POTSDAM - The Ogdensburg man accused of filing $36 million in fraudulent tax-refund claims was a secretive leader in a growing antigovernment movement, according to an international organization that tracks domestic terrorists and hate groups.
Long before Glenn Richard Unger came under the scrutiny of federal prosecutors and the Southern Poverty Law Center, however, he was a talented young orthodontist who tangled with Potsdam village officials over a sign ordinance.
I was totally shocked, retired dentist Jules Comeau said about the arrest of the Brooklyn native he knew as a classmate at the SUNY Buffalo School of Dentistry in the 1970s, and later as a fellow practitioner in Potsdam during the 1980s.
He was a very, very good student, the Long Lake resident said. As a dentist, he did really great work.
Dr. Unger, 62, was indicted last month on allegations that he filed for more than $36 million in fraudulent income tax refunds between 2007 and 2011. He has been detained by federal officials, with a hearing on his detention set for today in Albany. A trial has been set for March 4 in Binghamton before Senior Judge Thomas J. McAvoy.
After seeing a Tuesday newspaper story about the indictment, Dr. Comeau said he recognized a photo of his former classmate on the website of the Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center.
That report identified Dr. Unger as a leader in the antigovernment sovereign citizens movement, which the FBI has described as a loose network of individuals who believe that federal, state, and local governments operate illegally, adopting tactics such as not paying their taxes and creating false license plates and drivers licenses.
While the movement has often focused on nonviolent resistance, Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said federal pursuit of sovereigntists has increased in the wake of several fatal clashes between adherents and police, including a 2010 Arkansas incident that left four officers dead.
This is yet another case showing how hard the government is going after the sovereign citizens, Mr. Potok said.
The 2010 Southern Poverty Law Center report on sovereign citizens identified Dr. Unger as a resident of Clifton Park, Saratoga County, who it said had been slapped with a $116,000 federal tax lien in 2009.
According to the federal indictment, on June 17, 2011, Dr. Unger filed a false document with the Saratoga County clerks office attempting to reverse a $116,410 tax lien from 2009 in which the IRS challenged his individual tax liabilities for tax years 2005 and 2006, and his frivolous filing penalties for 2004 to 2008.
The indictment also enumerates at least 13 other allegedly fraudulent refund requests, including a March 2008 document in which Dr. Unger claimed the Internal Revenue Service owed him a $35 million refund for 2007.
Dr. Ungers address does not appear in any documents unsealed in the case. The indictment alleges fraudulent filings in Saratoga and Albany counties and activities in the Northern District of New York and elsewhere, but does not specifically mention Ogdensburg or St. Lawrence County.
The Department of Justice has identified him as a resident of Ogdensburg, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Duncan said Tuesday, adding that as a matter of policy the agency does not release defendants specific street addresses.
While his connection to Ogdensburg remains unclear, Dr. Unger clearly has a history in other parts of St. Lawrence County.
A September 1978 newspaper article heralded Dr. Ungers arrival in the north country, announcing that he was planning to open a practice in Massena the following month. The article recounted a list of accolades including high school valedictorian, a mathematics degree from Brooklyn College, a dental degree and two-year residency from SUNY Buffalo followed by two years of practice in Buffalo and Los Angeles.
By June 1980, news reports detailed what may have been Dr. Ungers first public brush with government authority. Officials in Potsdam maintained a 20-foot-tall yellow sign outside his practice at 15 Pierrepont Ave. was too close to the sidewalk and violated village regulations.
His smiling teeth sign also was derided as gaudy by some residents, with Dr. Unger replying that it was high and bright to attract business and not get stolen, as previous signs had been.
After months of wrangling, the village Zoning Board of Appeals in January 1981 rejected a variance request by Dr. Unger.
He seems not to appear in any more newspaper reports until November 1993, when he sold the Pierrepont Avenue property to Dr. James P. Ferriter, who still maintains a practice there.
He was a really good orthodontist, Dr. Ferriter said Tuesday. He really was.
And also, it seems, willing to help a fellow practitioner.
With a father in the State Department, Dr. Ferriter had grown up on four continents, but spent part of his elementary school years in Plattsburgh. When he was making the transition from the U.S. Army back to civilian life inn the late 1980s, Dr. Ferriter started looking for a country practice somewhere in the Northeast. That led him to an advertisement Dr. Unger had placed in a trade journal.
There was one problem: Dr. Ferriter was extremely short on cash. Dr. Unger agreed to finance the deal for him, Dr. Ferriter recalled, an arrangement that lasted until 1995.
That was about the last time Dr. Ferriter remembered hearing from him in person.
I knew he was on the Internet, Dr. Ferriter said, adding that he several years ago he heard about an online radio show which Dr. Unger reportedly hosted under the alias Dr. Sam Kennedy.
The Southern Poverty Law Center report maintains Dr. Unger used that alias as host of the Take No Prisoners show on the Texas-based Republic Broadcasting Network. Asked about Dr. Unger, a receptionist who answered the stations phone Tuesday afternoon said he had been gone from the station for several years. She referred questions to host John Stadtmiller, who she said was on air and would not be available to answer questions until today.
Mr. Potok said interest in the movement picked up after late 2008, which many observers attribute both to the recession and some white Americans dismay over the election of Barack Obama as the nations first black president. As the economic crisis worsened, the group attracted a larger and even multiracial base, Mr. Potok said.
And, the law center says, leaders tell prospective followers that there are ways in which they can file for huge sums of money that the government is believed to hold in their name, a tactic called redemption, of which the center maintains Dr. Unger was a major proponent.
This is a movement that promises something for nothing, Mr. Potok said. It tells you that you dont have to pay your taxes, that you dont have to pay your credit card debt.
If that is what Dr. Unger believes, it is a belief whose alleged pursuit could earn him up to 20 years in federal prison, followed by a term of supervised release of up to three years and a maximum fine of $250,000.
Dr. Ferriter declined to say whether Dr. Unger had ever shared such ideas with him during their acquaintance 20 years ago.
Hes a unique individual. Its safe to say that. He is definitely a different thinker, Dr. Ferriter said.
He suggested, however, that perhaps Dr. Unger had ignored a critical lesson.
You dont mess with the government, Dr. Ferriter said. Study history.