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Mabel, Manley, Martin, and Capone

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Image source = SF Library

By Grant Davies

No, the above title isn’t the name of a law firm. Nor is it the name of an accounting firm. But today’s story has to do with both accounting and the law.

On this day in 1927, a lawyer named Mabel Walker Willebrandt was preparing to argue a case with lasting implications before the Supreme Court of the United States. The case is known as United States v Sullivan.

It seems that Mabel was trying to figure out a novel way to catch a bootlegger named Manley Sullivan and prosecute him for making booze and not paying taxes on the profits. Obviously, if you want a cut of the action from someone else’s illegal doings you are either a mobster collecting a street tax or the government doing the same thing. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference, but I digress. She decided to claim that Sullivan owed Uncle Sam his share and was holding out on him.

Manley’s lawyers made the rational assertion before an federal appellate judge named Martin T. Manton that Manley’s fifth amendment rights would be violated if he was forced to confess to crimes when filing his income taxes. They also observed that if the government took their cut as taxes they would be guilty of aiding and abetting Sullivan. Many judges agreed, and Martin Manton was one of them. That is how the whole thing ended up before the Supreme Court. Manton said it was incredulous that the government would get part of the proceeds of illegal activities.

The Supreme Court sided with Mabel. This was very bad news for a guy who wasn’t even involved. A guy named Capone. You may recall that Al Capone – a fairly successful mobster from Chicago who didn’t have the benefit of the IRS to collect his street taxes – was sent to Alcatraz after this precedent was set. But as it turned out, he was just one of the early convictees.

Another notable one was a guy named Martin Manton. Yep, the above named federal judge was later found guilty of taking $186,000 in bribes without including the feds in on the take. He got only seventeen months in prison. Maybe the fix was in.

Source material = One Summer by Bill Bryson

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