I'm not a trusted CEO or an Arthur Andersen accountant, but
I'm still afraid I may have a legal problem.
I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat saying
things like "But I didn't know what was going on, Your Honor."
Here's some background:
This spring and summer, 37 people (by the Denver Post count)
got sick after they'd eaten hamburger from the ConAgra slaughterhouse
near Greeley, CO. It took the USDA several months to figure out there
was something wrong with the hamburger and to order a recall of nearly
19 million pounds of it.
If you're just sitting down to eat a hamburger, you might
want to stop reading now.
The problem was that the ConAgra hamburger was tainted.
Well, not just tainted. It was contaminated. Not just any
contamination. E. coli contamination. As the Associated Press
delicately reminded us, "E. coli is a bacterium found in the
intestinal tract and feces of livestock."
You got it. There was cow poop in the hamburger.
A lot of people didn't get sick when they ate it, but they
didn't feel so hot weeks later when they found out what they’d eaten.
I don't know about you, but if I found out that the
hamburger I’d just eaten contained bacteria from the intestinal tract
and feces of livestock, Imild-mannered, non-litigious ex-English
teacher that I ammight have turned to the yellow pages in search of
a lawyer who specializes in gustatory insult.
And that thought is what prompts my fear that I may have a
A little more background:
Remember, ConAgra has its world headquarters in Omaha.
Omaha is in Nebraska. Nebraska has something called LB775.
Back in 1987, our legislature caved in to ConAgra's threat
to pull out of the state if LB775 didn’t pass. If I remember right,
ConAgra lawyers even helped write LB775.
What it does, see, is give great big tax rebates to Nebraska
corporations. And there's a clause in it that says the amount of the
rebate a corporation gets is a secret. Even to the legislature.
Neat law, huh?
Since it was passed, LB775 has cost the state over a billion
and a half dollars in those corporate tax refunds.
This year, the corporations are getting $140 million back.
That's about the size of the state budget shortfall the legislature is
trying to figure out how to make up. Should somebody tell them?
Anyway, when the corporations get their secret refunds, your
taxes and mine go up. Somebody's got to pay them and since we're not
incorporated, we get to.
OK. Enough background.
Here's why I worry that I may have a legal problem:
I'm afraid that LB775 makes me a de facto partner in
ConAgra. I help pay their taxes, ergo I'm a partner, and I wonder:
"Am I going to be subpoenaed? Am I going to get sued?" You know, as
an accessory to the fact of what was in the hamburger?
The Truth, Mainly
So that's why I worry that I have a legal problem. And I
deserve it too. Well, I whine, everybody was doing it. Everybody was
paying ConAgra’s taxes.
I have this recurring dream:
"Well, Mr. Satterfield," the judge says. "Your defense is
that you had no prior knowledge of the cow-poop-in-the-hamburger
caper. Yet you continued, even after the story made front pages, to
help pay ConAgra's taxes."
"But," I say. "Everybody else was paying ConAgra's taxes
"You were an English teacher, were you not?" the judge
says. "And as an English teacher, you must have been aware of e.e.
cummings' great poem, 'I sing of Olaf, glad and big,' and you must
have forever etched on your English teacher brain Olaf's immortal last
words about being personally responsible for your actions, no matter
what others are doing. Words, I'm sorry to say, that you have failed
miserably to live by."
"But," I say. "But
"But me no buts, Mr. Satterfield," the judge says. "Repeat
for the court Olaf's immortal last words."
He's right, of course. Olaf's immortal last words about
personal responsibility are forever etched on my English teacher's
brain. How oft I have repeated them to othersmy children, my
students, my dogs. And they are indeed words that I have failed
miserably to live up to. Head down, barely audible, I say them to
does almost ceaselessly repeat
some s. I will not eat.'"
"A clear-cut case of literary hypocrisy in the first
degree," the judge says. "You have failed to live up to a poetic line
you've admired for half a century. Do you want a respected CEO or an
Arthur Andersen accountant for a cellmate?"
And that's when I wake up in a cold sweat.
Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity
from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail