Saturday marks the three-year anniversary of a man using 300,000 pennies to pay sales taxes on two cars at the Lebanon Department of Motor Vehicles. We wrote about the delivery itself and the background of Nick Stafford's dispute with the DMV, which included a FOIA request and court proceedings.
We've re-posted the story below:
LEBANON, Va. — After carting the fifth and final wheelbarrow of pennies into the Lebanon Department of Motor Vehicles Wednesday, Nick Stafford could feel the burn in his arms.
Winded, Stafford took a smoke break in the DMV’s parking lot.
“I’m not used to lifting,” Stafford said. “These are heavy.”
Heavy, indeed. The 300,000 pennies the Cedar Bluff, Virginia man took to the DMV Wednesday morning to pay sales tax on two new cars weighed in at 1,600 pounds. A mature Holstein cow weighs about 1,500 pounds.
See, Stafford had a bone to pick with the DMV. It wasn’t about agonizingly long lines or a bad picture on his driver’s license: It came down to 10 phone numbers.
And Stafford ended up filing three lawsuits and spending at least $1,005 to give the DMV his 2 cents.
Stafford’s version of the story goes like this: Back in September, he wanted to know which of his four houses spanning two Virginia counties he should list when licensing his son’s new Corvette. He attempted to call the Lebanon DMV, but was routed to a call center in Richmond.
He then submitted a FOIA request — a submission under the Freedom of Information Act that citizens, journalists and others can use to obtain public government information — to get a direct number to the Lebanon DMV, which he was provided. Some information is exempted from FOIA: documents about trade secrets and national defense, for example.
When Stafford called the number he was given, he said the employees at the DMV told him the phone line wasn’t meant for public use. However, Stafford said after repeated phone calls, the DMV eventually answered his licensing question.
Stafford then decided he wanted the direct phone lines to nine other local DMVs: Abingdon, Clintwood, Gate City, Jonesville, Marion, Norton, Tazewell, Vansant and Wytheville. He said the Lebanon DMV employees wouldn’t provide those numbers.
So, Stafford went to court to get them.
“If they were going to inconvenience me then I was going to inconvenience them,” he said.
Stafford filed three lawsuits in Russell County General District Court: two against specific employees at the Lebanon DMV and one against the DMV itself.
On Tuesday, a judge dismissed the lawsuits at the request of the state when a representative of the state’s attorney general handed Stafford a list of the requested phone numbers in the courtroom. The court also did not impose penalties on the DMV and its employees, which could have been between $500 and $2,000 per lawsuit if the employees had “willfully and knowingly” violated public records law.
“The phone numbers are irrelevant to me,” Stafford said. “I don't need them. I told the judge ‘I think I proved my point here.’”
“I think the backbone to our republic and our democracy is open government and transparency in government and it shocks me that a lot of people don't know the power of FOIA,” Stafford said.
Brandy Brubaker, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, said the DMV is happy with the outcome.
“We are pleased that the court agreed with our counsel that the argument was not a sufficient request to invoke the FOIA statutory penalties,” Brubaker said. “We make every effort to share information with citizens as state and federal law allows.”
Brubaker said the department fulfills thousands of FOIA requests each year and encourages anyone interested to make requests at FOIA@dmv.virginia.gov.
Still, Stafford had one final act planned. After collecting the hundreds of rolls of pennies he needed, he hired 11 people to help him break open the paper rolls with hammers Tuesday night. It took four hours and he paid each person $10 per hour, costing him $440.
Stafford also purchased five wheelbarrows to deliver the pennies. The wheelbarrows cost $400, and he wasn’t going to dump the coins on the DMV’s floor, so he left the wheelbarrows there, bringing his expenses to $840.
He also paid $165 for the three lawsuits, which means he spent $1,005 to get 10 phone numbers and the satisfaction of delivering 300,000 pennies. Not to mention the nearly $3,000 he paid the DMV for the cars.
One might feel bad for the Lebanon DMV employees, who chose to count the coins by hand. But Stafford is within his legal right. According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, "United States coins and currency are legal tender for all debts, public charges, taxes and dues” under the Coinage Act of 1965.
However, private businesses, individuals or organizations do not have to accept coins as payment.
And Stafford’s penny plot wasn’t the first local attempt to pay a bill by coin. In 2009, Bristol, Virginia resident John Almany paid his $350 Bristol Virginia Utilities electric bill with pennies. But, Almany’s 29,000 Abe Lincolns came in at 170 pounds — pocket change compared to Stafford’s payment.
On Wednesday, Stafford brought five of the employees from his vinyl business, Craft Vinyl, to help him unload the coins. During the process, one employee wondered how it was going inside the DMV.
“Are they mad?” she asked.
“Oh no,” Stafford said. “They’re really nice in there.”
As of 8 p.m. Wednesday, workers at the DMV were still counting coins and Stafford said they expected to finish around 1 a.m. Stafford said he would remain at the DMV until the counting was complete.
Flanking the entrance to the Department of Motor Vehicles in Lebanon are the two images of the Great Seal of the Commonwealth of Virginia. One of the images depicts three Roman goddesses, Libertas, Aeternitas and Ceres, with a word above the women: Perseverando.
It’s Latin for persevering.
Stafford certainly persevered — one penny at a time.