By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
People's Paralegal and Fred Taylor would be classified "unsecured" creditors.
Maney handed the Sekayumpetas a copy of a May 23 ruling issued by Bankruptcy Judge Redfield Baum. It banned People's Paralegal from preparing further bankruptcy petitions in Arizona--and from advertising that they do.
The reason, according to Baum? People's Paralegal's proprietor Dick Berry "has repeatedly and continually engaged in conduct in violation of [the law], and the sanction of statutory fines has not been effective in ending such conduct."
"We were wondering what the hell was going on," Francine Bregio says. "No one at People's Paralegal told us they'd gotten kicked out of court. No one told us about the 200-bucks limit. Actually, the first thing Taylor said to us was we had to sign something that promised to pay him more money. . . . How unprofessional, how unethical, how sorry."
Maney told the Bregios that their reorganization plan and other crucial paperwork was missing. By law it should have been filed within 15 days after the couple declared bankruptcy May 6.
Get it to the court clerk immediately, Maney said, or your case will be dismissed.
Fred Taylor stood mutely during the five-minute hearing.
Afterward, in the crowded waiting room, the attorney--a lanky, middle-aged man in a gray suit--sat to read a newspaper.
"I want to see my file right now, sir," Francine Bregio told him, waving her copy of Judge Baum's order against People's Paralegal.
The barrister peeked up at the Bregios.
"It's not for me to give it to you," Taylor said diffidently, returning to the newspaper. "It's the property of People's Paralegal."
"Who are you, anyway?" she asked, loudly enough for much of the room to hear.
"I'm Fred Taylor."
"Who the hell is Fred Taylor?"
"What else do you want to know?"
"I don't have to listen to this dude," Nelson Bregio interjected.
Francine Bregio picked up a phone and called People's Paralegal.
"I need my file," she said loudly, "and this guy who keeps saying he's my attorney won't give it to me."
She hung up and addressed Taylor. "We don't want you to represent us, sir," she said. "We don't know who you are. What happened to our plan?"
"Are you looking for Fred Taylor?" Taylor politely asked Sawyer, a supervisor of a child-crisis center.
"Yes, I am."
"That's me. I'm here to represent you, okay? Let's see. Here we go. You still owe one payment. You make it out payable to me, not to People's Paralegal, okay?"
Taylor handed Sawyer a sheet that authorized Taylor to collect the purported debt, and to charge more if necessary. Sawyer scanned the document, then signed it.
Minutes later, Ed Maney grilled Greg Sawyer during his 341 hearing.
"When did you hire Mr. Taylor as your attorney?"
"I was just notified today that he was going to be my attorney."
"Are you prepared to allow Mr. Taylor to represent you as your attorney here today?"
"Well, I think I have an objection to that and, Mr. Taylor, the objection is this: Obviously, you've never met with the debtor before now. My guess is there is no fee agreement that you have with the debtor."
"Yes, I do," Taylor replied.
"Can I see that?"
"I don't know what relevance it has to these proceedings."
"I think there's an ethical obligation, and that is the solicitation of clients outside of this courtroom."
"That is not what happened. And, furthermore, I didn't know the trustee was involved in ethics."
"Well, I'm an attorney in the state Bar of Arizona, and if I think there's an ethical violation, I have a duty to see that it's not committed--and I think there's something going on right now."
That's an understatement.
Almost overnight, starting May 1, Fred Taylor became Arizona's busiest bankruptcy lawyer.
His sudden rise is because of his unique--many say illegal--financial arrangement with People's Paralegal.
Dick Berry says he struck the deal with Taylor this spring because he foresaw his banishment from Bankruptcy Court.
United States trustee Adrianne Kalyna and others in positions of power--the Chapter 13 trustees and, finally, some of the judges--have had Berry in their sights for months.
But he has stayed a step ahead of a system that openly despises him.
A disbarred attorney who served four years in prison for white-collar fraud in the early 1980s, the 55-year-old Berry is clever and tireless.
He blames his woes on lawyers hell-bent to protect their own lucrative turf. "You can't get more beat up or buggered by the system than me," he says.
Berry has spent hours at Bankruptcy Court hearings in recent weeks, answering the charges of trustees determined to bring him to his knees. But he's still kicking, and he seems to relish the skirmishes.
"To look at me is to see an arrogant asshole," Berry says.
Actually, what one sees is a tall, trim, balding, bespectacled man with a steady gaze and a feisty demeanor.
"They can't stand that I'm still in the ball game. I know they think that I'm some kind of thief, but I'm not. I'm the most investigated SOB in the state of Arizona, but I'm a guy with no nerves. I consider myself an honest guy who found a niche, and the powers-that-be hate it."