Federal Land Theft Prevention Act of 2012
Infamous anti-Fen legislation passed shortly after the launch of the SV Grover's Corners from West Virginia on April 20, 2012, frequently referred to as the "Land Theft Act". Rushed through the legislative process and signed into law in a matter of weeks, the Land Theft Act is now regarded as one of the great examples of the Law of Unintended Consequences in modern American legislation.
In the immediate wake of the launch of the Grover's Corners from West Virginia, a bipartisan group of United States senators (including Wallace Webster (R-NH), Isabella Ward (R-TN) and Kendall Dixon (D-NJ)) drafted a bill intended to outlaw the creation of Unreal Estate within the borders of the United States. The hastily-written legislation was the first time the term "Land Theft" was used in an official government document, and the bill classified it as a Class A Federal Felony, with each count punishable with up to life imprisonment and/or a $250,000 fine.
The classification of Unreal Estate as a criminal activity was based on an argument invoking "the public good". While acknowledging (and indeed, celebrating almost to the point of enshrinement) the right of individuals (and corporations) to own land, it put forth the legally dubious claim that to remove such land from the surface of the Earth robbed future generations of its use, and (more importantly, claimed more cynical observers) also deprived Federal, state and local governments of any future tax revenue on such land.
The bill was introduced to the United States Senate on 9 May 2012 as S.3032. It was immediately referred to the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. This surprised many outside observers, who expected it to be handled by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Senator Webster explained in a press conference on 10 May 2012 that all matters concerning Handwavium and the Fen were considered national security issues, and in accordance with White House guidelines issued in 2008 the bill was referred to committee accordingly. The 115-page bill received committee approval in a matter of days, which prompted some observers to object that it had not been reviewed thoroughly enough. Despite this, the committee report on the Land Theft Act was published on 18 May, and the bill was subsequently placed on the Senate's Legislative Calendar.
Debate on the bill was held on 12 June 2012, and lasted barely two hours. The Land Theft Act passed on a voice vote with 79 yeas, 17 nays, and 4 abstentions/absences. It was immediately referred to the House of Representatives, where it became H.R.5948 and followed an almost identical track, starting with referral to the House Committee on Homeland Security. Once again it was approved by the committee in a matter of days (several congressional watchdog organizations characterized this as a "rubber stamp" approval). It came up for debate before the House on 9 July 2012, endured just under four hours' discussion (characterized by observers as "perfunctory" and "lackluster"), and was passed by a vote of 391 for, 37 against, and 7 abstentions/absences.
No reconciliation was necessary between the Senate and House versions of the bill, and President Rudolph Guiliani signed it into law in front of the press on 10 July 2012.
The first arrests and prosecutions under the terms of the Act took place less than a week after it was signed, suggesting to many that the Federal Government had had several "candidates" under surveillance in anticipation of its passage, and had delayed moving against them in order take advantage of the harsher terms of the new law. By the end of July 2012, the FBI had raided nearly a dozen locations, including sites in California, Wisconsin and New Jersey, followed closely by EPA HAZMAT teams. Almost all the individuals arrested were said to have been inspired by the launch of the Grover's Corners. (It is perhaps emblematic of the United States government position that during these and all subsequent proceedings the Grover's Corners was never identified by its proper name, but only with such euphemisms as "the April 2012 theft of American territory from West Virginia".)
Indictments and trials took place with an alacrity which prompted observers as well as several Congresspersons to accuse the Justice Department of "fast-tracking" them over more important cases in order to intimidate and discourage other potential Fen. In no case did any trial last longer than a week, and almost every one returned a "guilty" verdict.
Among the convicted were:
- Terrance and Patricia Klaus, of Guilford, Kansas. The Klauses were prosecuted for the smallest known instance of Unreal Estate, a patch of land approximately 10 feet by 10 feet (3m x 3m) occupied by an inexpensive steel shed.
- Daniel and Felicia Williamson, Donnie Curtis, Freddie Carpenter, Amanda Gonzales, Scott and Nicoline Aylmer and Bryant Kelley of Prentice, Wisconsin, who had attempted to emulate the Grover's Corners by converting an entire neighborhood into Unreal Estate.
- Suhayl Mansur of Rocksprings, Texas, a naturalized American citizen originally from the United Arab Emirates. In addition to Land Theft, he was also charged under Federal anti-terrorism statutes, apparently simply for being a Muslim of Middle-Eastern extraction. The extra charges were dismissed by the judge partway through his trial, but not before he was thoroughly tarred in the press as a "terrorist".
Flaws in the Act
Almost from the first the Land Theft Act was criticized for its vague and overly-broad language, as well as its apparent intent to restrict an entire American subculture. The Act's authors made a token attempt to keep it from looking like an explicitly anti-Fen law -- several of them had been burned badly in the abortive 2009 attempt to criminalize the science fiction and fantasy genres, and all were aware that support for the Fen among American citizens was growing at that time, especially with some commentators lauding the launch of the Grover's Corners as a bold and courageous journey to a new frontier in the grand American tradition. Still, the intent behind the law was considered obvious by many, and its fast-tracking through the Homeland Security committees was seen as a ploy to avoid possible Fen sympathizers in the Science and Technology committees.
However, in the process of "genericizing" the Act's terms and definitions to dodge accusations of Fen persecution, its authors accidentally opened up its targets to include far more than just those who intended to go into space. At some point during early revisions, language which had initially required the use of Handwavium to alter the "shape, form, nature, composition and/or location" of a tract of land had unintentionally become uncoupled from the description of the new Federal crime, which was now defined simply as any such alteration, regardless of means, motive or intention. As finally passed, the Act considered the use of Handwavium an "aggravating factor" mandating a maximum sentence, but no longer a requirement for a violation.
Exploitation by Environmental Groups
Activist environmental groups such as Greenpeace quickly discovered this oversight. While historically environmentalists have been sharply divided on the subject of Handwavium, a coalition of several such groups came together to exploit the law. A small number of volunteers allowed themselves to be caught and prosecuted for "attempted Handwavium-assisted land theft" over the course of nearly a year. Some pleaded guilty or no contest; others pled not guilty then put up half-hearted or inadequate defenses that resulted in their conviction. No appeals were made, and the Land Theft Act was never challenged; in fact, defense attorneys went out of their way to acknowledge the validity of the Act. Combined with the "legitimate" prosecutions of actual would-be Fen, the result was a considerable and weighty collection of legal precedents supporting the legitimacy of the Act and its specific language.
Once the last of these trials had entered into case law, the coalition sprang its trap. Land theft accusations were made against several large mining concerns, most notably Newmont Mining Corporation (who operated gold strip mines in Nevada and Colorado) and Arch Coal (infamous for mountaintop removal mines in the Appalachians); complaints complete with chapter-and-verse quotations of the Act were sworn out against them, and arrests were made of both corporate officers and field supervisors. As corporate lawyers attempted to extricate the mining firms from the charges in Federal courts, several P.R. companies hired by the coalition began astroturf campaigns with the theme of "same crime, different results" and emphasizing how "the little guys" were prosecuted, but big companies were able to ignore Federal Law.
That in a number of these earlier "trap" cases the charges were in fact dismissed or ignored only helped these campaigns. They received a further boost when Stephanie Flores, a Federal Prosecutor assigned to one of the cases, was recorded in an unguarded moment saying that the Land Theft Act applied "only to the Fen, not legitimate American businesses", and that accordingly she was making only a token effort at prosecution. The video clip and sound bite spread virally across the Internet, and were featured by virtually every major news outlet save for FOX News. Flores was fired, and as part of the ensuing damage control the Justice Department immediately stopped making deals for reduced or dismissed charges with accused violators and began pursuing their remaining prosecutions with a vigor rarely seen before or since.
Within a year of Flores' slip, Newmont, Arch and half a dozen other firms were found guilty of multiple counts of violating the Act. Newmont and Arch in particular were each fined in excess of US$5 million and were forced to shut down all their mining operations, and several executives from each company were sentenced to a minimum of 25 years in Federal prison. At the same time, the Justice Department launched new cases cases against those companies which had initially escaped prosecution.
By 2014, the American mining industry as a whole had essentially ground to a halt as a result of the prosecutions; collectively they lost billions of dollars in revenue and only the complete exhaustion of their existing stockpiles prevented most mining companies from going bankrupt. Even so, several smaller companies went under.
Second- and lower-order effects of the Act were as severe. The paralysis of the mining industry resulted in mass unemployment among their labor base. Their reduced output had a domino effect across the entirety of the American economy -- prices went up and availability went down for everything from automobiles to electronics, torpedoing the country's recovery from the Great Recession of 2008 and sparking a second wave of economic collapse. With the help of the Federal government some of the nation's mining production was replaced by imports; while they helped bolster production, they did little to help prices.
The response of the mining industry was swift and brutal. All Congresspersons who had voted for the Land Theft Act and had previously enjoyed support from the industry had that support abruptly and very publicly revoked. On March 11, 2014, the National Mining Association held a press conference at which they identified those politicians who had lost the favor of the industry. The NMA also announced that for at least the next several election cycles they would be backing candidates who were pro-Fen and/or opposed the Land Theft Act on the local, state and Federal level, including in the 2016 Presidential race. They also funded a series of full-page newspaper ads across the country, identifying local elected officials who had supported the Act. Other industries who suffered as a result of the Act threw in with the NMA, forcing Congress to face a veritable revolt of what once were some of their most generous contributors and supporters.
Simultaneously, public outcry in those areas of the country most severely struck by the economic side-effects of the Act all but exploded. The NMA's newspaper campaign resulted in a storm of voter backlash, and incumbents began losing their positions almost immediately, with the first effects visible in Congressional primaries held during the summer of 2014. In particular, the authors of the Act were singled out for especially vicious and persistent attacks. Dixon in particular lost his bid for re-election that fall, and Ward resigned in summer 2015 after more than a year of attack ads steadily eroding her approval rating.
Meanwhile, the environmentalist coalition shifted its efforts from encouraging the prosecutions to a word-of-mouth campaign to oppose repeal of the Act. Unfortunately, they were the victims of their own achievements -- they had succeeded on a scale they had never before dreamed of, but in the process had done so much damage to the economy and the lives of ordinary citizens that their accomplishment was doomed to be undone.
The first calls for the repeal of the Land Theft Act were heard in Congress in late 2013, but it wasn't until the NMA's press conference in March 2014 that a repeal bill (S.556) actually made it out of committee. The repeal passed in the Senate with an unanimous vote (with only the remaining original authors abstaining). Meanwhile, the House of Representatives fasttracked its own repeal bill (H.R.1064), which amusingly passed with almost exactly the same vote counts as the original Act.
The two repeal bills were quickly reconciled and sent to then-President Andrew Cuomo, who was elected in 2012 with a "Get Tough, Stay Tough" policy regarding the Fen in his platform. Cuomo had earlier threatened to veto any repeal of the Land Theft Act, but after a series of full-page newspaper ads in Nevada and the Appalachians boldly proclaimed "The President wants to keep you from going back to work!", he reconsidered his position. When the final repeal bill arrived on his desk in early April 2014 he signed it without comment. This, most believe, was not only because the vote tallies in both houses of Congress made it clear that any veto would have been overturned with ridiculous ease, but also because the NMA and Wall Street both urged him to do so in the hopes that a repeal would have an immediate positive effect on the United States economy.
As is standard in the United States legal system, the repeal of the Land Theft Act did not result in automatic pardons for those convicted while it was law, nor were their sentences automatically commuted. The usual practice in these cases is that the President of the United States must pardon or offer amnesty to those convicted under an overturned law. In the wake of the repeal of the Land Theft Act, President Cuomo was subject to public and private pressure from representatives of multiple industries to issue pardons to mining executives convicted under its terms.
Cuomo initially resisted doing so, primarily because of his anti-Fen image -- he would also have to pardon the Fen and Fen-wannabes as well, or risk a massive public relations nightmare. At this early point in his Presidency he was relying heavily on a coalition of anti-Fen politicians from both parties in order accomplish several key items on his agenda, and he was loath to risk alienating any of them. However, he was even more loath to appear to be handing out "get out of jail free" cards to the rich and powerful while denying pardons to middle- and lower-class citizens whose crimes under the Act were considerably smaller.
In the end, Cuomo's solution to the dilemma was to take advantage of the very same flaw which the environmentalists had exploited. In May 2014 he issued pardons for the basic "land theft" convictions -- but not for any additional convictions on secondary handwavium and environmental crimes. As none of the mining concerns had made use of handwavium nor had suffered any "add-on" environmental charges, the executives went free while the Fen remained imprisoned, some with decades left to serve on their sentences.
Unfortunately for President Cuomo, his strategy did not save him from a public relations backlash. Predictably, Fen and Fen-sympathetic interests in the United States seized the opportunity to characterize the pardons as personally benefitting only rich and powerful white men, while forcing the poor and minorities to stay in jail. The ACLU (among other groups) began legal proceedings concerning the Constitutionality of holding up the convictions for secondary crimes, arguing that without the Act no such charges would ever have been brought; whether the questions they raised actually had any validity would not be decided for many years. More immediately, Cuomo suffered a serious blow to his progressive image, which until that point had been characterized by a prominent "friend of the little guy" element.
Fortunately for those still incarcerated as a result of the Land Theft Act, the legal controversy and the apparent inequities of the pardons made it far easier to get appeals and retrials for their remaining convictions. Meanwhile, the Justice Department, having already suffered one black eye from the Act with the Flores scandal, chose to dodge any further chances to look like a villain to the public. Federal prosecutors made a deliberate decision to restrict their efforts to the bare ethical minimum necessary for any retrials and appeals, and in particularly egregious cases (such as the Klauses of Kansas) evidence was reported "lost" and witnesses "unavailable" even as prosecutors negotiated with defense attorneys to reduce the severity of the charges.
The ultimate result was that by 2018, all persons convicted of crimes because of arrests under the aegis of the Land Theft Act had been pardoned, absolved of wrongdoing, or freed upon acquittal in appeals or retrials, or after serving much-reduced sentences on less-serious charges.
For the remainder of his Presidency, Cuomo was unable to repair the damage to his image; in the public eye he became a known ally to Big Business, ready to throw the "little guy" under the bus. It is generally agreed that it contributed greatly to the Democratic party declining to nominate him for re-election in 2016 in favor of Illinois Senator Barack Obama, who had no undesired baggage associated with him.
As noted above, thanks in great part to the National Mining Assocation, numerous incumbent Congresspersons who had supported, sponsored or even just voted for the Act were defeated in their next bids for election. Freshman senators and representatives became the rule in 2014, 2015 and 2016, and Congress resigned itself to periodic shakeups as the NMA and its allies took on targets in both parties. The NMA had a long and unforgiving memory; as late as 2019 they worked against the last of the Senators who had had the misfortune to come down on the side of the Land Theft Act.
Thanks to the the fallout around the Act, no further overt anti-Fen legislation ever made it past the committee stage in either the House or the Senate. While there were more attempts at striking at Fen, would-be Fen, and Fen sympathizers through legislation, they were considerably more subtle and careful than their predecessors, and perhaps as a consequence far less effective. And unexpectedly, environmental legislation became almost impossible to pass for upwards of fifteen years, as interested parties on all sides battled to make sure there were no unexpected side-effects to any bill.
The mining industry was able to start right back up once President Cuomo signed the repeal bill, but it would take almost a decade for them to recover to the levels of both production and profits they had enjoyed before 2012. And one company -- Peabody Energy -- filed for bankruptcy in 2016 citing the impact of the Act, among other causes, for its financial problems. In the mean time, the United States was forced to turn to long-term import agreements to make up for the lost resources, mostly with foreign interests on Earth, but in some key cases with Fenspace interests. Moria Mining and Rockhounds, among other Fen companies, made out well thanks to these agreements, and the influx of American dollars after 2015 is considered a major factor in the later economic independence of the Fen.
Jupiter Mining Corporation went one further during this period, offering jobs with better pay and benefits to unemployed American miners and other industrial workers, along with free relocation to Fenspace. Of the estimated half-million or so non-supervisory personnel forced out of work by the Act, more than ten thousand are thought to have accepted JMC's offer and emigrated; in fact, so many signed up that JMC was forced to start internal-use gas mining operations in order to have another point of absorption for the new work force.
American interests dependent upon mining recovered more quickly than the mining industry, having only to change their supply lines. However, imports -- even Fennish imports -- tended to be more expensive than American-sourced resources, even if only by a token amount, and prices inevitably rose. While a complete slide back to and below the levels of the Great Recession of 2008 had been prevented, the American economy showed no sign of restarting the recovery that had abruptly ended with the shuttering of the mining industry. It would take another five years for a new recovery to slowly fade into existence and drag the United States out of what had become the "New Normal".
- There have been accusations that this discovery was actually made by the legal staff of one or more of the larger Fen Factions and subsequently leaked to the environmentalist community, with the deliberate intent that they act as a catspaw for the Fen. However, no evidence of such a quasi-conspiracy has ever been found.