South Mountain Creamery, the Frederick County dairy farm and food-distribution company, is a fixture of Baltimore-area farmers markets, particularly the Waverly market on Saturdays or the one on Sundays, downtown under the Jones Falls Expressway. South Mountain co-owner Randy Sowers is now in the hot seat with the feds, because in late February, the Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigations Division (IRS-CID) used a federal anti-money-laundering statute to seize the contents of a PNC bank account Sowers says was the depository of cash earned by his company’s farmers-market business.
Sowers has not been charged with a crime, and says he expects to learn soon whether or not he will be. As for getting his money back—nearly $70,000, a fraction of the nearly quarter-million dollars in cash deposits the feds say Sowers laundered between May and December last year—well, based on the experiences of others in his position, he’ll likely not see it again, at least not all of it.
Baltimore County Police officer Michael Aiosa, who has been detailed as an IRS -CID task-force member since October 2010, signed the six-page affidavit used to get the seizure warrant to empty the account, of which Sowers and his daughter-in-law, Karen Sowers, are co-signatories. The affidavit says cash deposits were broken down into increments of under $10,001 each, causing PNC to not generate required “currency transaction reports” (CTRs) that financial institutions must file with regulators when they receive or disburse more than $10,000 in a single cash transaction. Under 31 U.S.C. 5324, federal law prohibits such conduct, which is called “structuring.”
Sowers, who did not seek publicity about his predicament but spoke to a reporter after the search warrant in the court records came to City Paper’s attention, says he deposited the cash he’d made in the increments in which it had been earned. If the deposited amounts often ended up being a little under $10,001, he explained, that’s just the way it worked out and he no intention of breaking the law.
“We had no idea there was supposedly a law against it—we were just doing it the way we figured we were supposed to, making deposits every week,” Sowers explains. “We weren’t laundering money,” he adds. “We’re farmers, we struggle every day to pay bills. We don’t know what else to do. Now we just feel like putting [our cash] in a can somewhere.”
Sowers’ attorney, David Watt, says his client “probably shouldn’t have said anything” when contacted by City Paper, and declined to comment further, saying, “We don’t want to act like we’re trying to influence the goings-on” by talking with the press.
Historically, the anti-structuring statute has been used by prosecutors as an ancillary charge with other accusations of nefarious behavior, such as drug dealing or terrorism. And it still is. But over the last few years, prosecutors have started to use it more regularly as a standalone charge—an observation noted by defense attorneys that Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein confirms.
Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a data center about federal court cases, reports that in fiscal year 2011 Maryland brought 14 of the nation’s 99 structuring cases, making it the top state for such prosecutions. Nationally, the numbers have been rising; the 2011 figures are up 8.8 percent from the year before and up 57.1 percent from five years ago.
Greater prosecutorial emphasis on enforcing the anti-structuring statute has resulted in a rise in money seizures, civil-forfeiture cases, and criminal charges against small businesses and the people who own them. Typical targets handle a lot of cash, and in Maryland gas stations, liquor stores, and used-car dealerships have landed in expensive trouble, losing money through seizures, criminal penalties, and legal bills.
South Mountain is not the first seasonal-produce market to find itself targeted for structuring recently. Taylor’s Produce Stand, on the Eastern Shore, was stung last year after the feds seized about $90,000 from its bank accounts. In December, pursuant to a civil-forfeiture settlement agreement after no criminal charges were filed, the stand’s owners got back about half of the seized money.
Two members of the defense bar who handle structuring cases, Gerard Martin and Steven Levin, both former Maryland assistant U.S. attorneys, say they have noticed the anti-structuring enforcement trend emerging in Maryland over the last several years.
“The emphasis is on basically seizing money, whether it is legally or illegally earned,” Levin says. “It can lead to financial ruin for business owners, and there’s a potential for abuse here by the government, where they use it basically as a means of seizing money, and I think we’ve seen that happen.”
“South Mountain Creamery!” Martin exclaims when contacted by phone. “They’re going after South Mountain Creamery! That’s an icon. That’s like going after mom and apple pie.” Then he settles in to ruminate on the general trends, saying cases typically arise because financial institutions “are required to tell the government about it” when they suspect a pattern of structured cash deposits. Then, “the government gets a search warrant and takes every nickel out of the guy’s bank account,” Martin continues, adding that “structuring is generally an indication that there is something going wrong, but the government doesn’t always find another crime,” such as drug dealing or tax evasion.
“There are a lot of legitimate reasons why a liquor store or a gas station would be depositing $9,500 in cash a day,” Martin says. “Sometimes the numbers just work out that way. But it is usually not an accident that it is happening.”
Rosenstein says that anti-structuring efforts “are an increasing area of emphasis for the Justice Department, and there has been an influx of resources” to investigate and prosecute it. Thus, he says, “I’d be disappointed if there wasn’t an uptick” in prosecutions, given the additional resources.
Post-Sept. 11 changes to banking laws, Rosenstein continues, have prompted financial institutions to report suspicious financial doings more vigilantly, and as a result, investigators and prosecutors now have “a treasure trove of information” about transactions, which provides them with “potential leads for finding criminal activities.” Structuring is often a red flag for other crime since, Rosenstein says, “typically people who go through all those lengths” to make multiple cash deposits of just under $10,000, sometimes at multiple bank branches on the same day, are trying to hide something. But, he continues, “There’s a possibility that somebody did it innocently, and we are always open to that.”
Sowers spoke at length about being targeted for structuring. In essence, he thinks the government used an exotic legal gimmick to suck hard-earned money out of his business just as he’s facing bills for hay and other spring-time expenses farmers incur—but he admits that, if there’s a law against what he did, “well, it looks like we did break the law,” even if he didn’t mean to.
The seizure and the resulting legal limbo as he awaits the prosecutor’s charging decision has “scared us to death,” he says. And the banking headaches that resulted from an emptied account have been never-ending, including bounced checks, mucked-up automatic withdrawals, and the resulting overdraft fees.
“It makes me look bad,” Sowers says.