I don’t begrudge Sandy Musser, or anyone else, for requesting a presidential pardon. I wish them the best of luck and hope their lives are on a positive track after serving federal sentences. But it’s galling to me that Musser is held up by some as heroic, as the equivalent of a civil rights leader, like a Rosa Parks or a Susan B. Anthony, or a Martin Luther King, Jr. As one advocate recently posted in support of Musser:
I am asking that you pardon someone who is a direct descendent of others who ‘broke’ bad laws, people like Sojourner Truth, John Brown, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone and many others. The laws Ms. Musser circumvented will one day be seen as no more than a failed social experiment. She deserves your presidential pardon.
Oh, please. I don’t doubt that Sandra Musser is a dedicated adoption reform advocate. But she got caught knowingly taking advantage of illegal search methods to find adoptees and birth parents. Despite all the tortured civil rights rhetoric she and others have used to describe her plight, she is not a civil rights hero.
A little background for those who don’t know the story. In the late 1980s, Musser created a for-profit business called the Musser Foundation. It provided adoption reform resources, sold books, and organized adoption rights support groups, but it also offered paid search services to adoptees and birth parents. Indeed, the Musser Foundation’s primary revenue came from these searches, which cost up to $2,500 each. A Musser Foundation brochure and handout from 1990 highlights its successes, listing more than 130 successful reunions and boasting of an astounding success rate of 95 percent.
The charges against Musser grew out of a lengthy undercover operation that originated in New York and documented how Musser and one of its hired “searchers” fraudulently obtained private and confidential social security data on adoptees and birth parents. The method was obviously illegal but fairly straightforward. A client would hire the Musser Foundation to find a birth relative. Musser would in turn contract with an independent “searcher,” who in this case was Cleveland-based Barbara Moscowitz. Moscowitz would, as part of her work, use phony names and identities to call health departments, hospitals, and social security field offices, requesting and often unlawfully obtaining addresses, employment data, and social security numbers on individuals. Moscowitz would then turn that information over to Musser, and Musser would pay Moscowitz $100 for each social security number she secured and up to $1,000 per client for overall search work. Musser would then charge her clients up to $2,500 each, typically payable upon a successful search, and presumably reunification would follow.
For the record, my mother was a Musser Foundation client. I have the paperwork my mother completed in 1990 to initiate her search, which was apparently successfully completed in December 1992. But for reasons I have yet to figure out, it appears my mother never paid her balance, a requirement before receiving search results. When my mother called Musser at the end of March 1993, perhaps to inquire about payment, it was three days after federal authorities had issued the 39-count indictment against Musser and Moscowitz. I can only presume that my mother was uneasy paying the remaining balance of $2,350 when the business she had hired was under federal indictment. Or that she didn’t have the money. I don’t know the circumstances. But I can also reasonably presume that the same illegal methods used to find others were also used to get data about me and possibly my adoptive parents. Whatever was discovered, it was likely sitting in a file in Cape Coral, Florida, awaiting full payment.
The indictment against Musser and Moscowitz included charges of wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and theft of government property. In a deal with prosecutors, Moscowitz pled guilty to and ultimately testified against Musser. Musser pled not guilty and claimed that she had no knowledge of Moscowitz’s criminal activity and that, even if she did, her actions were justified on account of “bad laws” that had led to sealed adoption records and birth certificates. The case went to trial in the fall of 1993, and the evidence included taped conversations between a New York undercover investigator and Musser and Moscowitz. Ultimately, the jury found Musser guilty on most counts, including conspiracy to defraud the United States; aiding and abetting wire fraud; and aiding and abetting theft of government property.
At sentencing, Musser continued to appear defiant, stating first that she was innocent but then implying that her actions were justified. In light of Musser’s conflicting position on her own actions, the court felt compelled to order her incarceration:
What you have said today is what you said during the trial. It is a sense of saying: I know that the law existed and I feel that it must be changed. And in changing it, if I must violate it to change it, I will violate it. There is no sense of what we sometimes refer to as remorse for having done so. You have felt apparently yourself justified. So that no matter whether the court accepted the guideline analysis of your attorney or the government’s, the court still feels that jail time —a jail sentence of incarceration is well in order in this case.
The court also clarified with Musser that her sentence related only to the “activity in intruding into the privacy of the Social Security files. Although your feelings are very strong ones, there is I’m sure an equally strong view that those records should be kept silent, and the United States Congress has agreed with that view.”
The court sentenced Musser to four months in federal prison and banned her from doing adoption-related work for three years after her release.
It’s hard to tell if Musser continues to dispute the facts of her case—particularly now that she seeks a presidential pardon. Written guidance about seeking a federal executive pardon advises petitioners that:
it is ordinarily a sign of forgiveness and is granted in recognition of the applicant’s acceptance of responsibility for the crime and established good conduct for a significant period of time after conviction or release from confinement. A pardon is not a sign of vindication and does not connote or establish innocence. For that reason, when considering the merits of a pardon petition, pardon officials take into account the petitioner’s acceptance of responsibility, remorse, and atonement for the offense.
It’s unclear what responsibility Musser actually takes for her actions and what remorse, if any, she now feels. In various accounts, including on her website and in a book she wrote about her case, she seems coy with details about what she actually knew and did, typically only referring to the government’s “indecent indictment” against her but then stating that she was guilty solely of the “crime of reuniting families.” She also claims at times that she was innocent and had no idea that Moscowitz was illegally accessing social security files (though given the evidence at trial, as well as the jury’s verdict, it is hard to believe those claims).
More recently, and in support of her petition for a pardon, friends and advocates are now adamant that what Musser did should be forgiven because, in part, her means in breaking the law justified the ends. In essence, her supporters believe that, despite knowingly breaking the law, Musser was justified in doing so because her efforts ultimately led to reunification of birth families.
There are a number of problems with all of this, both in reality and in the context of seeking a presidential pardon. First, the law that Musser broke was related to federal social security data, not adoption records. Musser was not a court clerk who knowingly, illegally, and surreptitiously disclosed birth parent names to an adult adoptee. She was not a health department worker who released records deliberately in violation of the law. She did not steal sealed birth records. Rather, she broke a federal law that secured the privacy and confidentiality of individual social security data. How that law is flawed or bad is a bit hard to figure.
Worse, some advocates are now characterizing her actions and her crime as a form of civil disobedience, stating that what she did—i.e., break the law—was morally right in light of the “bad” adoption laws of the day. Lorraine Dusky, for example, claims that Musser is a “direct descendant” of people like “Sojourner Truth, John Brown, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone and many others.” Jane Edwards, Dusky’s cohort on the First Mother Forum blog, claims that Musser’s pardon request is similar to pardons “for civil rights activists who went to jail for violating segregation laws.”
Again, Musser didn’t break an unjust law. Plus, she was being paid for her work. More significantly, these arguments misrepresent the nature and price of civil disobedience and also over-represent what Musser intended and accomplished. Civil disobedience, by definition, means that you are willing to pay a price for your actions and that, despite laws that you believe are unjust, you are willing to break them and bear whatever legal cost accompanies that action. It is a deliberate and necessarily political choice and almost always anticipates a penalty you are willing to bear, however unjust that penalty may be.
Last I looked, Susan B. Anthony was convicted of casting a vote in New York while also being a woman. Rosa Parks refused to give up a seat on a Montgomery bus and was arrested, charged, convicted, and compelled to pay a $10 citation. Neither woman was pardoned, nor did either one seek a pardon. And, unlike Musser, neither woman had been paid for breaking the law. Anthony, Parks, Stanton, King, all of them and others, knowingly and deliberately broke the law because they were willing to carry with them the weight of a penalty that followed. Musser, by contrast, continues to proclaim her innocence, something that is incompatible with an argument that her actions were deliberate, political, unlawful, and knowingly done despite the likely result of arrest and conviction.
Again, I don’t begrudge a person’s request for a pardon. If they deserve it, they should get it, and from all that I can tell, Musser has suffered on account of her crime and has lived through a number of struggles throughout her life, all of which she writes about in her books. I honestly wish her well and do not intend to be mean in highlighting the facts of her case.
What I begrudge, though, is the manipulation of civil rights rhetoric and a failure to acknowledge what Musser actually did. Rail all you want against the injustices of closed and sealed adoptions, but if you believe Musser is a descendant of civil rights heroes for conspiring to obtain private social security records, you’ve misunderstood your history. And you’ve also picked a flawed messenger to get a true rights-based message across.