The Truth, Mainly - 08/05/2002

LB775, alas, makes us all corporate partners
by Leon Satterfield

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, I—mild-mannered, non-litigious ex-English teacher that I am—might 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 legal problem.

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?

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 too."

"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."

"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 others—my 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 the court:

"Olaf…does almost ceaselessly repeat
'there is 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 address is:

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