A Real “It’s a Wonderful Life,” by Chad Cowan

This Christmas season, millions of Americans will watch Frank Capra’s 1946 holiday classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The movie tells the story of George Bailey, a kind and selfless executive of a struggling small town savings and loan, who, through no fault of his own, faced scandal, bankruptcy and jail time just as his family was preparing to celebrate Christmas. With the help of family, friends and a guardian angel named Clarence, Bailey is eventually saved from his plight and learns a valuable lesson in the process: “No man is a failure who has friends.”

Over the past two years, a modern day equivalent of George Bailey’s predicament has been playing out in Athal, New York, where Kent and Glenda Duell face the possibility of spending this Christmas or a future Christmas behind bars.

The Duells’ story began on November 18, 1996, a mere ten days before the beginning of last year’s holiday season. On that day, the Duells were led out of Essex County court as convicted felons, facing a maximum penalty of $42.2 million in fines and 1,200 years in jail. Their crime? They had a leaky septic tank.

The Duells, parents of two young children, owned a small, HUD-sanctioned six-unit apartment building. Over a nine year period, the Duells fixed many problems associated with the HUD-approved septic system. Each time they enlisted the help of local environmental officials to help correct the leaks.

But the Duell’s determination to repair the problems with the septic system did not matter to the Essex County District Attorney’s office or the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. These two government agencies pursued the Duells with the same vengeance that Mr. Potter, the Scrooge-like villain in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” pursued George Bailey.

The Duells were charged with 164 felony and misdemeanor counts of intending to pollute state waters. They were found guilty on each count, even though there was no evidence that any of the waste had entered state waters. Two weeks after what Glenda Duell termed “the worst Christmas of my family’s life,” the Duells were sentenced. Kent and Glenda Duell were sentenced to six months each in jail and $162,000 in fines. In what the judge characterized as a humane gesture, the Duell’s jail sentences were staggered so that their young children would not be placed in foster homes. At their sentencing, the judge required the Duells to publicly choose who would go to prison first. Glenda, in tears, begged that she go to jail first so that her husband could keep his job for six more months to provide for their young children.

Although an appellate court put a temporary stop to this insanity by granting the Duells a stay pending appeal, the stay ran out on October 22, 1997. Needless to say, the threat of jail time this Christmas still weighs heavily on the couple, as the Essex County District Attorney’s office could file an objection to the stay at any time and conceivably force the Duells to go to jail.

But there is more to the Duell’s ordeal. The combination of government shenanigans and high legal bills have resulted in the Duell’s losing virtually everything they own. They lost their small apartment building because the county refused to cash the tax payment. The county then sold the property for one dollar to the town of Minerva, which quickly demolished the apartments that had provided affordable housing to disadvantaged people. To cover legal costs associated with their defense, the Duells have had to put their own house in hock, draw on Mrs. Duell’s father’s retirement savings, and put up an old family farmstead to cover their bail, which the judge set at $100,000.

Because of these financial pressures, the Duells are faced with a difficult dilemma: They must now choose between a visit from Santa Claus or saving what few resources they have left for their appeal.

“This ruined my children’s Christmas last year, and it will adversely affect their Christmas this year,” said Mrs. Duell, her voice cracking, fighting back tears. Amazingly, with Christmas fast approaching and jail time hanging over them like a black cloud, the Duells remain optimistic.

“Our faith and perseverance will bring our family closer together,” said Mrs. Duell. “This whole experience, as outrageous as it is, has taught our family what is truly of value. Our family has learned that what is lasting, the love of family and close friends, will endure. And we vow that these values will endure in our family.”

A legal defense fund has been established on behalf of the Duells. It can be reached at the following address: The Kent and Glenda Duell Legal Defense Fund, C/O Land Rights Foundation, PO Box 1111, Gloversville, NY 12078.

The lesson from the Duells’ ordeal is the same as George Bailey’s in “It’s a Wonderful Life”: No one is a failure who has friends.

Chad Cowan is deputy director of environmental and regulatory affairs at The National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.