By Van Smith
Published in City Paper, Aug. 2, 2006
After then-City Council President Lawrence Bell III came in third in the 1999 mayoral race, his future career became a matter of public speculation. The Daily Record, Baltimore’s legal newspaper, predicted private-sector success for the then-37-year-old.
“By just about any standard,” the paper observed, “Bell is a very young man with very significant experience. He should have no trouble parlaying his résumé into a comfortable private-sector career. Trading the power and the spotlight for a much bigger paycheck without all the scrutiny isn’t so bad.”
Over the ensuing years, Bell traded the power and spotlight of public office for the cloak of anonymity, but the paychecks apparently never got any bigger. In fact, as far as his creditors can tell, the paychecks never came at all. Meanwhile, his debts mounted. City Paper‘s investigation turned up three Maryland court judgments totaling just over $56,000 owed to Bell’s creditors. Each of the judgments is three years old or more, and each has been accruing interest ever since.
“None,” says attorney John Olivieri when asked if, in the course of six years of tracking Bell in the hopes of collecting a court judgment, he ever saw any evidence that Bell was employed. “We’d heard he was working at the NAACP in Atlanta, and at radio stations, but never got any confirmation,” Olivieri adds. In another creditor’s case, private investigators stated in a 2003 report to attorney Jordan Spivok that “we developed no employment on the part of your subject.” A July 18 Sun article reports Bell claims he had been “chairman of a nonprofit organization responsible for protecting crime witnesses,” but adds that Bell was “vague about his recent past.”
Bell wants a job, though. On July 3, the filing deadline for this year’s elections, he entered the race for the city’s 40th District state Senate seat. The incumbent senator, Ralph Hughes, is retiring, and five other candidates–prisoner-rights activist Tara Andrews, City Councilwoman Belinda Conaway, state Del. Salima Siler Marriott, Park Circle resident Timothy Mercer, and Del. Catherine Pugh–are running in the Democratic primary. The winner will face Bolton Hill Republican Stephen George in November’s general election.
The 40th District includes one of Bell’s creditors: the Belvedere Condominium Council of Unit Owners. He owned a unit in Mount Vernon’s Belvedere Hotel from February 1996 until November 2000, when he lost it in a foreclosure case. His failure to pay condo fees resulted in a $15,218 judgment that Olivieri–the condo association’s lawyer–estimates at $17,000, once interest is included.
“He needs a job,” Olivieri says. “Don’t ruin it for me,” he adds, saying that if 40th District voters “want to elect him, great.”
The condo association’s president, Ken Pippin, declined to voice his thoughts about a Belvedere debtor running to represent Belvedere residents in Annapolis because Bell might win the election and hold a grudge. Pippin would, however, say that “when people don’t pay their condo fees, it handicaps the association because that’s the only money that the association has, and it means we have to raise fees for the other owners.”
Spivok, whose client, Mortgage Guaranty Insurance Corp., won a $34,643 judgment against Bell in December 2003 in connection with the foreclosure of his erstwhile Belvedere unit, is cynical about Bell’s current political aspirations. “It’s nice to know he’s running for state office while owing debts,” he says acidly in a phone interview. “I’d be happy to work out an arrangement with him,” Spivok adds earnestly, “if he would give us a call.” The amount owed has been accruing interest at 10 percent per year since the judgment, Spivok points out.
Another judgment against Bell arose from a $6,000 loan he took out in March 1999, when he was still president of the City Council. His failure to repay the loan led, in November 2003, to a $6,461 court judgment against him in favor of Mercantile Safe Deposit and Trust Co. Jay Strong, the collection attorney on the case, has attempted to garnish the amount owed from Bell’s father, Lawrence Bell Jr., a dentist. Records on the case show that Bell Jr.’s failure to respond to the matter resulted in a body attachment, a court order issued May 10 that requires him to either show up in court or be escorted there by law enforcement.
Another case against Bell is the foreclosure of his former residential property, three blocks away from his father’s dental office on Auchentoroly Terrace near Druid Hill Park, that he purchased from his father in 1992 with a $39,920 mortgage. According to court records on the case, even after the property was auctioned off three years ago for $30,000, Bell still owed $14,069 on the mortgage, after attorney fees and other foreclosure costs were added in.
Bell also has tickets for driving a vehicle with expired tags. Last Sept. 2 at 12:30 a.m., according to court records, Bell was cited in the 3000 block of East Monument Street for driving a 2000 Jeep with expired tags. After failing to pay the fine or show up at the April 17 trial, his license was suspended. Then, in the early afternoon of May 17, he got another ticket for the same offense in the same vehicle, this time in the 4800 block of Liberty Heights Avenue. On July 10, his license suspension was recalled after he paid a fine. He is scheduled for trial on Aug. 16 for the September 2005 offense, and on Aug. 18 for the May offense.
Reached by phone on Aug. 1 and informed that an account of his financial troubles was soon to be published, Bell said, “Let me call you back in about an hour, because I’m in the middle of something right now.” He didn’t call back, and subsequent attempts to reach him at the same number were unsuccessful.
Arthur Murphy, a political consultant recently hired by Bell, was available for an interview, however. Murphy explains that he was aware of his money problems before he took Bell on as a client. Asked if the financial problems would raise questions about Bell’s personal responsibility as a candidate for public office, Murphy contends that “the other candidates are going to have to raise that issue,” adding that “it is something that [Bell] is going to have to deal with.” He said that his client has “had a few” other jobs since leaving his $65,000-a-year post as City Council president, but that “it hasn’t been easy” for Bell since then.
Despite his money woes, Murphy contends that Bell “is a factor” in the 40th District Senate race, “because he’s a proven vote-getter and he is going to spend the requisite amount of money to bring back his name.” Bell’s campaign fundraising machine is active, Murphy says, and can rely on the same well-heeled sources that supported his past electoral efforts. “The message,” Murphy explains, “will be, `He’s back, and he served us well before, and give him another shot.'”