Playing the Angles

by Brendan I. Koerner


Over at my own little corner of The Tubes, I try and pay close attention to events in Papua New Guinea, a nation that receives far too little ink on these shores. Remarkably polyglot and infamously corrupt, PNG is the sort of place that many young people dream of leaving, if only to earn higher wages in nearby Australia. Yet immigration documents are hard to come by, to the delight of criminals and con men who specialize in human traffic. Desperate people bent on carving out better lives for their families make for especially easy marks.

In terms of sheer imagination, no PNG immigration scam can top the one operated by a man named Jonathan Baure. For years, Baure has been claiming that he and his fellow Papua New Guineans didn't relinquish their Australian citizenship when PNG became independent in 1975. For a fee, Baure will provide hopeful immigrants with a document attesting to this fact--a document that is no more legally valid than this. Yet Baure has a devoted following in PNG, and the ability to coax his acolytes into taking risky boat trips to Australia in order to prove their tenuous legal point. In fact, Baure is currently cooling his heels in a Port Moresby jail after 122 of his devotees tried to make it to the Cape York Peninsula. (See above for a snapshot of the few who made it all the way.) Baure, who conveniently stayed behind as his clients risked their lives, says the trip was a form of protest:

Baure said they decided to take this action because Australian High Commission staff in Port Moresby had not been paying attention to their claims that they were Australian citizens, despite acknowledgment by former prime minister Kevin Rudd.

"We are not refugees crossing, simply people who want our Australian birth citizenship recognised, as we were born as Australian citizens," he said. "Australians are saying that we are not citizens, but we never revoked our birthright. At independence in 1975, they reckon we lost our Australian citizenship, but they must realise that we never revoked it. This is not a political issue; it is a civil rights issue."

Now why does that logic, so sympathetically phrased despite its legal hollowness, sound so familiar? Think Wesley Snipes.

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Yes, Baure is working a con quite similar to the tax evasion scheme that ensnared the man behind Nino Brown. The common thread is a belief that legal language can be interpreted in any number of ways, thus creating loopholes that savvy individuals can take advantage of. In Snipes' case, he was led to believe that Section 861 of the Internal Revenue Code somehow rendered his domestic income untaxable. Any good lawyer worth his or her salt would have disabused Snipes of this notion many years ago, thereby sparing him a litany of legal woes. But the actor, like so many other Americans, appears to have believed that a cornerstone of American tax law could be routed around due to its poor wording.

I'm also reminded of the bizarre flesh-and-blood criminal defense, so memorably detailed in this 2008 Washington Monthly story. The theme is the same: people who steadfastly believe that they've figured out a way to beat the system, by coming up with a fresh interpretation of the exact same legal language that caused their predicament in the first place.

I'm fascinated by these sorts of scams for a very simple reason: they reveal the shortcomings of language, specifically legal language. A perfect code is capable of conveying its creators' intent with no possibility of error. English is still a long way from that ideal.

Know of any other ongoing frauds that rely on impressive-sounding misinterpretations of legalese? By all means, please let me know in comments.