The Price of Imperfection: Small Business Gets Slammed for Ginseng

Wiebke’s attorney, James Koby, said his clients unintentionally violated the Lacey Act, which will cost them nearly $500,000 after the federal penalties, settling with Chinese buyers, Chap Hing Cheng Ltd., loss of two years of business and hiring a corporate compliance officer.

“That’s quite a financial punishment for a firm … that is the livelihood for seven families,” he said.

La Crosse Tribune

It’s commonly said, or at least it once was, that ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it.

But in an age of 2,000 page laws and a vigorous regulatory structure at the local, state, and federal level that often produces tens of thousands of pages of regulations for each major piece of legislation, is that really true anymore? It’s practically impossible for a well-meaning company to keep up.

In the case of Wiebke Fur of La Crosse, a family-owned small business headquartered in a modest one-level shop on the city’s north side, the massive financial penalty for dealing in illegal ginseng – just their second violation of any kind in the company’s 80 year history – is simply staggering.

The case is the rare moment when the crest of an overactive regulatory government is so high that it pokes through the surface and even newspapers, typically disinterested in the toll big government takes on employers, take notice.

The Lacey Act prohibits acquisition, transportation or sales of certain plants and wildlife taken in violation of state law. Most people probably don’t even know that ginseng is so heavily regulated, practically comparable to selling Crocodil to kids.

The magistrate was unwilling to offer any leniency for a company that’s well respected with a very clean record despite an eight decade history. Further, a state conservation warden said the case was very unique as rarely is a trading firm raked over the coals for such a violation; Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim O’Shea couldn’t even recall prosecuting a ginseng buyer.

Yet our judicial-regulatory complex keeps getting more and more arbitrary. While Magistrate Steven Crocker threw the book at this small business, local judge Ramona Gonzalez let the perp of a brutal beating off the hook. In Tomah a judge basically gave a pass to two brothers who molested a little girl countless times.

I know civil and criminal courts are separate, and even further away are executive branch agencies and their own judicial systems. But it seems amazing that trading ginseng that you didn’t even know was illegally harvested is punished more harshly than sexually molesting a child or beating a man into a coma.

But to the massive backlash of a lumbering, arbitrary, and punishing federal government, at least there’s a growing market for “corporate compliance officers,” much like the one Wiebke will now have to hire.

Perhaps there’s a retired-at-55 conservation warden or federal official who needs a consulting gig. Tidy arrangement, eh?

Quote of the Day

“In order to bear false witness, a person has to know explicitly that what he or she is saying is not true. The false statement has to benefit the speaker…President Obama has a lot to lose if he did indeed tell outright lies to the American people.”

Bill O’Reilly

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See the difference in how these two portray the story:

And oh yeah, it’s Halloween?

Uff Da

Onalaska teacher has her kids sit down, surrounded by chanting protesters at state capitol


…Imagine being married to the same person…forever. This is a show that I’ll be DVRing for sure.

About the writer: Chris Rochester has worked in communications and finance for a state Senate and congressional campaign, consulted on numerous Assembly and local races, and has held leadership roles in his local Republican Party. He's communications director for the MacIver Institute. Commentary here is strictly his own.