Free Jimmy Haslam! Go After Terrorists!

05/10/2013 03:49 pm ET Updated Jul 09, 2013
CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 04: Team owner Jimmy Haslam of the Cleveland Browns walks the field prior to the game against the Ba
CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 04: Team owner Jimmy Haslam of the Cleveland Browns walks the field prior to the game against the Baltimore Ravens at Cleveland Browns Stadium on November 4, 2012 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

One would not think that the Cleveland Browns football team has much to do with the Boston Marathon bombing, and it may not, but the connection is worth considering as we ponder how to protect ourselves against future terrorist attacks. In my estimation, the connection is that the diversion of law enforcement -- particularly FBI -- resources from prevention of mass crimes to commercial disputes may have impaired our ability to thwart this terrorist plot.

It is clear that the FBI had some notice of concern as to the activities of the Tsarnaev brothers -- the alleged bombing perpetrators -- but did not pursue the matter. The same week the bombing occurred, we also saw an FBI and IRS investigation into and raid upon the headquarters' premises of truck stop operator Pilot Flying J, the primary business of Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam.

The concern of federal authorities appears to be the alleged, intentional failure of Pilot Flying J to pay to truckers, rebates called for in contracts between the two of them. Without question, if the contracts called for such payments and the company intentionally or inadvertently failed to make them, the truckers are entitled to recover in a civil lawsuit for the breach, and possibly interest, attorneys fees' and punitive damages. Perhaps more importantly, truckers are free to take their business to competing, more honorable, truck stop operators. This is the same recourse available to anyone who is a party to a contract which is breached.

What I cannot understand is why any of this should be the concern of federal (or any) law enforcement authorities. Contracts are breached intentionally and inadvertently every day and the matters are routinely handled in civil actions for money damages, without any involvement by law enforcement. Whatever may have been the intentions of Pilot Flying J management, I see no reason for these breaches to be treated so differently. The matter is simply of no importance to the general public and has no impact on public safety.

This involvement in commercial affairs would be bad enough even without terroristic acts, as unwarranted government interference in the economy, but is deeply troubling here when the Boston tragedy has occurred. We will never know whether the FBI could have stopped this act had it pursued the leads it had on the Tsarnaevs, just as we will never know if it could and would have pursued such leads if it wasn't tasked with investigating alleged private sector misconduct. However, the FBI, like everyone else, has limited resources, and I would certainly feel better knowing that such resources were being used to protect the physical safety of the public to the fullest extent possible. To the extent the agency is through its own choices or direction from other government agencies, getting involved in commercial disputes, it is less able to address threats to the general public.

This is not the only time in recent months that we have seen law enforcement authorities involved in matters which appear to be primarily civil in nature. Early last year, we were treated to the spectacle of federal authorities pursuing criminal charges and extradition proceedings in New Zealand, against principals of a company which was allegedly facilitating the infringement of American copyrights. It is far from clear that this situation involved even a civil wrong, let alone a crime, or if it did, what it has to do with America. Whatever the case may be, pursuing such matters through criminal proceedings does nothing to make safer the general public and diverts law enforcement resources from this effort. There is no reason why the copyright holders could not have pursued infringement actions on their own.

I suggest that those investigating what went wrong in the Boston case need to look at what the FBI and other agencies are being asked to do, and make some honest choices as to what the public needs. We don't need elaborate hearings to identify and correct such an obvious misallocation of resources.