RALEIGH, N.C. - Federal prosecutors on Monday tried to take a hoard of silver "Liberty Dollars" worth about $7 million that authorities say was invented by an Indiana man to compete with U.S. currency.
Bernard von NotHaus, 67, was convicted last month in federal court in Statesville on conspiracy and counterfeiting charges for making and selling the currency, which he promoted as inflation-proof competition for the U.S. dollar.
His Charlotte-based lawyer, Aaron Michel, is appealing that verdict. He wrote in a motion filed Thursday that von NotHaus did nothing wrong because he didn't try to pass the Liberty Dollars off as U.S. dollars.
"The prosecutors successfully painted Mr. von NotHaus in a false light and now the U.S. Attorney responsible for the prosecution is painting the case in a false light, saying that it establishes that private voluntary barter currency is illegal," Michel wrote.
The trial was scheduled to resume Monday in Statesville. The case involves more than five tons of Liberty Dollars and precious metals seized from a warehouse, which the government wants to take by forfeiture, according to federal prosecutors and Michel.
Von NotHaus began issuing Liberty Dollars in 1998, as head of the Evansville, Ind.-based National Organization for the Repeal of the Federal Reserve and Internal Revenue Code. In 2007, the group's headquarters were raided along with the Sunshine Mint in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, where the coins were made. The case is being tried in Statesville because one of the organization's top officers is based in Asheville, and because an undercover investigator made contact with the group in North Carolina.
Federal prosecutors successfully argued that von NotHaus was, in fact, trying to pass off the silver coins as U.S. currency. Coming in denominations of 5, 10, 20, and 50, the Liberty Dollars also featured a dollar sign, the word "dollar" and the motto "Trust in God," similar to the "In God We Trust" that appears on U.S. coins.
"Attempts to undermine the legitimate currency of this country are simply a unique form of domestic terrorism," U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins said in a statement after von NotHaus was convicted.
Von NotHaus has argued it's not illegal to create currency to privately trade goods and services. He also has said his organization took pains to say the Liberty Dollars shouldn't be called "coins" and shouldn't be presented as government-minted cash. Among other benefits, Michel's motion argues, the Liberty Dollars were a means to help keep currency in local communities by creating networks of merchants and consumers who used the money.
Numerous cities and regions around the country have experimented with local currency, but laws restrict them from resembling U.S. bills or from being passed off as money printed by the federal government.
The concerns raised by von NotHaus and his group are finding resonance among some state lawmakers, too. About a dozen states have legislation that would allow them to produce their own currency backed by gold or silver in the event of hyperinflation striking the U.S. dollar. North and South Carolina are among those states.
That's partly why von NotHaus' group has been followed for years by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a group that tracks political extremism. Long before the government began its investigation into von NotHaus, the group was raising concerns about the popularity of Liberty Dollars among fringe groups on the far right.
"He's playing on a core idea of the radical right, that evil bankers in the Federal Reserve are ripping you off by controlling the money supply," said Mark Potok, spokesman for the group. "He very much exists in the world of the anti-government patriot movement, whatever he may say. That's who his customers are."
Von NotHaus is currently free on bond. If the conviction against him is upheld, he faces up to 25 years in prison and a fine of $750,000. A sentencing date has not been set yet.