EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was updated at 4:30 p.m. PT on Tuesday, June 14
When you’re carrying a consumer-protection bill, it can be a huge help to have a taxpayer in your corner who has been wronged by whatever abuse it is you’re trying to stop. For one of his current bills, Sen. Mark Leno only had to look about two feet away.
That’s because his seat-mate in the Senate, Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, has found himself in the very predicament Leno is trying to fix: A debt collector has garnished Correa’s wages over money owed by a completely different Lou Correa.
Leno is carrying a two-year bill that he calls the Fair Debt Buyers Act. Among other things, Leno’s SB 890 puts a new burden of proof on debt collectors to demonstrate that they’re going after the right person.
However, the company collecting the debt have confirmed they had the wrong Lou Correa, and say they have withdrawn the order to garnish the Senator’s wages.
Correa’s problems, first reported June 3 in the Orange County Register, started last year when he got a call from a debt collector regarding $4,000 owed to the Sears department store. Upon learning that his social security number, address and even his name — Correa’s given full name is Jose Luis Correa, while the debt is owed by one Luis Correa — didn’t match up, Correa informed them they had the wrong guy.
But on May 20, the Office of Senate Benefits received a court order to garnish Sen. Correa’s wages to pay off the debt. That came after a process in which the original debt was handed off to LVNV Funding LLC, an “assignee” of Sears that appears to be a clearinghouse to send debts out to other collection agencies.
The firm actually trying to collect the debt is The Brachfield Law Group, a debt collection outfit with offices in El Segundo, Houston and Columbus, Ohio. The Register noted that the firm had sent multiple letters to a Santa Ana address that court documents show is owned by the other Luis Correa, then pursued action against the senator when these weren’t answered.
‘As soon as that was determined [that they had the wrong person], and before anything was actually garsnihed out of the wages, it was withdrawn and cancelled,” said Michael Gottlieb, director of business development and Brachfield.
Gottlieb went on to say that the phone conversation Correa had last year was with a different company. When asked how often they find they have pursued the wrong person, he said “Very, very, very rarely. The bottom lin is, the process worked.”
Oddly, it took a couple weeks for each Senator to learn what was going on with the other; both Correa and Leno said they’ve been more focused on the budget and the house-of-origin deadline for legislation.
“I did not know until the Thursday the deadline week. He told me,” Leno said. He added, “What a curiosity. You couldn’t make this up.”
“I’m looking at Senator Leno’s bill and hoping to work with him and make sure we have some good policy,” Correa said. “I’m also looking to have a town hall in my district to see how common this is.”
Correa said that probably won’t happen until after the budget is dealt with. Meanwhile, chatter around the Capitol has been coming in the form of chuckles from some staffers who have been watching the issue — and who say the Brachfield may have bought themselves a whole lot of trouble.
“I wouldn’t call them enemies, I’d just say the issue has been brought to my attention,” Correa said diplomatically. He added, “We also legislate based on our personal experiences.”
Leno was more aggressive, calling Brachfield “one of the most infamous” companies in the debt collection space—a space he said is rife with problems.
“You don’t have to prove you’ve got the right debtor,” Leno said. “You don’t have to prove your calculation of the amount owed is correct. You don’t have to prove that you served the debt at the right address. And you can begin to garnish wages without proof, which is what happened to Lou.”
All of which is a pretty good description of what’s in Leno’s bill. Leno took some amendments in May and has turned the legislation into a two-year bill. His office said he plans to pick the effort up again in January.