William Kevin Innes, an Asheville man arrested last June and charged with trying to pass off a private currency as legal tender, has sent a plea from jail asking community members for help in securing his release before his trial, which is slated to begin next month.
In the undated, handwritten letter, titled "Injustice Comes to Asheville," Innes asserts that his "alleged crime" amounts to no more than "trying to help small businesses by promoting the use of a local-acting, precious-metal currency as the United States Constitution says the whole country should be using."
The federal government, however, sees the case quite differently.
"When groups seek to undermine the U.S. currency system, the government is compelled to act. These coins are not government-produced coinage, yet purchasers were led to believe by those who made and sold them that they should be spent like U.S. Federal Reserve notes," acting U.S. Attorney Edward Ryan declared in announcing the arrest last year. "Such claims are in violation of federal law."
According to the indictment, Liberty Services, the company that distributed the Liberty Dollar, violated the law by designing coins and bills that resemble official U.S. currency (the indictment specifically cites the use of the head of Lady Liberty and a torch) and by encouraging private merchants to make change with Liberty Dollars in $5, $10, $20 and $50 denominations. According to the Liberty Dollar Web site, 74 Asheville area merchants were accepting the currency at the time of the arrests.
After Innes was named in search warrants issued in connection with a 2007 FBI raid on the Liberty Services headquarters in Indiana, he told Xpress he had never represented the currency as legal tender. In the letter, he says he was careful to ask local law-enforcement officials that his actions were legal.
"From the beginning of 2003, I have continuously received assurance from law enforcement, including Sheriff Van Duncan, that no law was being broken," Innes writes. "How is the FBI serving and protecting the country by arresting me?"
Duncan says he did meet with Innes about two-and-a-half years ago, but though he knew the FBI was investigating the Liberty Dollar group, he "really wasn't at liberty to say much to him one way or the other" about the legality of their activities and therefore "really didn't give any information. Innes, says the sheriff, "told me a little bit about what they were doing. I then called the FBI and let them know about the meeting."
Even among federal agencies, the Liberty Dollar's legal status has seemed murky. A 2006 statement by the U.S. Mint said that using Liberty Dollars in place of standard currency would be criminal. But that same year, a Treasury Department official told the media that merchants were free to accept them if they wished.
Private currencies (such as those used by particular towns or resorts) are not unheard of and haven't generally faced legal challenges. What sets the Liberty Dollar apart is its nationwide reach and backing by precious metals.
Since his incarceration in the Caldwell County Jail, Innes' letter asserts, "I am being punished as though guilty before I have had any opportunity to prove my innocence. The lack of sunshine, bad food, hostile guards and the overcrowding makes this dungeon more severe than most prisons."
The other defendants, including Liberty Dollar creator Bernard von NotHaus, are out on bond. However, Innes' status is complicated by his Canadian citizenship. Due to that and his upcoming trial, Innes is considered a risk to abscond and has thus been unable to gain release. In the letter, Innes says he's trying to get his application for U.S. citizenship accepted and to raise the roughly $20,0000 needed to secure his release.
The letter also asks community members to intervene on his behalf by writing affidavits for his immigration lawyer, donating money for his bail, and sharing his letter (which is addressed to a "Friend of Freedom") with other folks who might support his cause.
Innes' wife, Julia Gaunt, sees her husband about twice a month and is leading the effort to secure his release. "I don't think he's being treated fairly by the federal government," she says. "The Liberty Dollar folks have said that they believe they'll be acquitted, that they have a very strong case. The other three were released on signature bonds, but he's been in jail almost six months now."
But while calling conditions in the jail "appalling," she says Innes has "really kept his spirits up. He's maintaining a vegetarian diet, meditation and exercising, all in his cell," she notes. "The only creative outlet he has is pen and paper. I think a lot of the community is in the dark about what happened to him."
Gaunt has invited community members interested in helping Innes to contact her at 582-9115 or write him at the jail.
Despite the many challenges, Innes ends his letter on an optimistic note, tying his advocacy of a precious-metals-based currency to a larger struggle for change, declaring that the "whole situation is 'history in the making'! Positive change is finally sprouting within people and through cracks formed because certain structures have become too rigid and have begun to wither and decay. Out of the old, new life and [is] springing up and also a desire for a kinder way to share this beautiful planet. I have jumped into this struggle for positive change with both feet. You can say I'm now in over my head! This [is] my call for you to throw me a lifesaver."
Innes' trial is scheduled to begin March 2 at the Statesville Federal Courthouse.
David Forbes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 251-1333, ext. 137.