Mad-Dog Prosecutors and Other Hazards of American Business
by Michael Zinn
reviewed by Ian Bullock

The first several chapters of Michael Zinn’s ordeal under the American justice system challenged this reader’s sense of the credible. Indeed, there almost appeared to be a sardonic sense of humor in his critical self-examination in the early chapters that invites the reader on to find out what comes next. However, as the plot deepens the whole story becomes deadly serious because this could happen to any citizen. Zinn is clearly an articulate, astute businessman who leaves us with an important message about democracy in America that is well worth the price of this book.

Mad-Dog Prosecutors is not a scholarly examination of the criminal justice system as it relates to the business world, but the first hand experiences of a talented individual who built a successful company dedicated to renewable energy and clean independent power generation. He writes that he was untutored and by his own account naïve in the ways of the law, the tactics of take-over vultures, and the powers of an over-zealous prosecutor.

Zinn tells us about his early altruistic endeavours in the environmental movement in upstate New York – of  “Woodstock graduates who brought a sense of mission to the business world.” He relates how they scrambled to make ends meet; the constant theme of no money; how they went public; the raising of capital, and the ever-present flock of lawyers to be paid. Evidently he must have been doing a lot of things right because after being on the brink of bankruptcy on more than one occasion his company, Besicorp, grew to the stage of being able to generate sufficient third-party capital to successfully bid on and carry out big-league power plant developments. Developing such a project takes years, and Zinn engagingly leads the reader through the intricacies of risk in such an undertaking. He observes that “we refined the creation of third-party-risk capital to an art form”, which makes you wonder how unskilled he really was in dealing with lawyers as claimed.

The character of Zinn that comes through to this reader is that of a hard-driving entrepreneur and deal-maker, temperamental, generous, supportive of his team, given to occasional lapses of judgment and lack of attention to detail. Most love him but some hate him, and there’s not much in between.

Zinn’s troubles began high-mindedly enough through his involvement in the 1992 Hinchey congressional campaign as Campaign Financial Chairman, disregarding his wife’s caution that: “You will be operating where you have no knowledge or experience. Besides, politicians are slime and you’re just going to be used.” His ego prevailed, but she was right. His undoing came about through his failure to differentiate between his personal role, and his corporate role, when it came to what is permissible or not under Federal law pertaining to political campaigning. He lacked circumspection, thus becoming a sitting-duck for the already-circling corporate raiders who latched onto the unfortunate timing of certain campaign donations to use that and more distorted information in complaints to assorted U.S. government agencies. “I understand that I committed a series of innocent acts that were imprudent because they enabled adversaries to make allegations that drew the attention of the government” he observes. No sooner does one agency start an investigation than others soon follow with their own fishing expeditions, and so it was that Michael Zinn became the focus of interest by Federal and State law enforcement agencies, as well as the Internal Revenue Service. All the while legal costs mounted and the effectiveness of Besicorp’s business was undermined, providing more grist for the mill of the dissident shareholders and others seeking to remove Zinn from office. 

Eventually, and against his better judgment, Zinn allowed himself to be convinced by several of his advisors and independent attorneys that winning at trial was becoming a very risky proposition and that he should plea-bargain. Only a fraction of those who go to trial are ever acquitted. What followed was a very one-sided agreement in favor of the government that, after application of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, and following pre-sentence screening  by a hard-bitten but humane probation officer, sent Zinn to prison for a full six months. But that was not all. The prosecuting attorney had a few vindictive tricks up his sleeve to teach Zinn a lesson by causing him to be subjected to some cruel and inhumane handling, such as being cuffed, shackled and transported from one hellish prison to another before reaching his final destination. Practices more common to Third World dictatorships.

Michael Zinn wants to raise an alarm with this book. The average citizen’s concern about public and private safety has provided “fertile ground for demagogues who are driven to pursue a politically motivated anti-crime agenda. When the apparatus is turned on one’s enemies, it’s easy to cheer the process on. But when one’s enemies have the power to turn the situation around, woe to those who seek to inflict punishment as an example to others, or to justify their budgets, or to rise in the bureaucracy of the criminal justice system, or who believe in the severity of the law but accept the word of the most personally motivated (witnesses) to enforce it.” He states that non-elected bureaucrats have come to wield great power in the U.S. and that billions in tax money is going into the prison system and law enforcement-related employment. “A veritable prison industry is in place and it has a vested interest in maintaining and steadily increasing the rate of incarceration.” 

Zinn proposes and elaborates in detail on the following correctives:

  • End the rhetoric of The War on Crime.
  • Change course in The War on Drugs.
  • Lighten-up on white-collar crime.
  • Stop plea-bargain abuses and end mandatory sentences.
  • Develop alternative sentences.
  • Remove prosecutor immunity.
  • Implement civil litigation reform. 

Practical advice for a cancer afflicting American society!

I. B.
 
Mad-Dog Prosecutors: And Other Hazards of American Business, by Michael Zinn, Barrytown, Ltd. September  1999


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