Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Money-throwing protester gets probation, fine

California man would face jail if he comes within 500 feet of Discovery building

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The California man who was arrested after throwing thousands of dollars into the air at a rally outside of Discovery Communications last month was told by a judge on Friday that he would be thrown in jail for up to 60 days if he came within 500 feet of the building.

James Jay Lee, 40, of San Diego was also given six months of supervised probation and fined $500 by Associate Judge Stephen P. Johnson, who quipped that if Lee was so keen on throwing money away, ‘‘you can give some to the state.”

‘‘I can’t tell you how foolish this is,” Johnson said before handing Lee his verdict in Silver Spring’s District Court.

Lee was found guilty of disorderly conduct, but was found not guilty of the lesser charge of littering, for throwing thousands of dollars, some of the cash in shrink-wrapped bundles, into the air.

Lee said he did it to show that ‘‘money means nothing. Money is trash.”

His protest, which he said he began because Silver Spring-based Discovery’s programming had little to do with saving the planet, had originally been planned to run for nine days, Feb. 15 through Feb. 23.

It was cut short when police arrested Lee on Feb. 21 following concerns by county police and Discovery security officers that the growing crowd was becoming unruly, and after an incident where a man was beaten with a metal baton at a bus stop nearby after winning $1,000 in $1 bills in one of Lee’s ‘‘contest giveaways,” according to testimony from Sgt. John Meng of the Montgomery County Police Department.

Lee said he had been giving up to $1,000 in cash to those who completed short essays on saving the planet.

‘‘That’s what people do for money. ... To me, it was like a fun game, like basketball or football. People get wild at those games and that’s not outlawed,” Lee said before his trial. ‘‘The smart ones, as soon as they got the money, they ran.”

Lee chose to represent himself in court Friday, despite being told by Johnson that such a move was ‘‘misguided.”

Lee argued that he was not guilty of disorderly conduct because none of those participating in the rally complained to him at the scene, that his First Amendment rights to assemble had been violated and that he was not responsible for the robbery that resulted.

‘‘The charges make it look like I was responsible for the actions of others,” Lee said in his closing argument.

Assistant State’s Attorney Bereket Tesfu, who called the case ‘‘bizarre” after the trial, put Meng and a Discovery security chief on the stand to testify that the rally had gotten out of hand.

‘‘Every day, it seemed to be getting more crazy,” David Sterner, the security manager for Discovery Communications, testified during the trial. ‘‘I was disturbed, and I was concerned about the public safety.”

Meng testified that officers thought the crowd was ‘‘going to turn on us because we were taking away their payday” after Lee was arrested.

Lee spent nearly two weeks in jail following his arrest and several days being evaluated by state psychiatrists, he said. ‘‘I told them my idea of saving the planet,” Lee said. ‘‘They couldn’t find anything wrong with me.”

According to District Court records, Lee was released March 5, and he said he has since been living at a homeless shelter run by Progress Place in Silver Spring. Lee said his temporary home was ‘‘kind of ironic,” because he had been paying homeless men $80 a day to build the numbers of demonstrators at his one-man protest.

‘‘By the last day, I couldn’t pay them all,” Lee said.

Lee was arrested with about $21,000 in cash in the duffel bag he had with him at the protest, Meng testified. Johnson told Lee that he would get his bag of money back.

Lee said he had sold several inherited properties in Maui, Hawaii, where he lived prior to moving to San Diego, to pay for the protest, including about $30,000 for full-page advertisements in newspapers. Lee said he had one property left, worth about $200,000, and had plans to give it away in a ‘‘save the planet contest.”

Lee said he began his crusade to save the planet after being laid off from his job in San Diego and reading ‘‘Ishmael,” a novel by Daniel Quinn about a gorilla that tells a man what it is like to live in captivity in a world where humans exploit natural resources.

Lee said he then felt an ‘‘awakening,” watched former Vice President Al Gore’s documentary ‘‘An Inconvenient Truth,” and decided he had been doing too little to protect the environment.

‘‘I was a man working alone, so obviously I didn’t do too well,” he said. ‘‘After this, I’ll stay here for a while, make a few more moves, complete the contest. ... It’s still worth a shot.”