Wednesday, October 13, 2010


Just had a good lawyer and good friend call me, and we had a good chuckle over her question. 

I'm representing an estate and she the major claimant against the estate. I had sent the final payment with cover letter, receipt and a pre-addressed, stamped, envelope for her to return the receipt once her client signed it. In the letter I referred to the "SASE" - Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope - and she hadn't seen the term before. Actually, it's fallen out of common use; before the internet a lot of advertisements said to use one if you wanted information; now the information is on-line.

But this reminded me of another stupid financial industry story. (here we go again!)

15 or 20 years ago I was working on a Small Business Administration backed loan.  Involved were senior finance wonks in Richmond and Occupied (excuse me, that's 'Northern') Virginia.  Naturally there had to be hazard insurance on the property, and because of the SBA there were three or four financial fingers in the pie.

Insurance companies don't really care who gets the money in event of a loss;  with multiple parties listed as loss payees they frequently list them all and then say "As Their Interests May Appear" or, universally shown in industry shorthand, "ATIMA".

So I get a fax from one of the senior wonks asking "Who is ATIMA?"

DOH!  "Here's your sign."

Shoulda sold my bank stock -- all the clues were there . . .

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Dumb and Dumber financing

This is an old story -- about 25 years old -- but it illustrates some of the reasons for the failure of our financial system. Years ago I represented a major national commercial lender -- it's 'out of business' now having merged into one of the megabanks. I'll call it 'BlahCorp' and hope it's not someone's real name, and change names of others as well.

BlahCorp was, at the time, headquartered in Chicago. It specialized in commercial loans for trucks (18-wheelers) and heavy equipment (think Caterpillar, etc.) and so forth. Typically, the dealer selling the item helped the customer get the financing and had some stake in the ability of the customer to meet the payments (in the financial world this is called "recourse" financing)

SwampCorp was an equipment dealer -- earth moving equipment, cranes, all that big stuff you see on highway construction, mining, commercial buildings, etc. Heavy Lifting Inc. was a startup crane contractor in the area and bought $1Million in cranes from SwampCorp (probably $2.5+M now). Jane was President and sole shareholder of Heavy Lifting and submitted the documents to BlahCorp for the financing.  Due to the size of the loan, it required approval of the Senior Vice President of Finance in Chicago; on the corporate totem pole he was #3 and had 25 years 'experience'.

Jane submitted financial statements for Heavy Lifting showing that the corporation had about $20,000.00 in equity, at cost value (not liquidation value).  Jane had to personally guarantee the loan so submitted a financial statement showing her net worth of $535,000.00:  the value of her stock in Heavy Lifting was $500,000.00; the sum total of equity in her other assets was $35,000.00 on a good day. 

Heavy Lifting filed bankruptcy and I was hired to protect BlahCorp.  The Sr. VP flew to Roanoke for the hearing.  I looked at the financing and said "I'm only a lawyer, but I don't understand why you made this loan" He responded that the 'guarantors financial statement was strong'.  My response was in the early days of being Rossiferous:  "Nonsense;  she shows $500,000.00 as value of Heavy Lifting, but it's financial statement shows only $20,000.00; didn't you notice that?"

"Um, we never looked at it that way"


And the industry got dumber and dumber since.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Monkeys and Bananas

I just had a client ask me about a form another company wants him to sign as he is renting commercial warehouse space to the other firm. I reviewed the form:  It's a hold harmless about engineering and design work, relates to purchase orders, covers subcontractors, etc.

My client had already questioned whether it was needed;  the corporate contact said "we're required to get it in all our contracts".  My guess is that he has no idea what the form does, just that "Corporate" has said "Get it". 

Some years ago a sociologist did an experiment with monkeys. Check it out at Monkeys and Bananas
and a You-Tube: Banana Vid  (I really like the corporate suits on the 'monkeys' in the video!)

Probably a lesson for our governments also.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Agreeable disagreement

Wednesdays at noon, a bunch of lawyers have lunch at Mac-n-Bob’s restaurant in Salem.  Nothing formal, just lawyers trading stories, talking politics, sports, junk and running theories/cases past each other. It is an opportunity for an informal exchange of ideas and camaraderie. I consider anything of substance discussed at lunch to be off the record. No matter who you are, you’ve got to be able to unwind, speak freely without worrying about someone accusing you of whatever. (Good jokes or one-liners, however, are fair game.)

Attendees are personal injury lawyers, criminal defense lawyers, judges from every level of court that sits in Virginia, niche lawyers (we have an immigration attorney; I do elder-law) and so forth.  I look forward to learning something each week.

Occasionally we get a distinguished visitor:  Appellate judges from out of the area (Chief Justice Hassell, Supreme Court of Virginia for one), members of Congress, Federal judges, and so forth. Today I was surprised to have the Hon. Kenneth T. Cuccinelli, II, Attorney General of Virginia, join the table for lunch.

Historically, I’ve been a Democrat, fiscally conservative but a Democrat. It’s been 15 or more years since I was ‘active’ in party politics, and there have been times I’ve been less than happy with the party.  Mr. Cuccinelli is a Republican – and a conservative Republican at that. Naturally, being me, I introduced myself as the “former chair of the Salem Democratic Party”. We had a good laugh at that.

I came away from lunch liking and respecting the guy.  A helluva lot more than I did before I met and talked to him.  Our Attorney General has a wicked sense of humor and takes as good as he gives. The kind of guy you’d enjoy putting your feet up and drinking a beer (or a Mint Julep) with.

Our philosophies are different and I disagree with a number of the actions – or maybe the reasons behind the actions – he’s taking. The Health Reform law that was bludgeoned through Congress last year is one, and I agree that there are dangerous components of it.  The Health Care system is broken – at least as far as paying for care is concerned, and the Health Reform law attempted to fix it. Our Attorney General is trying to get the whole law thrown out, based on dangerous intrusion to constitutional freedoms as much as anything else. I could write volumes on the Health Care issue (remember, I served 9 years as a ‘Citizen’ member of the Virginia Board of Medicine), but that’s not the point here.

Ken’s (yeah, we all got on first name basis) attack is in good faith, and not just because of politics. Strategy was discussed – and while I don’t think anything he said is a big secret, lunch table discussion is off the record – and the strategy has a strong chance of working.  Even more important is that he wanted comments from us – he wanted to listen, especially if someone – respectfully – disagreed with him. The two of us agreed that listening with an open mind to someone with a different point of view forces us to examine our beliefs and test their validity.

I may not agree with him, but I disagree less. If we run into each other at a watering hole, I’ll buy the first round and look forward to an enjoyable conversation.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Government Statistics

We watch the news and some government politico (including Pres. Obama) talks about the 'recovery' and how many jobs have been created and saved and restored and . . .   Usually the one speaking has no direct knowledge what he's talking about but relies on someone else for the data and frequently the speech being given.

This reminds me of when I kibbitzed on a speech 30 years ago. 

My then wife was working - as administrator - with a Federally funded jobs program for the City of Roanoke; there was a 'consortium' which managed similar programs not including the City's. All workers in the program worked for local governments in some capacity as they were 'trained' with new skills.

Ex's program was managed properly - office staff minimally sized to do the job but no empire; the bulk of the funds actually went to the hired workers. The Consortium was not so well managed and ended up collapsing under its own fiscal mismanagement; the City of Roanoke (i.e. the Director of Finance and Ex) had to take over management, shut it down, and 150 workers in the area faced loss of their jobs .

Ex and I are at home, and she's got to prepare a speech for the DOF and press release about all the workers and where they would end up with the closing down. The good news is that a lot of the workers were picked up by their local government employer.  Another bunch were able to use the skills learned to get a job in the 'private sector'.  There were 'hard numbers' for the government hires; there was reasonable - but not exact - data for the private hires. Ex was pleased to show me her draft that had all 150 workers 'taken care of', and admitted some numbers came off the top of her head although based on her experience.

My response was that the report was not realistic.  A couple of poor slobs wouldn't find anything - they'd be SOL (Straight Outta Luck).  Ex agreed, but asked "well, how many".  My response was that, politically, if you went over six percent it'd look bad, but under three percent would look phony. (Yeah, I was BS'ing at my best here, too).  I think we settled on four percent.

Of course you can't write in a press release that four percent of the workers were SOL. So we went to the standby "other opportunities".

On TV news the next night, the City's Director of Finance (and acting administrator of the Consortium) was shown reading the press release Ex had written, and the media was eating it up.  "55 percent were hired by the government they were assigned to in the program; 35 percent found private sector jobs,  6 percent resumed education courses (another discussion ex and I had) and 4 percent will pursue other opportunities".

I've never looked at government statistics the same way since. 

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

REAL Financial Freedom

I'm guardian for a young man who had a stroke;  he lives with his dad "Mr. B" (his mother passed away several years ago). I get the young man's social security disability and pay his bills, including a stipend to Mr. B for taking care of him.

Dad called the office today and happened to mention that he was getting a reverse mortgage.  Donna knows my thoughts on them and alerted me;  I got him in immediately and reviewed the loan.  Basic financial picture:  monthly income 1830, monthly expenses less than 800 (not counting groceries). But Mr. B can't last the month without invading savings. No Budget (his wife handled the household finances before she died) No mortgage - house is paid for. Mr. B is over 80.

The loan was going to net $100,000 - after almost $7000 in fees and expenses. Plus there was going to be a monthly service charge added (but not prominently disclosed in the application documents).

Mr. B just wanted to have the money available. NO plan on what to spend it on, just some vague ideas. "But that Winkler fella (Henry Winkler, a/k/a Happy Days the Fonz) and Robert Wagner (It Takes a Thief, Hart to Hart, etc) say on TV how good it is".  They're paid to say that!

I told Mr. B that there are a dozen different ways to accomplish what he needed, and will help him meet them. The way he didn't need was this loan, or Financial Freedom servicing it.   With his signed consent we called it off.

Guess that won't get me back on FF's Christmas Card list, huh?

Seriously, in my opinion reverse mortgages are dangerous;  if you, your parents, or any elder person you care for is thinking of one, get an independent review from a professional before you do it. A Fee-Only financial planner (one who doesn't sell you something), a lawyer who's practice emphasizes ElderLaw (find one at etc.   In some cases it's an appropriate tool, but -- in my opinion -- it's oversold, wastes the estate and creates a lot of hardship on families.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Radio Shack losing a customer

I'm a gadget freak. All my friends are going 'duh!'

I've been shopping at Radio Shack stores for 40+ years -- I remember when they were a catalog only, then they started their retail operation.

Radio Shack helped get the personal computer revolution started 'back in the day'. My first several computers were from Radio Shack.

But what I liked best was being able to go in there to buy parts so I could make or fix electronic stuff. Unfortunately that's no more.

In the past week I've gone in twice to buy something I've gotten there before.  And it's no longer offered. Instead, there are cell phones, a few cb's, and 'pop' electronic stuff.  It seems Radio Shack is trying to compete with Best Buy.  Ain't gonna succeed.

What the mba grad who decided to do this didn't understand is that while, yes, parts are a low margin item, they bring people in. Once in, we see something we've 'just gotta have' and buy it.

Remember the Sears Catalog?  When they did away with it, Sears headed towards bankruptcy. The brilliant Sears mba who decided THAT didn't realize that we'd sit at home, look through the catalog, and THEN head to the retail store to buy whatever, plus something on display we 'just hadta have'.  No catalog, no visit to the retail store, reduced sales.

Looks like history repeating itself.  If I owned Radio Shack's stock I'd be selling it.


Last Saturday I happened to stop by my office to pick up something.  As I was leaving, there was a car parked in my lot while the driver went to the store next door. Susan and I saw the passenger door open and the ash tray dumped into my lot.
Littering is one of my buttons you don't wanna push.

I pulled in and blocked the car, and in a remarkably calm (for me) manner asked the passenger if he'd kindly pick up the butts.  He ignored me, rolled up the window and locked the door.

I called 911 (police station is in next block).  As one responding officer said, as I remarked on three cars showing up, 'it's been a slow day and we were about to fall asleep'.

Yes, the butts got cleaned up.  No, I didn't press charges because of the inconvenience to the legal system if I did -- they'd have to bring in an out of town judge to hear the case and litterbugs just aren't worth that.

Litterbugs aren't worth much else in my opinion.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Wells Fargo -- Big Bank Sloppiness

I've got two loans at Wachovia -- now becoming Wells Fargo due to Wachovia Management stupidity. Essentially they're a first mortgage and a secured equity line of credit. Yeah, I got the loans even though I didn't really like Walk-ova-ya, but hey - they offered me a good deal and I keep good enough records to challenge them when they screw up.

So of course they've screwed up -- but it kind of favors me.  I have a "Mortgage Equity Loan" (really a first mortgage but without the usual pile of crap paperwork that comes with one) and my loan contract calls for regular monthly payments of "X".  The WF Borg has now assimilated my loan (Star Trek - Next Generation fans understand this term) but tells me my payments are only "Y", about $200 less than X. Obviously the idiot doing the 'conversion' from Wachovia to WF (could that stand for "We're Foolish"?) didn't input it correctly.

It favors me as to cash flow.  It doesn't favor me as I'll pay more interest over the years if I drop my payment. And what happens if they catch their mistake and demand back payments? 

And get this:  on the monthly statement there are SIX DIFFERENT ADDRESSES for WF:
  1. where they mailed it from (Sioux Falls SD)
  2. where to send payments (an Atlanta GA PO Box)
  3. where to send correspondence (Portland Oregon)
  4. where to send overnite payments (Billings MT - why not Atlanta?) 
  5. where to dispute credit bureau reports on Home Equity Accounts (Billings MT PO Box)
  6. where to dispute credit bureau reports on Personal Loan accounts (Albuquerque NM)
My education is at the Doctorate level (yep, law degrees are "Juris Doctor").  Imagine someone who got an 8th grade education at a half-rate school district trying to figure our where to send something.

Don't forget, We're Foolish (I like that nickname) is number 8 from the bottom on customer non-service - see my earlier blog It's Not Just Me

One of these days I'll have to get insulting about the big banks.


Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Big Deny

I just read a business blog that annoyed me.  Y'all, as my fans, know my low opinion of moneychangers. (Jesus was right: throw them out of the Temple).  The theme is that BP should have taken a page from Goldman Sachs handling of its role in the financial melt down. Here's a link.

B-Net - What BP Could Learn from Goldman Sachs About Crisis Management

Given that BP has handled its disaster PR worse than a kid with a picture of his hand in the cookie jar, I hate to think that the way Goldman Sachs pretended they didn't contribute to the meltdown is now a 'model' for crisis management.  Hitler invented the "Big Lie" which he says is "the principle--which is quite true within itself--that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility" (Mien Kampf Vol 1 Ch 10). 75 years later corporate America now has the "Big Deny".

Yeah, the politicians use it also. And the media eats it up. And the public is too stupid to notice.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

It's not just me

Just saw an article on  MSN.  The annual 'hall of shame' list.

Companies we love to hate

I see a lot of my 'friends' there. Keep it in mind as you choose where your dollars/euros/sheckels go.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Suntrust Mortgage 'press 1 if you prefer English'

Recently I was appointed guardian and conservator for a young man (let's call him 'Sylvester') who got in the way of his girlfriend's car (or so the story goes). He owns some rental property, one of which has a loan with Suntrust Mortgage.  So naturally I try to get some information.

I call Suntrust; they can't talk to me without authorization (I'm used to that) so I faxed them a copy of the order - they have a special 'authorization department' for this!  At the time I didn't have a loan number -- would you believe Suntrust can't look up something with a social security number? Then, the rep said "I can take your payment over the phone". I asked her to think (which is not easy with these mortgage companies) about what she just said; how can I pay if she won't give me any info from which to make a payment? 

Two days later I hadn't heard anything, but Sylvester's momma called that Suntrust is harassing her about the account.  I call Suntrust back; they didn't have anything in the system and refused to let me talk with a supervisor. I faxed the information again.  Now I'm told it takes 24 hours to 'get it into the system'.  There are 24 hours in a day; last time I did the math, two days from my first fax is 48 hours -- so it should be in the system.

And about 'pressing 1'.   I refuse to press 1 to speak my native language and the language of this country since Capt. James Smith and Pocahontas were doin' the nasty in Virginia's swamps 400 years ago. So, even though I didn't press '2',  the system defaulted to Spanish! I had a Spanish speaking operator come on the line - they spoke English quickly.   The joke:  the 'on hold' music on the Spanish side had Suntrust advertisements -- IN ENGLISH.  Go figure.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Whadda Dive!

Last week my cousin Anne dropped in my office with her daughter Emily. During our conversation she mentioned that her sister (and my cousin) Emily's son Rob Crenshaw (um, that makes him my first cousin once removed) was to have his restaurant featured on Diners, Drive-inns and Dives with host Guy Fieri.  Rob owns Cabo Fish Taco in Charlotte NC and another in Blacksburg VA. The show was on last night (5/17); Susan and I recorded it. And like a lot of Guy's '3D' featured establishments, it looked really good.

Every night Susan and I play the "what do you want for dinner" game.  What's in Bon Appetit, Cooking Light, Fine Cooking, or on Food Network or any of a dozen other sites.  We love to experiment with something new.  So tonight, on the way home, instead of cooking we decided to head up to Blacksburg to try out Cousin Rob's place.

We'll be back.  Soon.  We liked it that much.

When we walked in our server, "Marielle" greeted us with a big smile; when she learned it was our first visit she went out of her way to make us feel welcome and told us about the menu. She knew the product -- and the recipe featured on Food Network -- and made good suggestions. Marielle is one of the best servers we've ever had. While we waited for our dinner we got complementary fried tortilla chips with a spicy bean dip.

Susan had the Shrimp Tacos -- Cabo tacos with beer battered shrimp, with soy ginger sauce, sesame seeds and scallion.  I had the signature Fish Taco - Two flour tortillas stuffed with beer battered cod, cabbage, tomato, avocado, mixed cheeses, & finished with a cilantro white sauce (and which Guy had on TV).  Marielle suggested Susan have hers with Baja Rice (rice with mango/pineapple) and I had the jalapeno cheddar mashers (smashed redskin potatoes with jalapeno - spicy but not overwhelming). Total tab (with 3 beers - 2 for me) was about $25.00 after tax before tip.

The tacos were 'soft' which I prefer (I hate 'hard shell' tacos that explode all over the place) and tasty.  The fish taco could have used a little more flavor and avocado, but that's nitpicking.  You can see other menu items at the website - click on the Cabo name above.

The atmosphere is 'rustic' (for lack of a better word, but it's not a log cabin) - a lotta wood and sturdy furnishings (being across Main Street from Virginia Tech is a good reason for 'sturdy').  There's a fully stocked bar (again, a good thing for that location) and an outdoor eating deck for good weather.   My only gripe about the physical space is it is NOT handicap friendly.  There's an unused, difficult to navigate handicap ramp from the very small parking lot onto the deck, leading into the main restaurant, but Allyson would have a very hard time getting up and in it.  Live with someone in a wheelchair and no matter where you go, you look for accessibility.

Y'all really need to trek to Blacksburg to try this place.   I'm going to tell my friend Wade -- one of the Roanoke Times restaurant reviewers -- to give it a try.  The paper's already given Cabo a good review (linked from their website) but I think Wade will like it also. And I'm now a Facebook fan.

And someday I hope to meet my cousin Rob and his wife Maeghan. I think he's the first Restaurant person in the family.  We've got too many Lawyers, some accountants and even had a Doctor (Anne & Emily's dad).  Nice to have someone in the family with good taste.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Marketing Rule 101: Know your prospective customer

My office just received an offer to sell life insurance -- addressed to my dad, who would have been 103 this year. All they needed for a quote was date of birth.

They made the mistake of enclosing a Postage Paid Business Reply Envelope. . . .

Friday, April 30, 2010

A Block Too Far - Part 2

Last December I wrote about the ‘paratransit’ service roadblock in the Valley.

Yesterday I got an email from a public service organization I work with and respect that the Division of Motor Vehicles office in the Roanoke Valley is no longer accessible by public transportation. Until about a year ago, it was located in an old crumbling shopping center on the bus lines in Roanoke City; it moved to a shiny new building at Valley Pointe business park in Roanoke County.

Federal law says that paratransit services must transport disabled people to/from homes and locations within 3/4 mile of existing bus lines. Valley Pointe isn’t within that 3/4 mile distance, so RADAR/CORTRAN riders are out of luck if they need to go there.

Why is it important?  Even if disabled don’t drive, they need a ‘current’ picture ID.  In Virginia, the picture ID is issued by DMV. And the irony is that RADAR/CORTRAN require a ‘current’ ID for transportation. Gee, can't get to DMV to update my ID because RADAR/CORTRAN won't take me there; now can't ride it at all because my ID isn't current. Don'tcha just love the bureaucratic mentality?

The fix:  Roanoke County Board of Supervisors and Roanoke City Council simply need to amend their transportation agreements with Valley Metro (which has the contract to operate RADAR/CORTRAN) to include trips for their citizens to DMV; maybe they can talk DMV into subsidizing the trips by another dollar or two. And since Roanoke City Council happens to be the (hands-off?) Board of Directors for Valley Metro, maybe that would have some influence.

While they’re at it, they can fix that boundary silliness I commented on last December.

Friday, April 23, 2010

How to spoil a telephone soliciter's day

Some days I have too much time on my hands.  Below is a letter just faxed to the named culprit and which tells the story.   The next time they call I might get rude!

Liberty United Mortgage, L.L.C.
2030 Liberty Road; Suite 10            Facsimile ONLY to
Eldersburg, MD  21784                (410) 552-0570

    RE:     VIOLATION: Telephone Consumer Protection Act (47 USC 227)

On July 6, 2003, my home telephone number (540-XXX-YYYY) was registered with the Do Not Call Registry maintained by the Federal Trade Commission

On April 22, 2010 at approximately 7:08 PM, I received a telephone call at my residence from an automated calling service.  The purpose of the call was to solicit a refinance of my home mortgage loan.

I was connected with an individual named “John” who, through his accent, confirmed that the call was computer generated. I asked “John” to call me back at my office the next day.  Upon the follow-up call today I was connected with a “Brad Kirk” who identified the company as Liberty United Mortgage, LLC with offices in several areas of the mid-Atlantic, one which used to be in Richmond VA.

The April 22 call is a violation of the TCPA and can carry up to a $1500 penalty.

I hereby demand payment of $500.00 in satisfaction of all claims I have for your violation, through your agent, of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. If this amount is not received in my office before 4 PM May 5, 2010, I will take appropriate action.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Founding Father

It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow. JAMES MADISON , The Federalist, ed. Benjamin F. Wright, no. 62, pp. 41112

That rumbling you hear near Montpelier, Virginia, is our Fourth President rolling in his grave.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Countin' noses

It's time for the census. Something our forefathers decided would be a good idea when they wrote the Constitution lo these many years ago. Counting noses has been around for a long time before that document was written. Of course, counting noses was primarily for taxation purposes -- e.g. Joseph & Mary wandering into Bethlehem, or the Domesday Book that Willie da Conqueror had done in England.

It's a lot simpler this year than 10 years ago. Of course, they still want to know my race. And here I feel discriminated against. Our Hispanic folks have a lot of choices about WHO they are. So do the Asian group. The Native Americans (i.e. them who watched the Pilgrims get off the boat) get to enter their tribe. But 'white' and 'black' folk just get 'black' or 'white'. Africa is full of tribes -- Zulu, Tonga, and a whole lot more. And us white folk aren't homogenous, either. Scandinavian; Anglo-Saxon; Franks; Teutonic. And no category at all for those of middle east ancestry.

The good news is there's a checkbox for "Some Other Race" and a blank at the end of Question 9. I'm entering "Celtic" for my Scottish ancestry. Remember, in an earlier blog I claimed descent from Rob Roy McGregor, who pissed off the English Crown so much that simply to use the name McGregor was punishable by death for over 70 years.

Now THAT's being 'rossiferous'

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird

In her blog, one of my oldest friends commented about the current Roanoke City Council race. One of the candidates is a lawyer who recently defended an infamous white supremacist and did a really good job. My friend thinks this defense disqualifies the lawyer from serving on Council; I disagree.

I mentioned To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee, 1960; film starring Gregory Peck, Universal Pictures, 1962) to her and she said that's different - that Mockingbird was about racial inequality. We both grew up - came of age - in the 60's. She in the Chicago area, me in Roanoke. We both remember the struggles as our country worked to get away from the shame of racial inequality, and those struggles were front page news then. But To Kill a Mockingbird was much more than about race. It's about guaranteeing a fair trial for an unpopular defendant.

The time is 1936 in Maycomb, Alabama. Atticus Finch is appointed by the court to defend a black man accused of raping a young white woman. Although many of Maycomb's citizens disapprove, Atticus agrees to defend him to the best of his ability. The community backlash and personal attacks on Atticus and his family, and how they stand up to it, form the story.

The United States Constitution provides a number of guarantees. Relevant are the Freedom of Speech and the Right to a Fair Trial. The supremacist is, in my polite opinion, an asshole, but this isn't about him it's about his right to share his disgusting views. It's about the right everyone, including supremacist assholes, rag-head terrorist assholes, assassins and other scum-of-the earth have to a fair trial.

I've known and admired the attorney candidate professionally for years and am very proud to call him a personal friend. There is no way in hell he agrees with the views of his client -- in fact, the attorney's heritage has been a target of his clients venom. But the government must prove its case, beyond a reasonable doubt, according to the rules of law. And the attorney did his job.

A number of years ago I was representing an individual who (against my advice) began doing illegal "Straw-man" loans. The government caught on, there were grand juries and a media frenzy. I got interviewed, and one of the questions was how his misdeeds impacted me. My response: "One of the risks of practicing law is when your client does a belly-flop into a pool of crap, you're gonna get splashed." Many of my colleagues -- who had been "splashed" -- called to say they wish they'd thought of that line.

In the spirit of Atticus Finch, we've got a job to do and sometimes it's unpopular. But that's why most of us chose this profession.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Mayor Bowers is Right

Our nation, our commonwealth and our local governments are facing a financial crisis unlike any seen since the Great Depression that most of us only know from history books or (as in my case) stories told by our parents. Budgets aren’t only being cut, they’re being mangled. And in Virginia, it’s those who can least afford any cuts that are being crucified the most – which makes sense if you understand that Virginia Hates the Poor.

But the cuts go further than hurting the poor. Our schools are being forced to close, fire teachers and increase class sizes to ridiculous levels and cancel programs, many of which are geared to increasing the abilities of the disadvantaged (i.e. poor) so they can compete in the job world.

The most interesting and best comment I’ve seen to date comes from Roanoke Mayor David Bowers.  I’ve known David for over 40 years – since Patrick Henry High School days and regularly give him grief. Here he’s dead on and deserves credit for what he said.

The Roanoke Times today reported the following:

Bowers said that when every locality faces budget problems, it becomes a state issue and one that should be addressed by the governor and General Assembly. He said a failure to do so would be on par with Massive Resistance – the push by state officials in the 1950s to resist federally enforced integration of public schools.

“It was the wrong decision then and we paid for it over the years,” Bowers said. “I submit to you, ladies and gentlemen, this is a massive resistance in our time. This is a reckless adherence to ideology by our governor and by our General Assembly in the face of reality and dire consequences and the crisis for Virginia schools.”

Ideology that continues the “Car Tax Relief” abomination instead of providing money to go to the schools.

Right on, David. 

Friday, January 22, 2010

Judge Hart's Rule: Don't Get Mad, Get Even

In my last entry I mentioned my Grand Uncle, the Hon. John M. Hart, also known as "Judge Hart" was once Commissioner of the Revenue for Roanoke City. (Oh, as of this post I haven't heard back on my letter). How he got elected is a story in itself.

Uncle John was Judge of the Hustings Court for Roanoke City (it's since become part of the Circuit Court), 'way back in the 1920's and early '30's. Check your history: this was during Prohibition, the "No alcoholic drinking" thing. So, in theory, anyone caught drinking or with liquor would be arrested.

So Uncle John had a lot of working stiffs ("Joe Lunchpail") show up in his court charged with having a pint or a fifth, or with drinking.  However, at the same time, the Elite of Roanoke (Doctors, Bankers, Businessmen and - of course - Lawyers) were happily drinking Franklin County's finest 'shine and if caught by police would simply be escorted home.

Not fair, huh? That's what Uncle John thought. So Joe ended up with the minimum fine and no jail. This caused the WCTU (Women's Christian Temperance Union) to dislike hizzoner.  They called him "Soft on Drinking".  The irony here is that Judge Hart was a Tee-Totaler -- never touched a drop of alcohol in his life. (We call him "The Sober Hart" in the family)

The then Commissioner of the Revenue's wife was big in the WCTU in Roanoke. So the then Commissioner of the Revenue was the leader in removing Uncle John from the bench by not reappointing him for another term. In Virginia the General Assembly selects judges; Uncle John lost by a very very few votes to Lindsay Almond.

A year or so later the Commissioner of the Revenue was up for re-election.  Yep, Uncle John ran against him and won.

Now THAT's 'Rossiferous'. Any wonder where I got it?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Taking on The Commissioner of the Revenue for Roanoke City . . .

I got a nastygram from The Commissioner of the Revenue for the City of Roanoke. Among the duties of that office is keeping track of who owns real estate so they can be taxed. I made a mistake in a deed -- the wrong tax map number was inserted  by accident; the rest of the deed was detailed and correct.  The Commissioner's office is refusing to transfer the tax records because of that error. They're wrong. Following is an adaptation of my letter (I removed identifing info and added stuff to clarify it for y'all)
First, I’ll admit to a scrivener’s error in the tax number in the top margin, first page, of a deed prepared by this office. I should have caught it; the closing agent should have caught it. I congratulate and respect The Commissioner of the Revenue's (COR) staff for their sharp eye.

However, there is no authority in the Code of Virginia preventing the COR from correctly assessing the property in the name of the purchaser when there is clearly a minor scrivener’s error. That offices’ failure to correctly assess “the person to whom the [real estate] is chargeable with taxes” as to any property under Virginia Code 58.1-3281, when a reading of the four corners of the deed would disclose such, could be misfeasance.

When I called the Commissioner's office, his staff referred to Virginia Code 17.1-252. That section (1) makes Circuit Court Clerks require a Parcel ID Number in those jurisdictions that use them (Roanoke City is one) and (2) allows the Clerk to use that number in an indexing system (The Roanoke City Circuit Court Clerk’s office does not have such a system). Nothing in that statute applies to the duties of The Commissioner of the Revenue, although compliance does, usually, make their job easier.

In this case, the body of the deed clearly identifies the property and its title history. It even identifies it as a re-subdivision of two lots with tax numbers (actually, conveyance of a strip of land from one lot to another). In the thousands of real estate titles I have personally searched, and the thousands of other title reports I have personally reviewed, a single error did not void the title when the bulk of the information distinctly identified the property.

In addition, this policy implies that an instrument must be recorded to effect a transfer of property to “the person to whom the same is chargeable with taxes”. That, in my family’s knowledge, has never been the case. My uncle, Judge John M. Hart, was The Commissioner of the Revenue at one time (How he got there is a Rossiferous story in itself!). I know of instances where a deed was delivered, accepted, but the buyer neglected or refused to record it; the property was nevertheless taxed to the buyer because the then Commissioner of the Revenue properly determined the buyer to be “chargeable with taxes”.  I also recall that, as Escheator, my father and I would provide a list of purchasers to the City so that they could be assessed the taxes coming due on the properties they bought.

Hopefully this will get cleared up so that the purchaser doesn't suffer because of the COR's office. I've talked to other attorneys who have had similar experiences; it'll be interesting to see what happens.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

More Big Bank stupidity

Big Banks just don’t have sense.  Here’s a plug for the small, community based bank.

From a list-serv where I’m a member, (Virginia chapter, National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys) I picked up two stories illustrating the abject stupidity of big banks.

The first comes from my friend Ken Labowitz, a lawyer in Alexandria, VA.
  • Perhaps my attitude here is influenced by this afternoon's confrontation with SunTrust Bank.  I am co-guardian and co-conservator in a case with my colleague Anne ****.  The appointment is specifically written to say about six times that "either may act as Conservator".  With regard to drilling a safety deposit box, SunTrust is insisting that both of us be present.  No negotiation, no discussion possible, just both of us have to be present because SunTrust says so.
After Ken posted his story, another colleague responded:
  • I think there must be special secret laws about safety deposit boxes. Wachovia insisted that I could not access a box to which I had a key, I am the executor under the will, and I gave them the death certificate of the owner and a copy of my appointment.  They required that the agent under the decedent's POA come into the bank and authorize me to have access to the box!
(apparently Wachovia is too stupid to know that a power of attorney dies with the person who issued it.)

And finally, one of my own experiences and how I handled it.
  • I was appointed guardian/conservator for a lady with a house subject to a mortgage held by BB&T. The judge inserted a bunch of stuff in the order appointing me (if he'd been around in time of Moses he'd have taken a hammer & chisel to the 10 Commandments!).

  • BB&T did not have a deposit account for the person, instead that person  owed BB&T money. I inquired about the balance and payment status and presented my order and qualification papers so I could PAY BB&T.  The order was sent 'downtown' somewhere and the response came back "we need proof that the judge made all those changes before we give access". My response was quick, to the point, and effective:  "Other than you, who should I subpoena to Court so the Judge can verify this?"

  • I got the information.  Later I told hizzoner the story and he laughed.

In all these cases the banks were dealing with experienced lawyers with appropriate documentation and identification. But the banks substituted their stupidity for three separate court orders conferring legal authority on my colleagues (and me). Other than my ‘subpoena’ threat, I’ve had to threaten to write the various regulatory bodies with a formal complaint – and I made sure the flunky I was dealing with knew their name would be included – or legal action, or all of the above.  I’ve suggested that they go ahead and prepare a memorandum of events as their superiors and the home office legal department will want to know why they have to respond to my complaints.  So far they’ve blinked, but one of these days, probably soon,  .  .  . 

Local, Community based banks, are a whole lot easier to deal with.  Their front line people can think and (unlike those in big banks) are usually authorized to do so.  If there is something I think unreasonable, I easily get to someone up the chain; sometimes it’s not the bank’s fault, it’s the regulators stupidity that makes them do it. (Yes, another blog at another time) In the Roanoke area, from personal experience, I can recommend Stellar One and Valley Bank – good service and great people.

PS: full disclosure – I own stock in BB&T and Suntrust. Inherited it.