A decade ago, Lavern Robinson got caught up in the payday-loan squeeze.
When bills are piling up and there’s no place to turn, the quick fix of cash from a payday lender can seem like a good idea. Want to save your car, feed your kids or make that mortgage payment? That corner store promising quick cash issues its siren call.
In Missouri, though, one payday loan is hardly ever enough. Interest rates are so astronomical — they average more than 450 percent — as to make repayment next to impossible. One loan leads to two, or three, or, in Robinson’s case, 13 separate loans.
Believing that she had been taken advantage of by a system that preys on the desperation of the poor, Robinson found an attorney and took Title Lenders Inc., also known as Missouri Payday Loans, to court. A judge took pity on her.
He found that the contracts Robinson signed to get her cash — which severely limited her potential legal redress — were “unconscionable.”
Title Lenders Inc. lawyered up and appealed the case all the way to the Missouri Supreme Court. In 2012, after the U.S. Supreme Court had issued a favorable ruling regarding arbitration contracts such as the ones used by payday-loan companies, the state’s top court overturned the circuit court decision that had been in Robinson’s favor.
Among the lawyers who won the case for Title Lenders Inc.?
Four years later, the attorney who was once the chief of staff to former Gov. Bob Holden appears to be doing the bidding of the payday-loan industry again. Earlier this year, she filed an ethics complaint with the Missouri Ethics Commission against St. Louis Alderman Cara Spencer, 20th Ward, after Spencer filed two board bills targeting the payday-loan industry.
Dueker argued that Spencer, who is the executive director of the nonprofit Consumers Council of Missouri, had failed to file a letter outlining a potential conflict of interest because her employer advocates against the payday-loan industry on behalf of consumers.
The Missouri Ethics Commission dismissed the complaint in October, finding that Spencer would derive no financial benefit from the legislation. The primary aspect of the two bills was an attempt to require payday lenders to pay a $10,000 permit to do business in the city, and to require more stringent warnings about the nature of high interest rates.
“There is no evidence that your employment, pay, or any other benefit you may currently derive from your employer would be impacted by the passage of either Board Bill 69 or 70,” the ethics commission wrote. “Therefore, you have no duty to file an interest statement with the City Clerk as alleged in the complaint.”
When the dispute arose, Dueker went to great pains to separate herself from the payday-loan industry. She said she wasn’t working for them, and, in fact, told reporters and others that she had never — ever — derived any financial benefit from the payday-loan industry.
In a series of tweets defending her complaint, Dueker’s language could not have been more clear:
“I have never gotten one dime from predatory lenders,” she wrote on Twitter in October, after the complaint against Spencer had been dismissed.
Earlier, on Sept. 30, she was even more definitive:
“I have not now nor ever been paid or hired by pay day loan industry. I think alderman should disclose conflicts. Ald Spencer refused.”
I have not now nor ever been paid or hired by pay day loan industry, I think alderman should disclose conflicts. Ald Spencer refused.— Jane Dueker (@JaneDueker) September 30, 2016
In fact, Spencer disclosed her potential conflict multiple times. Like other elected officials, she files a personal financial disclosure that outlines her employment. She discussed the board bills and any potential conflict with Tim O’Connell, the attorney for the Board of Aldermen, before filing any legislation. She discussed her employment openly in questions from other aldermen.
“I followed the guidance of the counsel of the board,” she told me.
So why did Dueker claim she had no connection to the payday-loan industry when just a few years ago she had won a case on behalf of payday lenders before the Missouri Supreme Court?
“I totally forgot about that,” Dueker told me Monday when I asked her about the case. “You are right. I don’t do any work for them now.”
Title Lenders Inc., Dueker’s former client, is among the payday lenders that hired lobbyist Lou Hamilton to fight Spencer’s bills before the Board of Aldermen. Dueker acknowledges she discussed the ethics complaint against Spencer with Hamilton before she filed it. “I told him I was going to file it,” she says. “But he didn’t have anything to do with it.”
Hamilton said he read the complaint — and agrees with it — but said he had nothing to do with it.
Spencer finds that hard to believe.
For people like Lavern Robinson, whether a lawyer forgot about winning a Supreme Court case or simply didn’t want to disclose her connection to an industry that preys on the poor, doesn’t really matter. Spencer’s bill languishes on the informal calendar of the Board of Aldermen. The Missouri Legislature refuses to take the most simple steps to bring the state in line with national norms.
Payday lenders win. Poor people lose.
End of story.