By Rosemary K. Otzman
More than 40 angry, saddened, and perplexed victims of disbarred Belleville attorney Thomas A. White jammed into Victory Station at Five Points last Thursday night, Aug. 1, to meet with seven attorneys.
It was standing room only by the time Royal Oak attorney Steven Z. Cohen began his remarks, outlining the situation and making suggestions on how to proceed for those who lost money to the man Cohen called the best con artist he’s ever seen.
Cohen spoke for an hour and then the other attorneys gave brief introductions. Attorneys present were:
• Cohen, managing partner of Cohen, Lerner and Rabinovitz, who has been practicing law for 35 years. His firm specializes in estate planning and litigation;
• Dan Singer, attorney in Cohen’s firm, specializes in bankruptcy, estate and trust matters. He has a master’s in tax law;
• Aaron Silvenis, an attorney in Cohen’s firm, grew up in Belleville and concentrates his practice on commercial and intellectual property litigation;
• Candace Yono, junior associate in Cohen’s firm, concentrates on commercial transactions and business litigation;
• Matthew Ferrara, an attorney with Finkle Whitefield, Selik of Farmington Hills, does estate planning and probate. He already had a client harmed by White and called Cohen because of the article in the Independent;
• Jason Goldman, formerly of Long Island, NY, is an attorney with the Belleville law firm of Goldman Suliman, which set up shop in February in offices in the J&T Crova building in the city’s industrial park; and
• Brian Suliman, who grew up in Belleville, is an attorney with the Goldman Suliman firm. The firm offered to help victims fill out the forms for the State Bar of Michigan Crime Victims Fund. They also will be working with Cohen’s firm to help the victims.
All the attorneys said they would meet with individual victims without charge for the initial interview to determine if they can help them.
Cohen said Thursday’s gathering was the saddest meeting he’s ever had to conduct since so many had lost so much due to the actions of an attorney.
He said he got more phone calls than he
ever got in his life after the story on White was published in the July 25 Independent that included information on Cohen’s case against White.
“Up until White filed bankruptcy my firm felt it would be a conflict of interest to represent anyone else,” Cohen explained.
The bankruptcy changes the rules, he said. The person in charge of all White’s assets now is the bankruptcy trustee and the bankruptcy court, so it doesn’t make a difference who he represents.
“It all goes into the same pot to be split up based upon your individual claims. You are all unsecured creditors,” Cohen said.
He said he would not discuss individual cases publicly and urged those in the room not to talk about their situations with others. He said there are predators out there who could try to take advantage of them.
“I’m proud of my profession, generally,” Cohen said of attorneys. “This is the worst I’ve ever seen.
“Our job as lawyers now is to try to do right what another lawyer has done wrong to you,” Cohen said of the other lawyers surrounding him at the meeting.
He said every lawyer is sworn to uphold the law — and some don’t.
“Your trust in the law has been shaken, if not destroyed,” Cohen said.
He advised all those present to listen to his suggestions and then decide.
Most importantly, he said, don’t sign anything you don’t understand. If you don’t understand, ask them to explain it until you do understand.
Second, he said, find out what it will cost you up front.
And, third, require a document in writing that says everything that was talked about.
Cohen said all attorneys have malpractice insurance and so did White until October 2012 with a company called Zurich. He said he is deciding whether to sue Zurich over the mishandling of a client’s case by White, which he said was malpractice.
Cohen said malpractice insurance doesn’t cover what he stole, doesn’t insure “intentional acts.”
Cohen said when he asked White’s bankruptcy attorney Stuart A. Gold why White filed bankruptcy, Gold told him someone took White’s cars and boats and there was only one way to get them back. So he filed and got them back.
“You’re all in the same boat and it’s leaking,” Cohen said to the crowd.
He said during the 341 hearing on Aug. 28, he has been informed that White will take the Fifth and not testify. After that the court will set certain dates and all the creditors will have to file claims to stay on the list.
Cohen stressed that a person cannot be discharged from debt because of fraud or illegal conduct.
He invited those present to join in an adversary proceeding because of the fraud. He said there is a $300 filing fee and had yet to find out if that would be $300 each or $300 for the whole group.
“Many don’t have $300,” he said, “but used to have it.”
He said the people could join together to save the cost of hiring separate attorneys. He said they could use his firm or they could use other firms.
He said to look at how much money is involved for a person and if it’s $5,000 or less, “Don’t throw good money after bad. Make sure it’s money well worth claiming.”
The more people who sign up for the adversary proceeding, the less it will cost per person, he said. He said he couldn’t quote a price until he sees how many sign up and what the court says about the $300 filing.
“And, if other attorneys can do it for less” then let them do it, Cohen said.
Cohen said he checked up on all the attorneys that were present that evening and they all are good.
He encouraged each person to sign up for a free, private session with one of the attorneys. A person’s information is not anyone else’s business and once it’s told to an attorney it is held confidentially, as attorney-client privilege, even if no money is exchanged, he said.
Cohen said people had money taken from them, they signed over power of attorney, and White stole the money. He said in a couple of cases a check was received without power of attorney and White took it to the bank and cashed it. The bank can be sued, he said.
“It is fraud. There is no way you could know about this,” Cohen said, adding he understands how upsetting this is to those who trusted White and lost their money.
He said people have to file revocation to their powers of attorney. They have to check to see if the assets put into a trust are where they are supposed to be.
He said one file White has from a client has documents from before the Civil War that can’t be replaced.
Cohen said each client needs to get his or her files back.
“Two days ago, White wandered into the police station in Monroe,” Cohen said, referring to the State Police Post. He reported that White said some self-incriminating things there. White said he knew he was going to jail.
Cohen said that’s not right because a year or less is jail. Over that is prison and White is going to prison.
“Where the hell is the money? None of us know,” Cohen said.
Cohen said he knows, for example, that White bought a Jani-King franchise with his client’s money. Cohen talked to the corporate office of Jani-King and it said if White filed bankruptcy, which he did, they may pull the franchise.
White’s Jani-King franchise has contracts with two or three large organizations and is in line to get a big school district, Cohen said.
“He was going to be in the janitorial business after he stopped being a lawyer,” Cohen said, adding one of White’s large clients was a church and church school. They paid Jani-King and Jani-King would pay White.
Cohen said White’s house is under water, taxes not paid, his vehicle and boats with liens, bank accounts are locked up with the bankruptcy filing.
White started paying for things in cash, he said.
“Where’s the money?” Cohen repeated.
He said his firm will be questioning White’s wife, son, and daughter in legal depositions to try to find out where the money is.
He said a couple of years ago White’s wife Heather went through bankruptcy.
Cohen said, “In most of these cases, the cupboard is bare … If you should get anything returned, go to church and give thanks.”
There was discussion about where the legal files are and there were reports of file boxes seen being carried out of his office and driven away in a pickup. Cohen said he will request files for those who ask him to do so.
He said in the morning he will notify the bankruptcy trustee about the files being moved.
“Why isn’t he in jail?” asked a woman victim.
Attorney Aaron Silvenis said he went to the Belleville Police Department and they sent it over to the Michigan State Police. It was assigned to MSP Detective Marc Moore who was on vacation for a week.
Cohen said fraud isn’t as easy, or as pressing, to investigate as a murder.
A woman said she was told MSP was handing the investigation over to the Wayne County Sheriff Department.
Cohen said he hadn’t heard that, but whoever files the charges, White will get charged.
“I’m making sure he goes to jail [prison],” Cohen stated. When asked, he replied typically such a sentence would be 10-15 years in prison.
Because of information on wire fraud brought to light at the meeting, the FBI also may be involved.
Channel 7 reporter Andy Choi and MSP Detective Moore both called Cohen to say they would be at Thursday’s meeting, but didn’t show up.
White declined to give a statement to the Independent for the newspaper reports on him, saying, “I believe it would be in my best interest not to comment.”
Independent Court Reporter Diane Madigan supplied information for this report.
By Rosemary K. Otzman