By The Washington Post Editorial Board
As it was outlined last week in a federal lawsuit, the scam had an elegant simplicity. Sharpies at a financial firm in Chevy Chase called Access Funding would comb court records with the goal of targeting unsophisticated Baltimoreans, usually African-Americans who as children had been victims of lead-paint poisoning. Often, they suffered cognitive impairment; frequently, they were hard up for cash; nearly always, they were unsuspecting.
The idea, according to the suit filed by the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, was to bilk victims out of long-term, incremental payments, known as structured settlements, which they had received from lawsuits arising from the poisoning. In return, they were offered immediate, and deeply discounted, lump-sum payments, generally worth just 25 to 30 percent of the present value of the future payments they were forfeiting.
In some or most cases, an independent professional adviser might have cautioned the lead-paint victims that the deal might not be in their best interests; many of the victims, with no experience in financial management, would be ill served by a lump-sum payment, which they might squander. But in this case the adviser, required by law, was a sham arranged and mostly paid for by the financial firm itself, the lawsuit alleges.
The lawyer, Charles Smith, was neither independent nor very professional, and, in the scenario laid out by the lawsuit, what he rendered could hardly have been called advice. After a cursory few minutes on the phone with Smith, the lead-paint victims – now victimized again – generally went along with the deal.
Thats the gist of the bureaus suit against Access Funding, its officials and Smith. They stand accused of running what amounted to a highly effective con that exploited its victims by plying them with cash advances, which tricked them into believing, falsely, that they were obligated to go forward with the transaction.
Smith got $200 from Access for every client to whom he provided such independent professional advice, attesting that he had rendered it in a letter that was later provided for the benefit of a state court. Nearly all of the victims ended up poorer, generally to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars.
A similar lawsuit is pending in state court, brought by Marylands attorney general. The lawsuits, along with reforms enacted by state lawmakers this year, are a fitting response to the scheme, first uncovered last year by The Post.
In just two years ending last fall, according to the Maryland attorney generals office, Access Funding struck 158 such deals, mainly with lead-paint poisoning victims, in which it paid just $7.5 million for settlements with a present value of $32.6 million. Thats a disgrace in which state courts and judges, which rubber-stamped the deals, were complicit.
At the least, its to be hoped that the lawsuits result in orders that the defendants pay damages to their victims, be stripped of their ill-gotten gains and be permanently barred from the structured-settlement-purchasing industry. That outcome would serve as a warning to others who would prey on highly vulnerable, cognitively impaired victims – precisely the sort of citizens who are entitled to protection in law and the courts, but in this case didnt receive it.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post