It started over a cherry 1977 Corvette named Betsy.
"Ever since they took that car, the fight's been on," Denny Hardin says. He's talking to The Pitch by phone from the Moberly Correctional Center, where he's serving the first months of a five-year sentence for a probation violation.
By "they," he means the United States of America.
Hardin didn't plan to wage a one-man war against the government. He was once a loyal citizen; he even served in the Navy in the 1980s. By 1991, he was in his late 20s, divorced from the wife he'd met in Tokyo, and back in his hometown of Kansas City. He began dating a hairdresser named Sherry Lee, who wanted to open her own salon. They found a space and started work on it, sleeping on the floor of the shop when they didn't have enough money to also rent an apartment.
But then they were in a car accident. The insurance company paid out $20,000 for medical bills and the cost of the car.
They spent $7,780 on Betsy. Hardin found the car on the lot of a Raytown Chevrolet dealer. It was in such pristine condition that it was just a thousand dollars less than the original sticker price. A '77 Stingray is one of the most popular Corvette models ever made, the type of car that bikini-wearing models still recline against on the covers of muscle-car magazines.
The rest of the money went to medical bills, but Lee couldn't work. Her hands, which she had relied on to style hair, now shook uncontrollably.
"Then I got laid off from my construction job," Hardin remembers.
"The one good thing we had was Betsy."
For the next few months, money was scarce. One day, a friend of Hardin's from grade school asked if Hardin could help him find some weed. His friend promised that Hardin would make a couple of bucks for setting up the deal.
When they got to the dealer's house, the friend feigned shyness, telling Hardin that because the dealer didn't know him, it was better that he stay in the car while Hardin bought the dope. Hardin went in and bought a half-pound of pot. When he came back out, police arrested him.
"It turned out, that friend had been busted by the cops earlier, and he set me up because he'd made a deal with them to deliver people," Hardin says. He served 120 days and got five years' probation.
Even worse, the cops claimed that the Stingray had been bought with drug money, so they confiscated it.
The next time Hardin saw Betsy, almost a year later, she had been painted up as an ad for the D.A.R.E. program.
Lee eventually left him. He knows that she's in Iowa somewhere, working as a paralegal, but they haven't spoken in years. "When they took Betsy away, that just about destroyed her. Betsy was repayment for almost dying," he says.
"I promised her I'd make up for what they did, and I still keep that promise."
He didn't start right away. Hardin spent the next few years in a crack-smoking stupor, dropping down to 87 pounds before checking himself into a hospital for rehab. As he convalesced, he read history and law books. Eventually, the man who was still three credits short of his associate's degree at Longview Community College was offering legal advice to friends and family. Before long, he learned how to make his own bank.
The Private Bank of Denny Hardin, responsible for writing more than $160 million in bonded promissory notes to borrowers all around the country, is a two-story house on the East Side of Kansas City. Taped to the door is a notice declaring that no foreign agents are allowed to search the premises. Inside, shelf after shelf is filled with accordion folders holding the names and addresses of the people for whom Hardin, with the help of his fiancée, Melinda Harrington, has written bonds.
Hardin theorizes that it's possible to file a document that renounces one's U.S. citizenship and instead declares what he refers to as American citizenship. By doing this, the newly declared American citizen can take possession of an account that is supposedly set up by the feds on the occasion of every person's birth. Next, the American citizen can file a financial statement with the U.S. Secretary of State and copyright his or her name. The Americans Republic Party explains that with these three simple steps, it's possible to become a sovereign with the right to cash checks from one's established-at-birth account.
In April 2009, the Office of Inspector General at the U.S. Department of the Treasury posted a fraud alert. In 2008, Treasury agents noticed that people were sending in notes and bonds to pay their taxes.
"These scams have been directed towards banks, charities, individuals, and companies which seek payment on the fraudulent securities," the Treasury warned. In most cases, perpetrators were writing bonds with a Treasury Bureau routing number in place of a bank's and were writing their own Social Security numbers where the checking-account numbers would normally be listed. "Fraudulent seminars are being held throughout the United States, which teach attendees how to create the aforementioned fictitious documents and how to use federal routing numbers," the Treasury warned.
Other than the part about putting on seminars, the warning was essentially a description of Hardin's operation.
Hardin says he has never charged his clients anything more than the administrative cost of filing his notes (typically no more than $100) and has never asked for repayment on a loan. If he's telling the truth, that's a lot of risk for little payoff.
One of Hardin's early customers was Bob Suppenbach, who had known him when the cops took Betsy but had lost track of him. (Those were the years when Hardin was addicted to crack, Suppenbach learned.)
"I ran into a mutual friend, and he told us what had happened to him." The mutual friend then told Hardin about running into Suppenbach. "Denny came out to see us two days later and he's been coming to the house ever since."
Suppenbach wasn't immediately sold on Hardin's new calling. But as a man who had his own troubles with the government, he saw the appeal. In the late 1960s, state agents removed Suppenbach and his three brothers from their mother's care. Suppenbach says his two brothers were later molested by people who were supposed to watch out for them, and both died in the 1980s after contracting HIV. Before Hardin was busted in a drug sting, Suppenbach served four months in the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth for making cable descramblers for satellite dishes. "I'm the only man in the whole damn country who's served time in a federal prison for stealing HBO," Suppenbach says.
He had money troubles, too.
"Seems like everything I went and got involved in, for one reason or another after two or three years, got obsolete. Got into TV repair, VCR repair, then computers. Then I thought I'd try construction. I got a company set up, got all my trailers, my tools, spent thousands of dollars getting set up in construction. Then the market fell out."
Suppenbach had a $60,000 mortgage hanging over him. Then in 2006, he joined the class of plaintiffs in a multistate lawsuit against the company that supposedly held his title, Ameriquest Mortgage. The nation's largest subprime lender settled claims of predatory lending by agreeing to pay $295 million in restitution and changing its lending practices. A year later, Suppenbach got a collection notice for the same loan from Citibank, whose parent company, Citigroup, had acquired much of Ameriquest in 2007. During last year's bank bailout, Citigroup's arrangement with the government ensured that about $20 billion in federal dollars would be directly invested in the company, in addition to $306 billion to help back loans and securities.
"They were selling them back and forth. It didn't matter that they defrauded me and I won in court. They got rewarded for it."
When it comes to not knowing exactly who owns his mortgage, Suppenbach has a lot of company. In many cases, even the banks aren't sure. (Last year, researchers at the University of Iowa found that out of 1,733 foreclosures begun in 2006, 40 percent of the foreclosing creditors showed no proof of ownership on the note or security investment in the property.) If a bank has to contest a payment's legitimacy — for example, if payment is presented in the form of a bonded promissory note from a self-proclaimed banker — then not being able to show proof of ownership could actually help the homeowner, or at least let the homeowner delay getting kicked into the street.
After Hardin's 2009 incarceration, the Americans Republic Party Web site posted a list of other private banks. As of February, the only links were to a man named Charles Elliot in Henderson, Arkansas (who did not return The Pitch's calls), and J.W. Patterson, president and founder of Shadow Mountain Bank in Ash Fork, Arizona.
The latter is probably the only financial institution in the country whose Web site includes links to prove it's a real bank, along with clip art of doves carrying roses in their teeth and a teddy bear that somersaults and dances over the P.O. Box number.
Patterson says the Treasury Department is just catching up.
"I've been doing this since the '80s," he says.
Patterson says he has written bonds for thousands of people, including members of the Montana Freemen — the group that spent 81 days in a standoff with the FBI in 1996, defending land they claimed was their own, separate from the United States. (They were also known for passing counterfeit checks and money orders.) Today, the group's most famous former member is Scott Roeder, admitted killer of Kansas abortion provider George Tiller.
Patterson won't say how many clients request his help in a given day, just that Shadow Mountain has a budget of $500 a week for ink.
In Kansas City, at least one family considers Hardin an angel.
In March 2009, KCTV Channel 5 aired video of a 44-year-old named Denelle Ginder-Brown, who was near tears.
All around the country, people had been losing their homes. Ginder-Brown, who worked as a cashier, lived in a house on East 93rd Street near Indiana Avenue with her husband, 63-year-old James Brown, and their two children. They had lived there for 15 years and had a deal with the owner: They would make the monthly mortgage payments and eventually the house would be theirs. In 2004, the owner died and willed the house to them. They kept writing checks to Capitol Federal and never missed a payment.
But within months of the owner's death, Capitol Federal ordered that the remaining $10,000 balance on the mortgage be paid immediately or else it would foreclose on the house. The Browns didn't have the money.
A representative from the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America — a group that helps families facing foreclosure — looked at the case and discovered that Capitol Federal had continued accepting payments even though it knew that the Browns' deal wasn't a legal sale of the property. NACA's local director tried to work out a payment plan, but Capitol Federal refused. In a suit brought against Ginder-Brown by Capitol Federal, a judge ruled that the bank owned the property because her name was never on the title. The family was given a week to find a new place to live. Channel 5 aired the story on Monday, March 2, 2009, and the property was scheduled for auction on Monday, March 9.
On the day of the auction, Channel 5 aired a new story. This time, Denelle Ginder-Brown was smiling. Capitol Federal had relented because, as it turned out, it was only servicing a loan that was owned by Freddie Mac, which had decided to work with her on a new loan. But there was even better news. An anonymous good Samaritan had seen the Browns on the previous week's broadcast and offered to pay the loan completely. All Ginder-Brown had to do was wait for the bank to confirm that it had received the house payment in full, and then she could see her name on the title. The moral to the story: There are good people in the world.
The family's anonymous savior was Hardin.
"We got down on our knees and we prayed for God to help us because we didn't have anything else we could do," says Brown, who is currently on disability. "We believe God makes a way out of no way, and he sent Denny Hardin."
At first, the Browns were skeptical of Hardin's claims that he was a private bank. Then he gave them a packet with all the steps he had taken, what laws he had to abide by, the ordinances that must be followed. They decided their prayers had been answered.
Immediately after Hardin paid their mortgage, the couple says, they received a visit from FBI agents telling them that Hardin was paying off other people's homes with fraudulent bonds. James Brown claims that the agents asked him to inform on Hardin. But it's hard to convince people to roll on a man sent by God to save them.
The Browns believe that the status of their house is still uncertain; they claim that they're still fighting over the initial loan disagreement. Most of their belongings are in storage, and they're ready to move on a moment's notice.
"We're down to the barest of essentials in here," Brown says. "Our house is almost naked because we don't know the final outcome. But if it hadn't been for Denny's help, we'd have been steamrolled right over from the start."
Since he started his bank in September 2008, Hardin says, most of the $160 million in notes that he has written have been to pay off people's bank loans and keep them from going into foreclosure.
"As far as I can tell, nobody's lost their house who he helped," Brown says. "He put a new roof on our house, and he saved us from being on the street, and he never asked us for a dime."
The thing about probation-violation hearings is that they're supposed to be simple. There are no mitigating circumstances. There are no degrees of violation. Either you broke the terms of your probation or you didn't. Denny Hardin has a gift for making simple things complicated.
At this late-summer hearing in 2009, Hardin is accused of violating a probation order restricting him from appearing in court or filing papers on behalf of anyone other than himself. The probation stems from an incident in 2006, when he camped out on the steps of the Capitol in Jefferson City and tried to arrest Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder for violating the U.S. Constitution.
Hardin appears unassuming for a man who wants to bring down the federal government — a "paper terrorist," as some agents refer to him. He is slight, with long hair and a beard, wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt that reads "Americans Republic Party" and "Don't Tread On Me." Along with the slogans, the shirt bears the yellow Gadsden flag — a favorite symbol among Tea Partiers — with its symbol of a coiled snake ready to strike.
The snake also appears on the chests of 30 other men and women of the Americans Republic Party who have filled the right side of the courtroom. Each one holds a black, leather-bound copy of the Constitution. The Browns are there. So is Suppenbach. Several supporters are Hardin's bank customers.
Over the course of what becomes a two-hour hearing, Hardin objects to every possible authority that the court tries to exert over him, including its authority to make him sit down. On this point, Judge Stephen Nixon concedes, and Hardin spends the trial brandishing a copy of the Constitution over his head as if it were a Bible at an exorcism.
Hardin's argument against being forced to sit down is the only victory he has today. To list each overruled objection would take more pages than a pocket Constitution. Nixon overrules with a calm that seems uncaring to the members of the Americans Republic Party and generous to the two prosecuting attorneys.
Hardin's most minor objections involve claims that he was forced to sign documents under duress. His most sweeping denounce the legitimacy of the judge, the court, the legal systems of the state of Missouri and the United States, and the bar-admitted lawyers who have sworn allegiance to British royalty.
Hardin's followers take copious notes, recording their leader's argument every time Nixon denies a motion.
When the hearing ends, Hardin has been sentenced to five years in prison. There's a collective gasp from Hardin's supporters. The prosecuting attorneys and the judge are unmoved. Sentencing is always followed by a gasp.
Hardin takes off his choker necklace and gives it to Harrington.
"I guess now I'll be writing that letter to the president of the United States from the Jackson County Jail," he says, before officers escort him away in handcuffs.
In the Moberly Correctional Center, Hardin's days are scheduled around four strict appointments. At 7:15 a.m., 11 a.m., 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., he gets a phone call from Harrington.
Hardin spends time in the law library. Being incarcerated hasn't given him second thoughts about offering his services to his fellow inmates.
"My theory is that if there's no property damage and no injured party, there's no crime," he tells The Pitch. "Most of the guys in here never committed a crime. It's just the system bringing them in so it can make money off of their incarceration."
He's certain that if he files enough motions, if he cites the right laws, he can build a chain of arguments he can follow back to the world.
In Kansas City, the Americans Republic Party is confident that, any day now, Hardin will be released. "We're all working on it and doing what we can," James Brown says. "I think he'll be out in a couple weeks."
Patterson, in Arizona, is also trying to help. "Probably 90 percent of the people he was helping have come to me," Patterson says. "I'm writing a bond to try and get him out right now. Of course, he didn't set his bank up totally right — he missed a few things, but I can help him correct it all when he gets out."
The right paperwork is crucial, Hardin says.
"I have to show them I'm right. We can't be violent. We can't tell people to go out and get guns. We have to win with the power of our reason. We have to show them they're wrong and we're right."