FRESNO, Calif. — At the prompting of the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department, the district attorney’s office has decided to pursue the case against four Fresno-area residents arrested in early January for operating an alleged illegal “pyramid scheme.” All four were members of Constitutional Colleagues, a network-marketing group that promotes study materials relating, ironically, to the Constitution.
The prosecuting attorney filed his complaint Monday, ending a court-imposed delay of 90 days.
On Tuesday, Judge Kent Levis formally charged each defendant with violating Section 327 of the California Penal Code — that the defendants did “willfully and unlawfully … operate an endless chain scheme … against the peace and dignity of the people of the State of California.”
This is a felony, and if found guilty they could face up to three years in state prison plus fines.
The defendants — who until the hearing did not know what charges they faced, if any — requested and received a further extension of time in which to select an attorney and begin preparing their defense.
The arraignment has been reset for May 4.
“What’s really incredible,” says Blaine Williams, one of the four, “is that we were engaged in commerce, and what we were promoting was the movement of educational materials about the foundation of this nation and our Constitution.”
Williams and his co-defendants deny that they are engaged in a pyramid scheme — that is a financial arrangement in which people make money — not through the sale or exchange of something — but by recruiting people who in turn recruit others.
The case of the “Fresno Four” generated considerable interest when WorldNetDaily broke the story nationally three months ago, describing the early-evening raid against a public meeting sponsored by Constitutional Colleagues, a group headquartered in Evanston, Indiana. Thirty-seven flak-jacketed deputies, packing sidearms, stormed a community meeting room at the Fashion Fair Mall, arresting three of the defendants and detaining the other attendees for questioning. A retired sheriff’s deputy, was later arrested at his home.
The deputies seized the collection of video and audio tapes, “The Miracle of America,” which the groups markets. The program was developed by constitutional scholar Cleon Skousen, and is also marketed directly by Skousen’s National Center for Constitutional Studies.
In the wake of such a fracas, it was assumed the district attorney’s office would move quickly, and the four defendants were in court Jan. 13, the date originally set for their arraignment.
To everyone’s surprise, the court announced the district attorney had not filed charges and had requested more time to review the evidence prepared by the sheriff’s department — but which had not been sent to the DA until the very day before the scheduled arraignment.
Arraignment was therefore pushed back to April 14 to give the DA’s office time to study the materials sent at the last-minute by the sheriff’s department and to decide whether the case was deemed worthy of prosecuting.
Until Tuesday, the fate of the four was in limbo.
Yet despite the fact that no one had been charged with an offense, let alone found guilty, they have paid dearly.
Dan Furtney, 51, who retired from the Sheriff’s Department just last year — is considering selling his house to pay for expected legal expenses. He and his wife are having their antique furniture — collected over the years — appraised for sale. It’s a devastating anti-climax to an exemplary 29-year career with the department — during which he earned a medal of valor.
Two defendants — Peter Plitt and Sharon Saunders — have lost their jobs. They shared their experiences with WorldNetDaily in a phone interview in which they were joined by Furtney and Williams.
Plitt, 44, was a sheriff’s deputy himself at the time of the raid, having been with the department for nine years. Immediately following his arrest he was placed on administrative leave, and in mid-March — after an administrative hearing — was given the boot for participation in Constitutional Colleagues and bringing “discredit” on the department.
“After nine years of doing it right on the job, they took it all away,” Plitt said. “I don’t know what that says about the sheriff’s department.”
Plitt says he’s “baffled” as to how Fresno County Sheriff Richard Pierce can look over the materials and call their program a scam.
“It was set up like Amway,” he explained. “The courts have ruled that multi-level marketing like Amway’s is legal — as long as there is a product and you can sell that product retail if you don’t want to enroll people. This means you can break the chain: it’s not an ‘endless chain.'”
Plitt also expressed concern about that second reason for dismissal — that he brought had brought “discredit” on the department.
He answered this, he recalled, in a formal written response to the charges — in which he pointed out that “had the sheriff’s department allowed the judicial system to run its course and found out through the courts whether it was legal or not and whether or not I was guilty — and not gone to the media and said ‘We are embarrassed and disappointed in these people (a reference to retired officer Furney as well as to Plitt), they should have known better,’ there wouldn’t have been any discredit to the department.”
Defendant Sharon Saunders, 54, was until Jan. 27 a senior executive assistant within the executive offices at St. Agnes Medical Center in Fresno. Her supervisor answered directly to the president of the corporation and the CEO.
“I’d been there just a tad over 13 years,” Saunders said.
Following her arrest the hospital launched an investigation and discovered three co-workers who made some “very damaging remarks” about her — “not about my work, but about my personality,” she noted. Saunders believes these were inspired in part by her conservative political views.
“They blatantly fired me,” she said.
Not content with handing her walking papers, Saunders was not even allowed to clean out her own desk.
“They didn’t want me to set foot on their premises. They cleaned out my desk and had a courier bring my things to me,” she said.
“If this incident (the raid) hadn’t happened, I’d still be at work. But thanks to the sheriff’s department I’ve been fired from a job I’ve held for 13 years, my reputation is shot, my family has been traumatized, our lives have been shattered.”
In the coming three weeks, the Fresno Four will be selecting an attorney to represent them at the May 4 arraignment.
Says Blaine Williams: “We’ve taken a low profile so far because we had hoped the prosecutor’s office would look at all the information and decide to walk away from it. They have decided to proceed with formal charges, so the reality at this point is that our rights have been violated. They have no regard for the trauma that this has taken on our personal lives, and we are not going to stand for it. We’re going to the media locally and any venue that we can and let people know what is taking place here.”