John Kotmair and his band of no-tax radicals have for more than a decade declared an ideological war on the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Reserve, the Democrats, the Republicans, the police and just about anybody else on the public payroll.
Taxes? Illegal. The nation's currency? Worthless. Most politicians? Sellouts.
From a cramped office in Westminster, Mr. Kotmair is Maryland's version of the anti-tax, anti-government rebels that have won so much attention since the Oklahoma City bombing. Mr. Kotmair and his Save-A-Patriot Fellowship aren't a militia; he hasn't called for an armed response to the "despotic deceivers" who run the government, and he doesn't march around with guns.
But he does publish rhetoric strikingly similar to that of the militia movement. He owes the IRS more than $600,000 and spent two years in a federal prison on a 1982 tax evasion conviction. And he and 20 employees of his foundation keep cranking out anti-tax leaflets, newsletters and brochures.
"Tired of being conned and railroaded into paying taxes which you do not owe, to be squandered by ARROGANT BUREAUCRATS? You are invited to join in a national Fellowship with other Patriotic Americans whose only goal is to LEARN, REVIVE And PRESERVE our UNITED STATES CONSTITUTION," reads a membership pitch. "You can serve your country and NOT FEAR reprisals from bureaucratic THUGS."
Those "bureaucratic thugs" refuse to characterize their recent actions as reprisals, but the IRS does take a dim view of anyone the agency says owes more than a half-million dollars.
Since December 1993 -- when the fellowship's office and Kotmair's home were raided by IRS agents -- the IRS has been taking a close look into the group's finances.
"They'll try anything to justify not paying taxes," said Dominic LaPonzina, the IRS' spokesman in Baltimore.
But Save-A-Patriot is more than an anti-tax organization. Recent issues of its newsletter, Reasonable Action, proclaim in boxed letters to readers that it "is a first-amendment association whose purpose is to see that IRS and other government personnel obey the law."
Mr. Kotmair and his followers are not reluctant to share their views with outsiders. For three years, they have invited officials from the IRS to send someone to observe what Save-A-Patriot does at its headquarters.
The IRS has declined the invitation.
Pledge is recited
At a recent Saturday night meeting in the blue-draped conference room in the back of SAP's office, more than two dozen fellowship members recited, at Mr. Kotmair's direction, this pledge:
"I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, and with liberty and justice for all -- and I'm willing to fight for it."
The members then listened as Mr. Kotmair outlined the IRS' inability to follow its own rules. Using his own tax case as a backdrop, he showed the group -- under a portrait of George Washington, amid framed copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution -- how they, too, can bring the IRS to its knees by asking highly technical questions of its employees.
Line by line, page by page, Mr. Kotmair guided his charges through the tax code, explaining how the sections seemed contradictory.
To dismiss Save-A-Patriot and John Kotmair as irrational zealots would be inaccurate and grossly unfair, says Baltimore radio talk-show host -- and SAP supporter -- Zoh Hieronimus.
The whole patriot movement has been singled out by politicians and mainstream media as a ranting band of illiterates without reasoned opinions who are the subject of a "patriot witch hunt," the popular WCBM personality said.
The movement is "highly educated . . . [and] not a backwoods bunch of bumpkins," Ms. Hieronimus said.
Of the Save-A-Patriot Fellowship, Ms. Hieronimus says their "research is precise, their goals are honorable." She said the fellowship's intent -- like that of most patriots across the country -- is a restoration of the republic they believe was laid out in the Constitution.
She and those in the Save-A-Patriot movement do not advocate lawlessness, they don't advocate a society without government and they don't promote violence. Instead, she said, they seek a return to constitutional government, with a clear separation of the three branches and the return of "national sovereignty."
America cannot "surrender to the global marketplace" and cede itself to the interests of corporations and other controllers of capital, she said.
Mr. Kotmair, now in his 60s, was a Westminster homebuilder who founded SAP's predecessor, the Committee of Correspondence, in the early 1970s. The committee -- about 200 strong -- claimed that most Americans do not owe income taxes.
That belief ran afoul of the IRS, which in 1980 sought an indictment against Mr. Kotmair for not filing his 1975 and 1976 returns.
In his return for 1974, he attached a letter to his 1040 form.
The letter said he believed American money was worthless because it was no longer backed by gold or silver. "Please show this letter to the jury if you ever get the nerve to indict
me," the letter said.
On the tax return itself, Mr. Kotmair listed "don't know" on the line for his wages. For payment of taxes, he issued a "Kotmair Reserve Note."
A federal jury saw the letter. Mr. Kotmair was convicted of willfully failing to file returns, was sentenced to two years in prison and fined $10,000.
Even though he no longer advocates the nonfiling of income taxes, Mr. Kotmair, according to the IRS and by his own admission, hasn't filed taxes since his conviction.
Amount is elusive
And while he almost certainly has an income, determining how much has proven difficult for federal tax collectors.
Mr. Kotmair and other self-styled "new American patriots" take great rhetorical comfort in God, country and freedom, and they are willing to sell their visions to anyone who has the cash -- or blank money orders -- to pay for it.
It's much more than taxes: America, they say, is in danger of collapsing into a Communist conspirator in what they call the "new world order." Take refuge now; learn how to stop it before it's too late, they say.
Amid the warnings about the impending new world order and the big-media-government conspiracy in Reasonable Action are lists of pamphlets, videotapes, books, magazines and a host of tax-related services offered for sale exclusively to Save-A-Patriot members.
For $50, the foundation will mail materials explaining what it calls the true meaning of the Constitution or how to renounce U.S. citizenship. For $100 in cash or blank postal money orders, the foundation will show you how to file a multimillion dollar lien against a public official who's been bothersome.
And that, according to a Baltimore accounting professor who monitors the anti-tax and patriot movements on the Internet, is the problem with some of the groups in the movement.
"Some of these groups are not unlike the con artists who sell snake oil," said Richard D. Adams, an assistant professor at the University of Baltimore. "If people would spend $300 or whatever they are being charged for nonfiling advice on some good advice from a tax planner, they'd be much better off."
Mr. Kotmair and Save-A-Patriot call what they do -- and sell -- a valuable service.
The fellowship, Mr. Kotmair said, was started "to financially assist patriots who exercise their constitutionally secured rights." a fellowship member ends up losing a criminal tax case and is jailed, the fellowship comes together -- in the form of a payment from each member -- and provides the inmate with $25,000 a year, he said.
The fellowship's mission is to warn society that it has been "dumbed down in government-controlled schools that perpetuate the myths and mystical aspects of a government-god that can provide for their every need," according to Reasonable Action.
That's the identical message being sold across the country by some of Save-A-Patriot's more vocal -- and militant -- cousins.
John Livesay is familiar with the "new American patriots." The prosecuting attorney in Branch County, Mich., Mr. Livesay this month won fraud convictions against the leaders of a group of rightists who raised millions from across the country by convincing people that they had won a share of a $600 trillion class-action lawsuit. The lawsuit, filed against the government, claimed the damages because the gold standard was abandoned in 1933. The men convicted by Mr. Livesay told their followers that a share of the lawsuit would be theirs for a $300 filing fee.
"The problem is that far too often the victims are people looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow," Mr. Livesay said last week. "Even after we tell them they are victims, that they have been hoodwinked, they don't believe us. We must be part of the conspiracy."
Mr. Livesay himself was a victim of sorts: an angry citizen, who declared that Mr. Livesay violated his oath of office, slapped a $9.7 million common-law lien against him and his property.
Such liens can cause embarrassment, hold up home sales or mess up a person's credit. They are an increasingly common tool being sold by some of the organizations like the one Mr. Livesay prosecuted. Save-A-Patriot is not among them, but a handful of Carroll County judges, prosecutors and politicians were hit with them about the time Mr. Kotmair was facing his federal tax case.
"Look, we are the government," Mr. Livesay said. "We are you. Some of the 'patriots' are just so hung up on the fact that there is this monumental conspiracy. "
Mr. Kotmair is quick to distance his group -- which has a national following, he says -- from anyone connected with the so-called class action settlement against the government. He doesn't even consider himself a tax protester, or a protester of government in general.
"If you consider a person who insists that government agencies obey the law as it has been written a protester of sorts, then I can be considered one of that type of protester," he said. "Personally, I consider that to be good citizenship."