In 1993, a group of tax protesters known as “We The People” filed a federal lawsuit in Colorado, alleging the government had been fraudulently run since 1933 when the nation went off the gold standard.
The case was quickly dismissed, but representatives of the group began traveling around the country claiming they had won a $600 trillion judgment. They told audiences there were millions of dollars in settlement money and that for a filing fee of $300, they could get into the class action pool.
Eventually, Scott Hildebrand and Mervin Hague of Iowa, and David Gardemann, of Minnesota, reached Coldwater, Michigan where they teamed up with a local plumber, Michael Thorn, and began telling residents that they could reap a windfall on a $300 investment.
By October 1993, Hildebrand, Hague and Gardemann had moved to on different states while Thorn continued to make pitches to residents. Ultimately several hundred people “filed claims” in Michigan.
Among those who attended Thorn’s sales pitches were undercover police officers who covertly taped several meetings between October 1993 and February 1994. As a result, Thorn, Hildebrand, Hague and Gardemann were indicted for obtaining money under false pretenses, conspiracy and securities fraud.
The defendants were accused of being part of the “We The People Farm Claims Co-op.” Authorities later said that during 1993 and 1994, more 6,000 people in 49 states and two Canadian provinces bought into the scheme at a cost of about $2 million.
When Thorn was arrested, he hired attorney Robert E. Anderson, a lawyer he had hired in the past for legal work. Anderson agreed to represent Hague and Gardemann as well. Hildebrand opted to represent himself.
In May 1995, the defendants were convicted on all counts.
In June they were sentenced. Hague received a term of 2½ to 10 years, Gardemann received 3 to 10 years and Hildebrand was sentenced to 6 1/3 to 10 years. Thorn’s sentences were enhanced as a second felony offender and he was sentenced to concurrent terms of imprisonment of 5 to 15 years for obtaining money by false pretenses and securities fraud, 5 to 10 years for conspiracy to commit the offenses, and 1 to 7½ years for an additional charge of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.
Thorn, Hague and Gardemann appealed on the ground that they received ineffective assistance of counsel because Anderson improperly represented multiple defendants with starkly conflicting interests. They were granted an evidentiary hearing on Anderson’s ineffectiveness
Specifically, Thorn argued that he wanted to defend himself at trial on the ground that he was a true believer in the scheme and a victim of himself. If he had been allowed, he would have told the jury that he had “invested” his own life savings in the scheme and lost everything, but Anderson wouldn't let him testify because that would be bad for Anderson’s other two clients.
The Michigan Court of Appeals upheld the convictions in May 1998, without mentioning Thorn’s main claim for reversal. On June 2, 1999, however, the Michigan Supreme Court, ordered Thorn’s conviction set aside. The court said, “(D)efendant made a sufficient showing of an adverse effect on the presentation of his defense arising out of the actual conflict of interest because of trial counsel’s very strong advice to defendant not to testify on a viable defense theory.”
The prosecution then quickly dismissed the charges and Thorn was released on June 15, 1999.
Anderson was brought before the Michigan Attorney Grievance Committee and his license to practice law was suspended because of his misconduct in this case.
– Maurice Possley