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An odd twist in a tale of honesty

If you found a fat wad of money on a bus, what would you do? Would you stuff it in your pocket and keep your mouth shut, or do your best to find its rightful owner?

I asked myself those questions after meeting Rex Baker on Hollywood Boulevard a couple of weeks ago. I was out with a group that goes around looking for vets who might need help, and we saw Baker panhandling near the Guinness and Ripley museums.

Baker bristled when I introduced myself. He said he’d left me a message weeks earlier, asking for my help in getting back some money he’d found, and I never called back. I apologized, and asked him why he’d called.

So here’s the story:

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Baker, a 56-year-old Texas native who served in Vietnam, has been riding a streak of bad luck. The former window glazier has been out of work several years, homeless at times, and very sick. He limps along on a cane and told me he has AIDS and hepatitis C, among other problems.

On Sept. 5, after a few hours of asking for spare change on Hollywood Boulevard, he caught a bus for Glendale. He’s in temporary housing there, trying to save enough to get a permanent address. Halfway home, he saw a wad of bills at his feet.

“I thought it was maybe $20 or $30,” said Baker, who makes that much in a good day on the boulevard.

But when he unraveled the roll, he saw $100s, $50s and $20s. Altogether, it was close to $1,000.

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“I have to admit, I thought about keeping it,” Baker said. Asking for money on the street is degrading and emasculating, he said, and it would have been nice to leave that behind for a while.

But he couldn’t do it.

“I knew if I’d lost that much money, I’d be sick,” he said.

So Baker flagged the bus driver, who told him to count the cash and place it in a brown envelope. Baker came up with $981 and handed it to the driver, who told him to wait a few days and then go to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s lost-and-found office at Wilshire and La Brea. If no one claimed it, Baker was told, the money would be his to keep.

Easier said than done. When Baker visited the lost and found, he waited half an hour to be told to go instead to the MTA headquarters near Union Station. There, he got bounced around before being asked to fill out some forms.

“Two weeks later, almost to the day, I get a call from MTA,” Baker said.

A customer relations representative confirmed that the driver had turned in the money and told Baker he’d need to wait 30 days to see if anyone claimed it. If no one did, it was his.

Baker did as told, but when he called back the story had changed. A supervisor told him that the MTA has a standing policy of not giving the money back to the finder in such cases, even when it’s not claimed.

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“That’s odd,” Baker recalls saying. “The bus driver and customer relations don’t seem to know this. Who is your boss?”

That would be April McKay, who confirmed that Baker was out of luck. She offered him a one-year pass, good for the whole transit system, and valued at just more than $1,000.

But Baker didn’t need one. He has a pass that’s provided by AIDS Project Los Angeles, where a case manager is helping him with healthcare and other needs.

“Is that your last word?” Baker recalled asking McKay.

McKay was sympathetic, but she said she was bound by policy. And with that, the former soldier surrendered, having learned good deeds can sometimes go unrewarded.

But when I heard the story, I volunteered to help, so on Monday, I called Metro officials. They confirmed Baker’s account except to say that the money in the brown envelope added up to $882 rather than $981.

I can’t say whether Baker counted wrong or $99 was lost in transit. But either way, what gives? I asked. Why can’t someone who turns in money get it back if no one claims it?

MTA spokesman Marc Littman and McKay told me the policy had been in place for years. They said that unclaimed lost property is donated to charity. But unclaimed money, which adds up to roughly $7,000 a year, goes into the MTA’s general fund.

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Littman said the policy was intended to discourage fraud.

Huh? I asked.

Littman said passengers might otherwise wait 30 days before turning in things they found so they could then be awarded the property.

Call me slow on the uptake, but I was confused. Why would someone turn in something at all if they just wanted to keep it?

And doesn’t the policy discourage honesty?

Littman took this question to Metro Chief Executive Art Leahy, who agreed it didn’t make much sense. When I spoke to him Tuesday, Leahy had decided to return the money to Baker and change the MTA policy so that in the future, unclaimed cash is returned to the finder.

“I admire the fact that despite being homeless and unemployed he would be so honest that he still turned in the money,” Leahy said of Baker. “He certainly had as much claim to the money as MTA did.”

Baker was grateful when I delivered the news. He said he would take a homeless shoeshine man named Eddie Jones to dinner, then bank the rest in the hope that it will help him qualify for an apartment he can call his own.

He added, however, that it wasn’t his money to begin with. If someone steps up and can prove to be the rightful owner, Baker said, he’ll hand it over without regret.

steve.lopez@latimes.com


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