Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Reaching too far

The saga of Gantcho Zagorski brings to mind the baleful Kingston Trio song "Tom Dooley" where the accused accepted punishment in a faulted prosecution to avoid further anguish and heartache.  The parallels are not exactly relevant, and Dula or "Dooley" paid a stiffer price, but the facts do have that sort of "ring" to them.  Though guilty by admission, the whole Zagorski episode has a distasteful undertone.  Government interest in the eBay transactions of Zagorski, as Diana Coins and Pagane Coins, apparently began sometime in 2008 or earlier—presumably triggered by large monetary transfers from Zagorski to Bulgaria.  A shipment of coins to Zagorski was detained in March of 2009 and a litany of government actions followed.  Unless there is more to come, the culmination of these events was the recent plea bargain on a related Income Tax charge.  In that action, the government is moving for the forfeiture of some $60,000 in assets.  The issue, unsavory as it is, would raise few eyebrows if that were all there were to it—a standard case of Tax Evasion like thousands of others investigated each year.

The undertone, and potentially far more significant aspect, is the reason that Zagorski's business drew the interest of ICE investigators in the first place.  It appears this was initially a question of whether ancient coins sold by Zagorski on eBay were illegally exported from Bulgaria.  Everyone who followed the case treated it as a cultural property issue—not a tax issue.  Keeping in mind that the United States did not at that time have import restrictions on coins from Bulgaria, the question was whether Zagorski had violated Bulgarian law and thereby imported property considered by the Bulgarian government to be stolen.  That would, in some cases, be a violation of U.S. law.   After some five years of intense investigation, the government has apparently settled for an income tax indictment and plea bargain.  This raises some disturbing questions.

Was the expense and dedication of resources for this action warranted?  The IRS would have cut their losses much sooner.  There obviously was another agenda.  In an age where violent crime is rampant; drug abuse soars; illegal immigration is a national scourge; federal budgets for critical services are being cut; law enforcement agencies at every level are overtaxed and underfunded; should American taxpayers compensate for failed law enforcement in foreign lands?  What could the cost/benefit ratio possibly be?  Is the Zagorski case a sign of the times and a harbinger of more to come?  Conceptually, worldwide cooperation in law enforcement has merit, but the use of scarce U.S. resources to enforce controversial and often obscure foreign patrimony laws on mundane utilitarian objects reaches much too far.  There is also a danger that essential and laudable enforcement of law could be perverted into an ideological club advancing the special interests of cultural property nationalists.  That, to all Americans, should be a wakeup call.  When nationalist control of minutiae becomes commonplace the rights of individuals rapidly disappear.

1 comment:

Cultural Property Observer said...

Yes, this appears to be a case where DOJ is pushing an agenda of connected archaeologists and their allies in the Cultural Heritage Center at State. When it became clear they did not reall have a case that the coins were "stolen," they looked for something else to pin on the defendant. Is this what federal criminal prosecutions should really be about, particularly when the underlying conduct complained about appears to be legal in the concerned source country?