Long before he orchestrated a scheme to rig auctions of tax liens in Baltimore, attorney and real estate mogul Harvey M. Nusbaum had a long and lucrative career in officially sanctioned crime as an IRS agent.
In 2002, Nusbaum grew weary of robbing people on behalf of the state. Rather than repenting in sackcloth and ashes, as any decent person would, he hired out as a privateer -- a freelance buyer and collector of tax debts.
This form of retail fascism -- a public-private partnership in plunder -- was immensely profitable for Nusbaum. Had he exercised even the slightest restraint on his corrupt appetite, Nusbaum most likely wouldn't be headed for prison.
Maryland is one of 29 states that permit city governments to raise money by selling tax debts to investors. Each year, Baltimore's municipal government bundles up tax liens against properties whose owners haven't paid local taxes or utility bills (such as water and sewage fees) and sells them at auction.
In the most recent auction, Baltimore sold liens on 12,689 properties -- ranging from rotting shells of long-abandoned homes to office buildings in the downtown business district. Purchasers assume responsibility for collecting the debts, and the opportunity to foreclose on properties whose owners can't pay them off.
According to a study conducted by the Baltimore Sun, twenty percent of those liens involved amounts smaller than $1,000. Financial necromancers employed by collection agencies can transmute a trivial amount -- a delinquent utility bill or an unpaid and long-forgotten municipal citation -- into a budget-crippling debt of several thousand dollars.