the government has decided the desired target is.

And in many (though not all) of these cases, that target is Donald Trump.

In Fulton County, Georgia, District Attorney Fani Willis is prosecuting Trump for “election interference” under a statute written to go after the Mafia. The case has holes in it big enough to drive a truck through, but no matter. Willis has been accused of serious misconduct, including conspiring with the Biden White House to prosecute the current president’s chief political rival, using public funds for lavish vacations and paying her lover hundreds of thousands of dollars to be co-counsel, despite his lack of experience. A motion to disqualify Willis is pending at this writing.

Then there’s New York Attorney General Letitia James, who decided to sue Trump for fraud. In this remarkable case, James argued that Trump overvalued the properties he used as collateral for loans he received. This, despite the fact that the banks that issued the loans used their own property appraisers (as banks always do), and Trump paid all loans back on time and with interest.

It gets worse. He Who Is Both King and Court(room) Jester in the case, Judge Arthur Engoron, ruled on a summary judgment motion (in other words, before any trial) that Trump committed fraud as a matter of law. Engoron justified this by declaring that Mar-a-Lago — the massive estate Trump owns in Palm Beach, Florida — is worth only between $18 million and $27 million.

Go to your favorite real estate app and look up housing prices in Palm Beach. Three-bedroom, single-family homes on quarter-acre lots start in high single- and double-digit millions, and there are plenty listed for $20 million, $30 million, $50 million and even higher. Mar-a-Lago is 62,000 square feet on 17 acres of land that runs from the Intracoastal Waterway on the west side to the Atlantic Ocean on the east.

Trump’s defense team introduced evidence from financial experts supporting Trump’s estimates of his properties’ value, including accounting professor Eli Bartov of New York University, who testified that there was “no evidence whatsoever of any accounting fraud.” Engoron not only rejected Bartov’s testimony but basically accused him of taking bribes, saying, “Bartov is a tenured professor, but the only thing his testimony proves is that for a million or so dollars, some experts will say whatever you want them to say.”

Nor was Engoron swayed by the fact that Deutsche Bank — the purportedly “injured” party — testified in favor of Trump.

So, despite a ridiculously low property value that was contradicted by expert testimony, the lack of an injured party and the timely repayment of all loans with interest, Engoron ordered Trump to pay more than $450 million in “damages” (to whom?) and banned him from doing business in the state for three years.

Understandably, other companies doing business in New York are concerned that they could face similarly bankrupting litigation if a rogue prosecutor and biased judge decide that properties provided as collateral for commercial loans are worth a fraction of their actual value.

But not to worry! Indomitable Gov. Kathy Hochul cheerfully assured everyone that “law-abiding, rule-following New Yorkers” have nothing to worry about; this was just about Trump.

Well, that should make everyone feel better.

Yes, legal experts like George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley have sharply criticized these cases. (Turley referred to them as “recreational use of the laws to pursue unpopular persons.”) Yes, Trump will appeal. And hopefully, these travesties will be overturned to the appellate courts or even the United States Supreme Court, should it go that far.

But the message sent is nevertheless loud and clear: There are powerful people in this country who believe the law is whatever they need it to be, and there are those in the legal profession only too happy to butcher the legal process to give those people what they want.

At the moment, that seems to be limited (using the word loosely) to destroying their opponents’ reputations, their political careers, their businesses and their financial wherewithal.

At the moment.

But remember: If Vladimir Putin has his enemies murdered, it’s because he knows he can get away with it. The rule of law is supposed to protect us from abuses of power. If we allow it to be eroded, what’s to keep those in power here from reaching the same conclusion?


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