Going for Broke

Dick Berry claims his bankruptcy services are cheaper than an attorney's, and just as effective. While court officials and many customers agree it's a scam conceived by white-collar felons, those who would shut him down are discovering they don't know Dic

The two "zero-down" firms ran like fast-food restaurants, with speed and volume their prime concerns. But many of their filings--even in boilerplate Chapter 7--contained errors. Worse, the firms intentionally misled their clients about their fees, which were about double those charged by attorneys who demand most or all of their fees before filing.

The firms crumbled in 1995. However, only one zero-down attorney--Michael S. Manning (not the Michael C. Manning who is contesting Governor J. Fife Symington III's bankruptcy)--was disbarred.

Most of the other lawyers landed on their feet, with some finding their way into Dick Berry's sphere.

Berry says he has directed customers toward Michael S. Manning's ex-partner, Hugh Hull--who recently declared his own Chapter 13 bankruptcy. Another practitioner, John Bruno, now works for Fred Taylor.

And J. Murray Zeigler--a slick-talking lawyer whose zero-down work cost debtors unnecessary money and grief--is now an assistant attorney general pursuing delinquent taxpayers for the Arizona Department of Revenue.

People's Paralegal started its rapid ascent a year or so after the zero-down firms crumbled.

"It's not like, if you decide to be a document preparer, that everything in your life has to be crystal-clear, clean and white," Dick Berry testified at an April 7 hearing. "God knows, I wouldn't fit that bill."

On June 18, 1997, I called the telephone number of People's Services, Inc. . . . I asked her if People's Services provided bankruptcy services and she responded that it did.

--From a request for contempt of court against Dick Berry, filed June 18
by the U.S. trustee's office.
It seems to me I ought to order [you] to comply with the injunction. . . . I think that you think that because Fred Taylor can do bankruptcy work, you can do bankruptcy work. I have seen a lot of [People's Paralegal] filings coming in since May 23. If it continues, I will find a way to stop it.

--Judge Redfield Baum, at last month's contempt hearing
I do no bankruptcy work whatsoever. The company does not do bankruptcy work. We subcontract with Mr. Taylor. . . . I haven't received a plugged nickel since this [court injunction] happened.

--Dick Berry to Judge Baum

It would be easier for Dick Berry's detractors to paint him as an ogre if he weren't so personable. But he's disarmingly loquacious about his own mercurial life--his triumphs, his mistakes, his troubles.

Some say Berry is honest, and gets into hot water only when he's too trusting of others. Others consider him a scamster with a reptilian knack of shedding old skin and re-creating himself.

In his adult life, he's been a lawyer, a jailhouse lawyer, a convict, a finance manager, an independent paralegal, a landlord and the owner of several businesses. He's been married to the same woman, Jean, for 35 years. The couple raised three sons, none of whom is an attorney.

A native of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Berry graduated from Ohio's Otterbein College, where he participated in drama. He later earned a law degree from Northwestern.

Berry moved to Tempe in the mid-'60s--"Me and the wife in a covered wagon," he jokes--and dabbled in politics as he built a law practice. In 1970 and 1972, the lifelong Democrat lost close races for the Arizona Senate.

"I'm a guy whose father split when I was a kid," he says. "I had to learn how to survive on my own. I've always gotten along better with people on the wrong side of the tracks than country clubbers."

Berry was in such company after being imprisoned in the early 1980s on fraud and conspiracy convictions. The Maricopa County convictions stemmed from a failed white-collar plot to steal money from individuals and a local bank.

Disbarred, Berry spent four years in prison before his release in 1985. There, he became a jailhouse lawyer of near-mythic proportions.

"I was pretty popular with the other inmates because I told it like it was," Berry recalls. "If I thought they had a bona fide grievance, I'd fight like hell for them."

But authorities who knew Berry were not moved.
From a parole officer's notes, dated July 31, 1985: "Arrogant attitude. Manipulative. Do not foresee a change in his decorum in the near future, if ever."

That officer described Berry as "very slick, sophisticated and being substantially more dangerous to the public than most offenders. . . . [Berry] is a classic white-collar criminal who shows no remorse, does not accept responsibility for his actions, is deceitful and manipulative."

As a condition of parole, Berry was ordered "not to be hired in a position which handles clients' funds."

In 1987, Berry went to work as a paralegal for a Tempe law firm. His parole ended in May 1988, and he applied with the state bar for reinstatement of his law license.

Several of Berry's friends wrote to the state bar on his behalf.
"I have always felt," attorney Fred Taylor opined, "that [Berry's] actions met or exceeded the ethical and moral standards expected of attorneys practicing in this state."

In November 1990, Berry applied at Maricopa County Superior Court for restoration of his civil rights. But Judge Cheryl Hendrix ruled that letters supporting Berry did not establish rehabilitation.

"Before one can improve oneself and become rehabilitated," Hendrix wrote, "one must first acknowledge there is a need for improvement and rehabilitation. [Berry] has failed to present any evidence as to what steps he has taken to transform his perception of right and wrong . . ."

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