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ROBERT J. COHEN : Executive Director, Legal Aid Society of Orange County

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Legal Aid lawyers in Orange County are probably best known for suing local officials who try to ban the homeless. That enrages conservatives, many of whom oppose the idea of lawyers getting paid by government to sue government. But local Legal Aid does a lot of other things for the 15,000 poor people who come though its doors each year--from divorces to going after scam artists who prey on the poor. Staff writer Michael Flagg visited the Santa Ana office of executive director Robert J. Cohen, 46, to talk about Legal Aid.

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What are some of the scams being pulled on poor people these days?

Let me give you an example: There was one case that started out simple and ended up keeping about a third of our office busy.

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A woman came in who was an immigrant from Afghanistan; her husband was shot by the Communists. Her father was chancellor of the University of Kabul; she was very much a middle-class person. She came to this country after unsuccessfully searching for her husband.

She got a low-wage job, and one of the first problems she encountered was buying a car. She didn’t have any credit history. But she saw an ad in the paper, and she wound up sub-leasing a car. Sub-leasing was a very big scam a couple of years ago in this county and across the state.

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How did it work?

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People without credit histories would go to brokers, who took in cars from people who no longer wanted their leases. The brokers would take what they call a down payment, but it was really for their services in matching buyer and seller.

What’s wrong with that? The brokers would run off. There were the sleaziest people in this business. They’d have a cash flow of a couple hundred thousand dollars in lease payments, and they’d run off with it and start a new business under another name. Or people who sub-leased the cars would run off, and the people whose names were on the lease would be stuck.

So this lady came to me and said she couldn’t even figure out how to make her car payment anymore. So I called the bank, and they said the owner had died, and they were wondering why the car was still being driven around!

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What happened?

Well, of course they repo’ed the car right away, and we threatened to sue the broker, so the broker kept bringing her nicer cars until eventually he brought her a Cadillac. But the repo men would be waiting by her house, and as soon as she’d park a car there, they’d take it off.

There were literally hundreds of people in Orange County who’d encountered the same scam. We had a Marine come in who was about to be charged with murder because he had let his car go to the auto broker, who’d sub-leased it to someone who’d committed a murder in it. We didn’t get much help from the police because, frankly, they had more important things to do. We got an injunction, and we wound up getting funding from the bankers association for our lawsuit. Security Pacific even helped the Afghan woman lease a car without any subterfuge.

And the state Consumer Affairs Department drafted legislation that made it a felony to sub-lease a car without the consent of the bank, so all this confusion cannot inure to the benefit of the sleazy auto broker.

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Do you get a lot of these kinds of cases?

We’re not doing that much consumer work these days--only about 14% of our cases. That’s because the cases we’ve handled on behalf of the homeless take up a lot of our resources. We’d rather not have to spend those resources that way. But we have to because, essentially, what local governments are doing is criminalizing poverty when they try to force the homeless to go elsewhere with anti-camping ordinances. It’s not a crime to be a poor person.

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What’s your budget?

It’s about $4.3 million. Two-thirds comes from the federal Legal Services Corp. Most of the rest comes from the state Bar. The federal funds have gone up; the state funds went down. So 10 years ago, when our office only covered Orange County, we had 17 attorneys. Now we cover southeastern L.A. county as far as Compton. Our potential clients have doubled. And we still have 17 lawyers.

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What about lawyers in private practice in this county. Do they do enough pro bono work?

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The ones who are doing it are doing it a lot. But it’s a small percentage. You have something like--what--7,000 or 8,000 attorneys in Orange County now? And you have 600 or 700 that volunteer to do pro bono. So most of them don’t--one in 10, if that many. And it used to be worse.

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Are there a lot more poor people than there used to be?

Yes. And in most places it’s growing faster than the population at large--a big jump. My sense is that’s true in Orange County too. I know our office got a substantial increase in funding from the federal government because the census found we had a larger growth in poor people than most areas of the country. In 1980 our service area encompassed 250,000 people; now it’s 350,000. You see that kind of jump in the Sun Belt in general.

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Who are these new poor people? Immigrants? The dispossessed middle class?

It’s all of them. The angriest are those in the process of being dispossessed from the middle class. The hardest thing I do is tell them we don’t have the resources to help them. If you have a meritorious claim or a good defense to a lawsuit, you should be able to get legal help. That’s the way it is in most civilized countries. But we turn away a lot of people. We have people who come to us and say: “I’m an American citizen. I have a right to this service.” And we have to tell them: “No, the way this works is that you have a right to be defended if you’re charged with a crime. But you don’t have a right to access the civil courts with an attorney.”

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On homelessness. . .

“Our streets and our parks should not become our mental institutions. It’s a medical problem and should be treated as a medical problem--or else it becomes a police problem.”

On city ordinances that try to ban the homeless. . .

“People in urban areas see the problem day in and day out. They develop ‘compassion fatigue.’ They’re willing to do anything to get rid of the homeless, even if it means violating the law.”

On Legal Aid champion Hillary Rodham Clinton being in the White House. . .

“After Reagan, we couldn’t have a more supportive White House. That’s not the problem for us now. It’s ‘How much money will Congress appropriate?’ ”

On the future of Legal Aid. . .

“We’re not magicians. If the money’s not there, we can’t serve all the people who deserve help.”


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