Don’t lick that envelope!

Tara has a real horror story: a geneticist failed to follow procedure in mailing some samples, sharing some harmless commercial strains of some innocuous and common bacteria with an artist, the kind of thing that a bureaucrat would reasonably respond to with a hand-slap and insistence that the mistake not be repeated. Except that in this case the federal government has charged in under the pretext of anti-bioterrorism laws (thanks, Patriot Act) and…

Normally, this would be an issue handled between Ferrell (and his university) and ATCC; however, under the broad definitions of mail and wire fraud under the Patriot Act, the government stepped in and charged Kurtz and Ferrell with mail and wire fraud–felonies that, since they’re being charged under the Patriot Act, could carry a possible 20-year sentence.

The whole thing is a ham-handed mess, mismanaged by utterly clueless federal law enforcement agencies who basically freaked out over a vial of ordinary soil bacteria. Be careful not to sneeze anywhere near your income tax returns, or you could be guilty of biological warfare against the IRS.


  1. AntonGarou says

    Sounds familiar- I heard of a case where they charged someone who sent forms that had talc powder on them.She even got sentenced to some months in prison:(

  2. Jon says

    Damn Patriot Act! It screwed me as well. 11 years ago I went to court for a misdemeanor and paid the fine, now they (the N.C. agency responsible – I live in C.A.) say that I have to take ~2k in classess because of post 911 interstate regulation. Well I guess I have no choice but to eat it. In order to cover my tuition I’ll be on food rations and late on the rent. What an unethical law to hit me out of the blue and with such bad timing this late –

  3. J Myers says

    Jon, consult with a lawyer and see if you can contest that requirement on ex post facto grounds. I’m no lawyer and could well be mistaken, but I thought the U.S. Constitution explicitly forbid this sort of thing. Though sadly, the Constitution doesn’t seem to carry the sort of weight that it used to…

  4. David Harmon says

    Jon: IIRC, this is one of the reasons there is a statute of limitations.

    In any case, the real point of both Jon’s story and the original one is, as Tara puts it, “no one is safe from prosecution”. Or more correctly, persecution.

  5. Dustin says

    I think this was a ham-handed mess, but it isn’t one any more. After it was revealed to be a ham-handed mess, they decided to launch their nasty little vindictive witch-hunt, as though burning everyone involved for anything they can nail them on will validate their original mistake. “See?! He was a criminal after all!”

    Bernard Gui lives.

  6. Dustin says

    This is so like the Republic of Venice. Our Patriot Act is a vague and punitive mockery of law that doles out harsh punishments for poorly or abusively defined transgressions. Sweeping laws that lack specifics and careful definitions invite abuse, and there’s always someone there to abuse them.

    The Patriot Act might as well be a one-line document: “Do not defame the Republic”, enforced by a state inquisition under the auspices of the Council of Ten and by anonymous drop-boxes where upright and pious citizens can rat on their neighbors.

  7. craig says

    This was big news in all the alternative press in Buffalo when the story first broke about 3 years ago. The sometimes-good Buffalo Beast criticized the artist, if I remember correctly. A low point.

  8. craig says

    Just had a thought – do you have to file paperwork to ship someone yogurt starter cultures?

  9. Dustin says

    Just had a thought – do you have to file paperwork to ship someone yogurt starter cultures?

    Probably not, but if you happen to buy some genetically modified azaleas or some shit with the “Do Not Disseminate” fine print and you send a cutting to your grandma, you might as well pack your bags for Gitmo, you degenerate terrorist scum.

  10. says

    The geneticist deserved it. I hear that when he breaks wind, he doesn’t toot “God Bless America”, so clearly he is an incipient threat to this Great Nation. The new requirements of Patriotic Flatulence may seem like an imposition to some, but we must be ever-vigilant against any anti-American threats.

  11. Josh says

    Craig –Also, the Buffalo News’s conservative columnist Mary Kunz criticized Professor Kurtz for engaging in actions that used up the time and energy of our brave federal officials when there was a war on.

  12. Utterly Clueless Federal Bureaucrat says

    I’ve got another horror story: Being locked down in my office building when someone mailed us an envelope containing a powdery substance and labelled as Anthrax. Not knowing when I’d be able to go home. Dealing wtih the hysteria of coworkers who thought they were going to die.

    Sure, it turned out to be not anthrax, probably talcum powder, but since the crazies blew up a federal building in Oklahoma city, it’s prudent to not take any chances. People mail us crazy stuff all the time, including real bombs.

    I’m glad that the experience of everyone else here has differed from mine, but I’m bothered by the cavalier attitude about the non-dissemination agreement. Is it typical of academics to sign important legal documents without intending to abide by the terms?

    Bureacrats don’t write the laws; we just enforce them. To the letter. Because if we don’t, we get fired; as well we should. Don’t like the law? Contact your legislators; they write the laws.

  13. jeccat says

    Sorry for your experience, Bureaucrat– sounds scary. But as a scientist who has worked with pathogens in the lab I know the difference between “bugs that can make you sick” and “bugs that I would feed my little sister for lunch”– and I would never, ever mail out the former. Non-dissemination agreements usually have to do with intellectual property rights, not with safety.

  14. Dustin says

    I’m bothered by the cavalier attitude about the non-dissemination agreement. Is it typical of academics to sign important legal documents without intending to abide by the terms?

    Why? Why are you so concerned about a breach of a contract regarding the dissemination of harmless bacteria when the supposedly injured party is not? Nobody was sitting around stroking their evil goatee thinking, “Today, I’ll breach my agreement not to send these bacteria to anyone, tomorrow, I’LL BREACH MY AGREEMENT NOT TO USE MY EDUCATOR COPY OF MS WORD TO WRITE AN OP-ED PIECE! BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAA!”

    That contract wasn’t there because of a health hazard, it was to protect the company’s station as a supplier. The wording of the contract was technically breached, but because the spirit of the contract was not, the supplier doesn’t care.

    This makes as much sense as having the FBI enforce a Windows TOS with the Patriot Act because it is exaclty the same thing, and commenting on how incensed you are that someone broke a TOS in light of the events that followed has made damn sure that you’ve earned that screen name of yours. Even if the federal government hadn’t abused the Patriot Act to classify that as “mail fraud” worthy of 20 years in prison, you still have no reason to be shocked and appaled at the “cavalier” attitude towards a TOS that you weren’t party to. It simply doesn’t concern you. It concerns the people who made the contract.