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Director of the Mayor's Office of Consumer Affairs Lance Haver seen here in 2008. (Jonathan Wilson/Inquirer)
Director of the Mayor's Office of Consumer Affairs Lance Haver seen here in 2008. (Jonathan Wilson/Inquirer) (JONATHAN WILSON/INQUIRER)

POSTED: October 23, 2014

IT WAS a mess.

I didn't think it would be. I thought that a hearing called last week by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Jean FitzSimon would bring at least a whiff of justice to the screwed customers of Autosource, a now-defunct used-car dealership.

But there was only the stench of dissembling from lawyers and impatience from FitzSimon for people who expected more forbearance from a powerful judge.

The sour cherry on this tale of little guys hosed by greed?

FitzSimon tossed from the courtroom two citizens who passionately took issue with what appeared to be the judge's lack of interest in the hardship of the Autosource victims.

She then denounced the two as "apes."

"I shouldn't have used that word," FitzSimon told me yesterday. "It just came out. I should have said they were acting like braying donkeys or unruly kids. But they were disrespecting the court, and I was frustrated. I have never had to remove anyone from my courtroom before."

The roots of the misery (which I wrote about three weeks ago) started last spring. That's when the vehicles of at least a dozen Autosource customers were repossessed by Avangard, a finance company they'd never heard of.

In 2012, Avangard had given Autosource a $250,000 line of credit to finance its car inventory. Avangard would hold liens on the car titles until the vehicles sold.

But Autosource never alerted Avangard to all sales nor forwarded enough proceeds to the company. Instead, last February, Autosource filed for bankruptcy.

So Avangard repossessed the cars. Even though the buyers were current on the loans they'd gotten to purchase the vehicles. And even though their cars weren't on the list of autos approved by FitzSimon for repo.

The buyers aren't rich. They're working-class people who pride themselves on paying the bills they incur. One is a disabled U.S. Army veteran whose wife has sickle-cell disease and whose son is battling cancer. Another is a prison guard. Another is a young working man who commutes to New York to help out his mom.

The repossessions have ruined their finances or destroyed their credit - or both.

Frantic, some buyers sought help last month from the city's consumer advocate, Lance Haver. He advised them to write FitzSimon to request an "emergency" hearing, since the repossessions happened as a result of bankruptcy proceedings that FitzSimon oversaw. In response, the judge scheduled last week's "status" hearing.

FitzSimon told me that the hearing in U.S. Bankruptcy Court at 9th and Market was for the buyers to meet with Avangard's attorney Dominique Ward, who claimed to know nothing about the repossessions.

But the buyers didn't know that. They thought they were summoned to tell their stories so that FitzSimon could take action against Avangard.

So they were taken aback when, off the bat, FitzSimon said she had no standing, as a bankruptcy judge, to make Avangard do anything. The buyers would have to take their complaints to state court.

That's mostly true, says attorney William Bensley, representing several of the buyers. But, he said, judges like FitzSimon can still get creative with their clout.

"I was hoping that she would put Avangard on the spot and order them to explain, on the record, the legal basis for what they did and explain why she shouldn't step in."

In other words, just because FitzSimon had no standing doesn't mean she had no power.

Haver, who attended the hearing, had the moxie to tell her so. He asked her to please do something to give the victims some justice. She insisted she couldn't. He insisted she could. She told him to pipe down. He asked more questions. So she booted him from the courtroom.

"He wouldn't let the others speak," FitzSimon told me in a subsequent conversation.

That's not what I saw. Haver was simply the first to speak. He was eloquent and impassioned, as he usually is when it comes to speaking up for the wronged.

After Haver was ousted, FitzSimon asked if anyone else cared to speak. After what just happened, I didn't think anyone would have the guts to utter another word in the judge's cavernous, intimidating courtroom.

But Jonathan Frissora took the plunge. He's carrying two car loans - one for the car he traded to Autosource for a new car, another to pay off the first car and the balance due on the second. But Autosource kept his money, then Avangard took his car.

FitzSimon reiterated her powerlessness but allowed Frissora to confront Avangard's lawyer.

Things got heated, yes. For two months, Frissora has been paying loans for cars he does not have. Autosource and Avangard have blown him off. And the repo company that took his car hasn't let him retrieve personal items from his vehicle.

So he was fired up when he finally got chance to say his piece in a place where victims are supposed to be given a fair shot. And when the judge told him to pipe down, he pushed back - not disrespectfully or abusively - as the judge saw it - but insistently.

He got escorted from the courtroom, too. But not before FitzSimon used the "ape" word to describe him and Haver.

The room gasped. Frissora recoiled. I don't yet have the court transcript, so I can only paraphrase what Frissora said, which was akin to, "I've been wronged and I come here for help and you call me an ape?"

The court adjourned soon after.

In the hallway, the buyers gathered shakily, no closer to justice than they'd been for months. Attorney Bensley offered to begin filing paperwork in state court on their behalf. And Haver remained disgusted by FitzSimon.

"She could have found a way to help, to make a difference," he said. "Instead, she found a way to do nothing."

Not to defend FitzSimon, but I don't believe she used "ape" as the racial slur it has come to be for African-Americans. After all, Frissora is Puerto Rican, Haver is white and the group who came to FitzSimon for help was racially mixed.

But she meant it to insult people who, summoned to a hearing, were naive enough to think they'd be heard.

Shame on her.

 

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