Courtroom theatrics is not what the Harmon case is about. Its “bottom line” is the theft from 230 people, mostly elderly, of their life savings, and of health coverage from several hundred more. That’s what it’s all about.Nevertheless, when Harmon comes back to court on May 4 of this year, there ought to be some drama in the courtroom.
The question then will not be guilty or innocence; Harmon has already admitted his culpability. What is to be decided is how much jail time he will get.
Harmon pled to two counts of conspiracy and tax fraud. The prescribed sentence for the first is five years, and the second, three. But at the formal sentencing in May, it’s the judge’s call whether Harmon will serve these terms concurrently, for a total of five years behind bars, or consecutively, for a total of eight years.
Before passing sentence, the judge hears from all interested parties. That’s when the victims get to come and speak their piece before the judge and their victimizer. This should provide some high drama.
In fact, there’s already been some tense scenes like this, at creditors meetings for Harmon’s bankruptcy case. Numerous angry investors showed up at these sessions, as did Harmon. Judy Swem, who also sat in on some of them, says she thought “they were going to tar and feather him right there.”
What will the judge be likely to hear?
Some of the victims have already said their piece. Esther Hardinger is one of them.
A retired schoolteacher and a widow from Coldwater, Kansas, Esther Hardinger invested with Harmon after her husband’s death. She put it all, $40,663.48, with him. “Because of him,” she said, “I lost my financial security.”
Hardinger spoke last November in Washington DC. She was part of a press conference staged by the North American Securities Administrators Association, dealing with what these specialists called “affinity group fraud.”
- “In July 1996,” she said, “I received a letter from Phil Harmon saying there would be no more money. The money was gone! I was in great stress and depression as my Social Security is not enough to live on.”I would call the Harmons and ask for some money but they would only ignore me…. I have health problems and the medicines are costly….
“Because of Phil Harmon’s greed and dishonesty he has not only robbed me—but my children and future generations….
“Many of the families who have been robbed by Phil Harmon are applying to Welfare for commodities to even exist, and I will be one of them….
“My question is–how could…the judge decide to give him just an eight year sentence when he has ruined so many lives…?”
Beside Hardinger stood another widow, her sister, Lois Hutson, of Wichita. Hutson said:
- “My husband, who was a minister for 46 years, passed away suddenly in 1992 and left me $100,000 to live on for the rest of my life. I invested my monies with a man who was part of my church organization and he is now being prosecuted for fraud. And I can only hope to get back a tiny percentage of my original $95,000.”In 1996 I had a valve replacement and a heart bypass. I feel very deprived. It is hard to buy the mediations I no need. My life is completely changed with the loss of the money. I receive only a few hundred dollars from Social Security. No longer can I buy clothing and other necessities of life. I spend many hours searching coupons for groceries and other items. My car is nearly 11 years old with no hope of ever buying another one. Purchasing things for my home is a no no….
“One time I called Phil Harmon to tell him I was desperate for money. All he could say was, ‘If I send money to you you will just sue me with it!’”
Her views on the sentencing were direct: “It sounds like the judge may only give him a sentence of eight years which in my opinion is far too small.” [On her written statement, she had written and crossed out the following sentence: “I had hoped it would be for the rest of his life.”]
“I pray that justice will be done for this man and he’ll never be able to treat anyone else like he has treated me and 230 others that have been in this horrible investment company.”
“I want to say,” she concluded, “I’m so thankful for my family and my God’s help during this extremely difficult time.”
The judge could well hear many more similar stories. Last June Dave Pinkham, publisher of the Stanwood-Camano News, sat in on a meeting of Harmon investors. The News is a local weekly which has covered the Harmon case extensively.One investor, Ralph Armstrong, lost $203,000, and had to return to work at age 78 to make ends meet. Another couple, Pat and Joy Getty, lost $125,000, 80 percent of their retirement fund. “We’re both back to work now,” Pat said. “I’m 74 years old and I’m working two jobs now,” said Edna Fletcher. She and her husband lost $82,000. Others spoke of losing sleep night after night, and their loss of trust in people.
There will likely be much of this for the judge to mull over. Harmon will also have his defenders, however. At least, some character witnesses, who gave statements to Dave Pinkham praising Harmon’s charitable donations and his fine family values.
The judge’s decision will make a big difference to Harmon, but he’s going to jail in any case. And as I’ve read these comments, I was struck by a recurring theme among them, one which is not supposed to weigh heavily with the judge, but is very significant for our purposes.
The most frequent comments about Phil and Steve Harmon had to do with their identification as churchmen.
- “I knew him through church,” said Tex Kazda, who lost his $119,000 IRA. “He seemed honest and smart, and had lots of assets and a happy family.””He was a pillar in the church and the community,” Joy Getty agreed. “He was a success.”
“I thought he was a good Christian man,” said another woman.
Lots of people around Camano agreed. Fully a hundred of his investors came from the Stanwood-Camano area, many of them from the Camano Chapel congregation. Harmon even held $48,000 of the church’s school fund, on behalf of its pastor, who lost almost $40,000 of his family’s funds.
- “The hardest thing,” says Norma Beebe of Eugene, Oregon, “has been to recognize that such a trust could have been broken in Christian circles.” Beebe is Terry Beebe’s mother; another widow, she lost $135,000.
This record brings to mind a comment by author-psychiatrist Scott Peck, in his book, People of the Lie, that “…one of the places evil people are most likely to be found is within the church. What better way to conceal one’s evil from oneself, as well as others, than to be a deacon or some other highly visible form of Christian within our culture?” (P. 76)
It was this same identification, going back half a century in Oregon/Northwest Yearly Meeting, which opened so many doors (and shut so many mouths) among Friends for Harmon as well.
In a penetrating book on confidence games, Swindling and Selling, Yale Law School’s Arthur Leff wrote astringently of what he called the “godcon” versions of confidence games. Leff specialized in consumer law, and he cautioned that “…I am not arguing that religion in general, or organized religion in particular, is a swindle. I am suggesting instead that if one does set out crookedly to acquire money for one’s personal benefit, there are structural components in a religious context which make the job of the conscientious swindler very much easier.”
This disbelief in the likelihood of being victimized by one’s own is such a component. We have seen this in spades in both the Deters and Harmon situations.
Another is a desire to keep quiet about such victimization when it happens. This tendency seems very widespread among church groups, but it seems highly pronounced among evangelical Friends, and in Northwest Yearly Meeting in particular.
This silence is the more peculiar in light of the fact that his whole career was built around churches which make much of their commitment to the Bible. One might think that if Harmon even halfheartedly shares this commitment, he would have to consider himself to be in very deep spiritual trouble.
After all, the scriptures resound with denunciations of confidence men. Take the notorious passage in First Corinthians Six, just after the command to avoid lawsuits, where Paul lists the categories of the “unrighteous” who “shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”In recent years whole denominations have endured agony and schism over whether Paul meant to include homosexuals on this list, in verse 9. Harmon’s yearly meeting has taken pains to make sure that anyone who reads its “Faith and Practice” knows where it stands on this point, with a strict evangelical view of this passage.
But I have seen no questions raised about the legitimacy of the next verse in Paul’s catalog, which specifically denounces “swindlers” as destined for the outer darkness. Yet Northwest Yearly Meeting did not find Harmon’s crimes worth mentioning in its 1997 minutes, even tho he and Steve Harmon both held high appointed positions on its behalf.
For that matter, a chapter earlier, in 1 Cor 5:11, Paul insists that Christians are “not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be…a swindler–not even to eat with such a one.”
While his victims lose sleep over paying their medical bills and buying groceries, I wonder: Do the Harmons ever wake up in a cold sweat, hearing echoes of Matthew 23:14:
- “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses, even while for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you shall receive greater condemnation.”
Or maybe the searing rebuke of Isaiah: “Woe to those who…rob the poor of my people of their rights, in order that widows may be their spoil.” (10:1)