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Howard Dvorkin and Credit Counseling Confusion

1e5bceed100e526d7feb4380c69b3038_thumbDallas        Recently there was a front page expose in the Wall Street Journal slamming Howard Dvorkin, who was the founder and former president of Consolidated Credit Counseling, perhaps the largest credit counseling outfit in the country.  The case made by the reporters was based on a pretty simple contradiction.  Dvorkin was a credit counselor but at the same time it appeared that he owned or had investments in many businesses that supported or were directly involved in payday lending operations that charged exorbitant and predatory interest rates contributing to the same credit catastrophes that he was supposedly trying to fix.  Add to that the fact that until 2013 when he left Consolidated, he was also frequently quoted as a consumer advocate blasting payday lending outfits.  At the least Dvorkin would have some explaining to do in order to help all of us understand where he really stood and what was up with all of this?

ACORN certainly knew about Consolidated.  Credit counseling was so close to what our housing counselors were doing with ACORN Housing in trying to get low-and-moderate income families up to snuff to buy and hold on to their houses, that we had regular debates about whether to also offer direct credit counseling and add that to our portfolio of services.  The housing team had looked closely at Consolidated, though I can’t remember if they actually met with Dvorkin or not, but there were discussions with them about potential partnerships with ACORN, as I recall, but it never evolved.  The ACORN housing team, led by Mike Shea, just never felt comfortable with the operation, the call center aspect, or whether it was something that could work for ACORN, so we passed.  Maybe they sniffed some of this then, but who knows.

Dvorkin’s explanations to the Journal for having his hand both upstream causing the credit problems and downstream supposedly fixing the problems were pretty lame.  He didn’t know, or his involvement was minor, or whatever.  Admittedly, he didn’t help his case.

I’ve got some problems with this story though, and don’t feel the Journal made their case either.  Sure it didn’t look good on the optics, but there was never a word about how Consolidated worked and whether or not under Dvorkin in the past or now, Dvorkin’s investments caused them to pull the string or lighten up on payday lenders.  In fact their point was that he was an effective advocate against payday lenders even though he had a lot of that sugar in his coffee.   Nor was there even a hint that Dvorkin left Consolidated Credit because of some unhappiness with his leadership or certainly because of these investments.  Nor did the reporters quote a single member of the board or staff of Consolidated Credit indicating that Dvorkin was a bum or had called their dogs off of the industry under his leadership.   Furthermore, he’s not there, having left two years ago.  So whatever strength of the case being made by the Journal is “been there, done that” and no longer current.

Dvorkin was quoted as saying essentially that, yes, his investments might look “weird,” and he’s right.  They do look weird and they do have a certain foul odor.   It’s a bit like the head scratch you might have if Ralph Nader was revealed now as a big investor in GM.  But, without the Journal finding any evidence of misdeeds, conflicts, ethical breeches, illegalities, or anything under his watch, this simply comes off as a “hey look at me” piece of nonprofit shaming, and that’s actually a lot more disgusting for me to read about than the get rich slow schemes of this fellow a couple of years after he’s left a nonprofit that has reportedly provided credit counseling to 5 million people.

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Please enjoy Sleater0-Kinney’s  A New Wave , thanks to KABF.

Organizing the Debtors to Hold Hospitals Accountable

florence-nightingale-activist-the-very-first-requirement-in-aHouston      Ok.  We’re all clear that nonprofit hospitals now have to back off of the bully-boy tactics involved in debt collections for lower income and working families drowning under the costs of hospital emergencies with inadequate insurance and resources.   We’ve talked about the fact that the Treasury Department and the IRS have put into effect as of January 1, 2015 new rules saying that you have to try to evaluate and mitigate the situation before going to court or you lose your tax exemption.  Furthermore, private hospitals are likely the next in line, so the problem is how are we going to make that happen?  In an earlier report,  I recommended that we organize immediately on this issue, but how?

Mike Gallagher, a long time comrade and friend, now semi-retired from an SEIU local union in Boston, after reading my report reminded me of a campaign he, Bill Pastreich, and others had been involved in on Cape Cod year ago.  The union had an excellent contract with the Cape Cod and Island’s hospital, but also noted that the hospital was seizing the homes of some of the folks for medical debts.  They got the list of people from the courts who were having these troubles, organized – with some difficulty admittedly – the debtors to protest the seizures and shamed the hospital into backing off of taking the homes in a big victory at the time.

Fast forward to the 21st century and Brother Gallagher sent me a message later in the day that thinking more about my report and the old Massachusetts campaign, he had emailed a reporter with ProPublica, where in these modern times they tend to add the reporter’s email to their byline, about a story he read online about Heartland Hospital in St. Joseph, Missouri, that was doing the same thing now.  He wanted to know how the reporter had gotten the leads and had he used the same kind of list that the union organizers had painfully assembled years ago.  Oh, no, he was told.  It was all on-line now.   You just had to track the records through the name of the hospital’s debt collector, and, bam, there it was.  Sadly, the reporter shared privately, that particular hospital had its collectors file 49 cases since the first of the year on an average of 4 per day.  Clearly, the new regulations are not intimidating the likes of what Mike called, “Heartless” hospital in St. Joe.

But, Mike’s memory and quick work, are more than enough to provide all organizers and most advocates and others a quick map on how to push back these hospitals immediately, take hard and dramatic action with effective organizing, and push these so-called nonprofits back across the bright line that these new federal rules are trying to draw and make them do right for working people.  Good organizing is not just the brilliant insight or the attentive ear to new issues and nuances, it is also knowing when someone has a winning plan that it’s time to replicate that and take it downtown in as many places as you can muster.

Time to roll up some sleeves and get hospitals to do right for low and moderate income people.  We have to remind them that these are their patients, not just random folks, and that they also have to subscribe to the motto, “do no harm.”

Holding Nonprofit Hospitals Accountable to New Billing Rules

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example of huge hospital bill

 New Orleans       Recently, I opened a bill from the city’s EMS unit, another from a hospital in the city that is somehow for profit now but was formerly nonprofit and continues to retain a 17% stake from Tulane University, which is obviously nonprofit, and a third from some unidentified group of doctors.  Interestingly, all of the bills were for about the same amounts, $3000 a pop, and all were for an individual without health insurance or income and, sadly, who could not be revived despite these $10,000 in bills received before the burial.

Talking recently on KABF’s Wade’s World to Chris Hariston, a Local 100 United Labor Unions organizer based in Little Rock, but also spearheading the effort to establish Citizen Wealth Centers in conjunction with the union there and in Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, and Baton Rouge, he indicated that they are finding that these kinds of cases are routine.  He told me he had recently worked with one woman who fortunately was on Medicare but was overbilled an uncovered $10,000 for a short hospital stay.  Going through the bill and challenging the overcharges through the Citizen Wealth Center, he was able to knock the bill down to $1300, which is still a lot, but at least is nowhere near 10 grand!

Now it looks like we have some new weapons in this fight in dealing with nonprofit hospitals right now and maybe with for profits and hybrids like Tulane in the near future.  New regulations from the Treasury Department and the IRS taking effect immediately in 2015 require nonprofit hospitals to back off of some of their gangster tactics and deal with the real situations and incomes of low and moderate income families, particularly those without any insurance.   According to the New York Times:

 

Under the rules, nonprofit hospitals must now offer discounts, free care or other financial assistance to certain needy patients. Additionally, hospitals must try to determine whether a patient is eligible for assistance before they refer a case to a debt collector, send negative information to a credit agency, place a lien on a patient’s home, file a lawsuit or seek a court order to seize a patient’s earnings.

 

This could be the kind of rule that is honored in the breach, but it also could be an opportunity.

On our part we’re having a meeting in two weeks and one proposal on the agenda will be to reach out from our Citizen Wealth Centers to all the nonprofit hospitals in our membership areas and ask for a meeting to discuss how they are implementing the new rules.  There are teeth in this program, so they ought to know that we intend to be the dentists doing the root canals.  60% of the hospitals in the US are still nonprofits and the IRS is going to review their tax exempt status every three years to see how they are doing on this.  There’s even support from the Republican side where Senator Charles Grassley has been beating the drum on whether nonprofit hospitals are earning their tax exemptions.   Furthermore industry experts and publications are already speculating that this new rule could become the industry standard, particularly in light of the fact that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has endorsed the new rules and advocated for wider application.  Hey, more pressure on all the hospitals could also put more push behind expansion of Medicaid programs for lower income families in the states still dragging their feet once all the hospitals start finding that it’s harder to shakedown people when they are most desperate and ill or dying.

This will be a fight worth having, but the time to draw the battle lines is now, not after too many of these institutions start trying to pretend they are complying and hoping they can get away with the same ol,’ same ol.’

Eulogy for Dale

New Orleans   This is something I don’t want to get good at, but today we memorialized my brother, Dale, and for those interested, here were my remarks.

My brother, Dale Rathke, was many things to many people.

The “just the facts, ma’am” version found him born 64 years ago in Rangely, Colorado on the western slope, where he spent his first 5 years living in an oil company camp actually 5 miles from Rangely itself and about 15 miles from the Utah border in the upper northwestern corner of Rio Blanco County. The family followed the oil wells from there to Kentucky and then to New Orleans where our parents told both of us that they were trading our snow sleds for raincoats and that we could have another dog once we moved to a ranch.  We believed everything they told us for many years and kept asking when we were moving to that ranch.

He skipped 2nd grade and graduated from Benjamin Franklin High School as the valedictorian and a National Merit Scholar in 1967.  He was an Eagle Scout. He graduated from Yale University in 1971.  He spent a year teaching in New Orleans public schools while he waited to see if his low draft number would call him to Vietnam, then he went to Princeton University gaining his PhD in English Literature in 1974 specializing in early Elizabethan period.

He was fluent in French and could follow Italian and read Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit. He was a math wizard testing off the charts.  He ended up living mainly in New York City off and on for 3 years until 1978 when he began working in various capacities, mainly handling the finances for the ACORN family of organizations for 30 years until 2008, and then doing so for the Chief Organizer Fund and related corporations for another 6 years until his death.

These are the things we know for sure.

Going through his library over the last month reveals even more diverse interests.  Cookbooks of all descriptions, after he became a gourmet cook at Princeton.  Proust in the original French.  Scores of books on opera, art collections, poetry, philosophy, and of course literature.   There was Burke’s Peerage and full editions of the Oxford English Dictionary, but there were also books specializing in southern and British humor, biographies of society folk and scores of volumes of “who’s who” of this and that.  There was a book on the best cut men in boxing and biographies of Blake and Stephen Crane and Irving Berlin.  I got a note from a comrade remembering a lunchtime lecture Dale once gave him on “protecting the life of the mind.”  You get the picture.  Dale was always the smartest guy in the room, though he did all of us the favor of being reserved and quiet about it until provoked.

When asked about the utility of his education and erudition, Dale was one of the last, great proponents of knowledge for the pure sake of knowledge, and would argue he was uninterested in its application in the so-called real world. Though he wouldn’t hesitate later to take computer programming classes at Delgado and teach himself double-entry bookkeeping, accounting, and architecture, as well as reading the law when we needed it.  The manager of Fair Grinds Coffeehouse would joke that “Dale was the internet.” Definitely he was dangerous using that tool.

Not surprisingly we have gotten notes from people remembering Dale taking them to museums and explaining why something was art or making them go to the opera with him because they had never been or leading them on the “grand tour” of museums in Europe during his New York interregnum.

But on the other hand,  my own memories are just as vivid outside of the cultured and social byways he often traveled as an adult that might surprise many of his other friends.

  •         As boys we spent thousands of hours walking through the arroyos and dry wash gullys in Colorado with a BB gun, some crackers, and a canteen daily for a half-dozen summers when our father’s job took us all through every Chevron operation in a half-dozen western states.
  •         While living in New Orleans one of our favorite pastimes was playing “spectacular catch” in the front yard on Burbank Street whether in football or baseball season.
  •         I always felt responsible for a bike accident that broke his front tooth because we were riding too close together while talking as we rode home from elementary school.
  •         Our first jobs were mowing yards for people for $2 bucks a lawn in the summer. Dale made a quarter for sweeping and 50 cents when we made another buck edging.  I bought a pirogue and we would take it out to Bayou St. John and turn it over just to be able to swim around and put it right again.  We would slap alligator gars with the paddles and watch them bubble up alongside the boat.
  •         Dale didn’t drive a stick shift, but in 1978 after ACORN’s first convention in Memphis, I was so exhausted I put him behind the wheel on a Volvo P1800 and he drove from Memphis to almost Louisiana after I put the car in gear as he worked the clutch.  He was always game!

At ACORN Year End meetings there was a popular feature of the meeting called “you should have been there when…”  Well, you all should have been there when…

  •         We took ACORN’s campaign to Tulsa in 1980 to try to win delegates as we pushed for greater participation of lower income families in the political process.  We were all on the doors before the Oklahoma caucus and Dale was taking doorknocking shifts on the streets as well and was assigned to a section of Greenwood, a large low income African-American area.  We were getting commitments for people to attend the caucus.  Dale hit one door and two older black men were busy and said they would be glad to listen to him but he had to talk with them while they were working and help out.  They were killing chickens and handed him several by the necks for him to hold while he talked.  He got the commitments, and I will always be able to picture him with a chicken in each hand.
  •         A colleague from the early 1980s shared this story with us the other day.  The first office that national ACORN had in New Orleans, Dale found and built for us at 628 Baronne Street in the CBD.  The building was sold and we were preparing to move to the next location on Tchoupitoulas.  The new owners were already breaking through the walls on the upper stories.  Rats, some as large as cats, were thick as thieves in the warehouse district and would sometimes come skittering through even during the middle of the afternoons, but were in full strength at nights and Dale would regularly be the last person out of the office long after midnight.  Our comrade was running the canvass program and would check in with Dale at 10pm before leaving for the night.   He describes the scene:

 

“Dale’s fortress against these rodents as he toiled away at his computer screen through the night was a collection of desks he’d assembled to surround his own desk. If one of them appeared to be on the verge of penetrating this fortress, he’d toss one of the boat shoes he always wore at the invader. I witnessed this on more than one occasion while he and I chatted about the day. I found it somewhat unnerving, but we’d laugh about it”

 

Dale was an original.  He was a contradiction and a conundrum.

He made mistakes that hurt him and hurt our work, but no one could question as one comrade said recently his dedication to “our life’s work” or as another commented “his commitment to social justice” and to building our organizations with his 36 years of labor.  He worked tirelessly over endless days and hours toiling on the books and finances when there was almost always more month than there was money.

He was enigmatic and inscrutable.

He was multi-faceted, presenting so many different sides of himself and personas to different people.

He broke rules and lived almost as an outlaw, cleaning out his apartment I found scores of parking tickets, and can assure you that he’s not welcome in Jefferson Parish, but at the same time he insisted on form, order, dignity, and manners, while avoiding conflict of any kind.  He hated unpleasantness.  He believed in being amusing.  He lived by his wits with charm and guile.

He was intensely private.  He was solicitous of his friends. He loved his various West Highland terriers.  He doted on his niece, Dine’, and nephew, Chaco, and was a sucker for any request they made of him.  Beth and I often said that our children were raised by wolves, but in reality it was a small village where my mother, my father, and their uncle were all vital in their lives in a way that was unknown to Dale and me given our distance from any of our own relatives in California and Mississippi.  We had each other and for the most part we made that work for us all of our lives.

A friend and comrade reminded me a year or so ago that he had asked me something about Dale perhaps 15 years ago, and I had responded that I “would let him know once I got to know him better.”  Now with Dale’s passing and going through his books, his apartment, my parents’ house, and even his meticulously organized computer with its tiers of orderly files and financial records kept just so, “almost to the end,” I think I will spend the rest of my days, as many of his family and friends will, in trying to both know him better and at the same time keeping him alive in our memories and missing him on the rest of the journey.

At the back of the sanctuary we have brought a diverse selection from Dale’s library.  Please help yourself to one of these books as a memento of your relationship with Dale. There are also directions to  the repast.  All here are invited.

Thank you all for sharing our love for Dale today.

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An ACORN Memorial Orchard on the ACORN Farm

AIDS Meadow

AIDS Grove in San Francisco

New Orleans      Lady Bird Johnson gets a lot of credit for the Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Grove filled with a variety of trees along the Potomac River in Washington, D. C.  There’s the AIDS Grove, a memorial to more than 1000 in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.  More than a thousand redwood forest groves have been established in 30 different state parks in California.  My brother’s passing along with some nudges from friends and family members with great suggestions, got me thinking about what might be appropriate for those warriors and loved ones we can’t be allowed to forget and seek to remember and respect.  Why not a small orchard of fruit trees on the ACORN Farm dedicated to exactly that purpose?

The ACORN Farm is now a half-acre in the Lower 9th Ward mostly facing Law and Delery Streets, only two blocks from the first two houses built after Katrina by ACORN.  Another acre or so is likely available across the streets but not contiguous to our farm.  The Lower 9th Ward is still only repopulated between 20 and 25% compared to the pre-Katrina numbers, so the long march to recovery is a long way to completion.  Urban agricultural projects have been part of the plan, and we’ve been at the task of making it productive.  The first six fig trees and two of our pecan trees that we planted as mere sprigs fell to city lawn mowing contractors confused about the lots they were handling and oblivious to our designs.  One pecan still thrives and sometime in the next ten years will be productive.  A recent donation of a large fig tree uprooted from a French Quarter patio has prospects for turning around a rough area at the junction of one of our lots.   Like old pioneers in the West, we think where there’s land, there’s opportunity.

Suggestions of a memorial for Dale, my brother, quickly produced a promised large pecan tree and several contributions that have our volunteer farmers looking for citrus trees, orange, lemon, and Satsumas that could fill the holes dug by our recent volunteers.  The nice thing about fruit trees is the pleasure that will come for years and years from a gift that just keeps on giving.   The first trees will frame the ACORN Community Green Space, as we’re calling it where we envision neighbors being able to sit in the future in some calm and find shade and solace in the orchard.

But, why not more?  After riding for the ACORN brand in one way or another for 45 years, natural laws have caught up with too many and more will inevitably come.  Why not a tree for Maxine Nelson from Pine Bluff, the longtime Secretary and APAC chair who passed last year or Elena Hanggi Givens, former ACORN President and director of the training institute, also lost last year?  Steve McDonald, long gone, but critical in ACORN’s history should have a tree shouldn’t he?  Great organizers critical on the long road, but now too gone to early like Dewey Armstrong, Jon Kest, John Beam, and others like Terry Andrews, who I promised myself long ago I would find a way to remember, but failed to find a way to do so, should all have fruit bearing trees.

The collective enterprise of social movements and peoples’ organizations of low and moderate income families that has been part of the great tradition that ACORN shared exists at the footnotes, if that, of history by and large for elites, but we have to find ways to honor and remember our own and keep their memories evergreen just as our struggle must also be constant.

Somehow an orchard on the ACORN Farm seems small, but a start, and something that those of us who have made this our life’s work can share.

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Please enjoy California Stars by Bob Seger, Thanks to Kabf.

Good Karma Points

Photo 1(1)New Orleans     A robber with a long beard was so brazen in the New Orleans French Quarter that he simply walked into the gallery and walked out with a painting valued at $250,000 by the late Cajun painter, George Rodrigue, famous for his Blue Dog works.  The next night a band, Stereo Fire Empire, leaving a gig at 1AM at the House of Blues and talking about the boldness of the heist, walking along noticed two paintings leaned up against the wall of a building, and recognized the missing Blue Dog work, and promptly walked the two blocks to turn them into the police.  Their only hesitation, which would be prudent in New Orleans in dealing with the police, was whether the police would arrest them!  But, they were set on doing right, regardless, because in the words of one, it would give them “good karma points.”

You know there’s something important to that story that transcends this painting.

I thought about it myself the other day as I spent an hour of a busy workday with more than 15 volunteers from Oglethorpe University in Atlanta who were working at the ACORN Farm in the Lower 9th Ward. They jumped to the task clearing weeds and brush with machetes, buck saws, and swing blades, mowing the grass, raking leaves into the compost piles, and digging holes for new fruit trees with shovels and post-hole diggers. It wasn’t an earthshaking event in the world of social change but it was an earth sharing event that had to be done and was fun to accomplish, because it was necessary.  As Christal Hayes, one of the volunteers wrote me, “I hope you enjoy the pictures I have attached from today and it was a pleasure…! Thank you for an amazing service experience.” Good karma points all around.

A report from several extensive research studies on relationships by the Pew Research Center and others from all around the world is shedding light on relationships, like marriage, and their impact on income equality.  These studies are also shedding light on what makes people happier and more content.  The obvious is unavoidable on the money side.  Two is better than one when up against the storm, and if both are working, then you almost have a fighting chance of making it a hard world.  It is also interesting that they found that marriage has little to do with it.  Long term relationships have the same effect as blessings from the church and state, so good news for people, and less so for those institutions.  This isn’t true everywhere.  Latin America and south Asia don’t find themselves happier in such relationships for example.  The kicker on these studies is that the friendship is more important than the marriage.  Having a confidante.  Having someone watch your back.  Having a partner on the long road.  It matters.

Good deeds.  Helping others.  Friends and lovers.  It’s worth all of us building up some “good karma points.”  Rock on, Stereo Fire Empire!

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