Bell's debt problems led to lawsuits

Mayoral candidate resolved auto loan, delinquent condo fees

July 22, 1999|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III, one of the leading candidates for mayor of Baltimore, has been sued three times in recent months for failing to pay his personal debts, and his car has been repossessed.

Two of the lawsuits were related to about $12,000 in fees he owed his condominium association at the Belvedere Condominiums on 1 E. Chase St.

A third case, filed last month, was for $2,855 still owed to Provident Bank of Maryland after his 1996 green Ford Mustang convertible was reclaimed and sold, according to court records.

Bell paid the condominium debts just prior to the scheduled trial dates in August and December last year and resolved the car debt Friday, according to court records and his attorneys in the three cases.

The pending disclosure of his money troubles was unsettling to Bell. Informed by his spokesman of The Sun's interest in interviewing him, Bell delayed discussing the matter for three days. Yesterday morning Bell listened to questions about the court cases for about 15 minutes and then asked for more time to respond.

In a telephone interview at midafternoon, Bell said: "I did incur debt from my last political campaign that impacted on my personal finances. I take full responsibility for that. Any disputes were resolved without [court] judgment."

According to financial disclosures filed by Bell, his 1995 election campaign collected $145,323, but the bulk of those funds came in loans from his mother and father. Lawrence Bell Sr., a Baltimore dentist, lent the campaign $85,000, campaign records show. His mother, Elinor, lent her son's campaign $24,000. Bell lent his own campaign $3,900. Some $28,000 has been repaid, all from subsequent political contributions.

According to Bell, the "strain" of financing his 1995 campaign was the source of his financial troubles. Bell would not say exactly how the campaign expenses had affected his personal finances.

Bell, who earns $65,000 a year as council president, purchased the Belvedere condo for $99,750 in February 1996. Almost immediately, Bell began falling behind on his monthly condo fee of $394.87. A year later, Bell was $2,707 in arrears and the condo association sued him. Two months later, in April 1997, Bell resumed payments. After several lump sum payments, Bell reduced his condo debt to $640 in October 1997. Bell again stopped paying his fees and was sued again in January 1998.

Bell settled the second suit with the Belvedere in December 1998 and paid $9,248 in fees and court costs.

Stacy L. Allen, the lawyer for the condominium association, said that Bell did not make good on the debts to the Belvedere until after she had sued him and "at the very, very last minute" before trial.

"This is indicative of a person who doesn't have his act together," Allen said. "[Bell's debt] was very difficult to collect. I think it was definitely financial problems. He didn't have a fantastic credit report."

Bell purchased the green, two-door Mustang convertible in August 1996 and began to fall behind on the $575-a-month payment. In November 1997, Provident Bank notified Bell that he had 10 days to get current on his debt or officials would repossess the $27,000 automobile.

On Jan. 6, 1998, the car was sold at auction for $13,600, according to court records.

The bank wanted $2,855 more from Bell to settle the debt and sued him to get it.

Lillian Kilroy, a spokeswoman for Provident Bank, declined to comment because she said the bank does not discuss customers' accounts or litigation.

On Friday, the case was resolved, but attorneys for both sides declined to say how it was settled.

Despite his financial problems, Bell maintains that as mayor he would be a good manager of the city's $1.8 billion budget.

"I have successfully managed a multimillion dollar budget in the City Council and the council president's office," Bell said.

Bell said the suits by the condominium association were the result of an attorney who "has a reputation for being very aggressive against a number of people." He did not, however, dispute the claim.

He also said the Mustang "had extensive damage. I was advised to allow the bank to take it back for resale and pay the balance. I think the most important factor is that it has been resolved."

Personal problems have beset the field of 27 mayoral candidates early in the election campaign. Last week, police arrested candidate Dorothy C. Joyner Jennings on a burglary warrant, and Carl Stokes found himself apologizing because his campaign literature had erroneously stated that he graduated from Loyola College.

Stokes attended the college but did not graduate.

In addition, questions have been raised about how Mary W. Conaway earned her Master of Divinity degree from Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., from 1988 to 1991 while she worked full time as register of wills.

A spokesman for the college said "it is not possible" to fulfill the requirements for a degree by attending classes at night, as Conaway claimed she did. Conaway declined to release a transcript of her courses to resolve the matter.

Bell's financial problems will damage his campaign, but are not likely to be fatal to his candidacy, said Matthew A. Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political science professor.

Pub Date: 7/22/99

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