A $7.5 million lottery winner files for bankruptcy and hides the windfall from the court. For a man with Adam Garnett's "skills," the task is challenging, but hardly daunting. Until his street smart ex-girlfriend decides to fight for the palimony he owes her. Convinced Garnett is hiding assets, Rita Jensen contests his bankruptcy, and hires financial consultant Zack Bello to investigate.
Zack learns Garnett may have won a lottery jackpot and sold the ticket. But Rita abruptly drops the lawsuit and terminates the investigation. Pleading emotional burnout, she has decided continuing the fight isn't worth it. After all, the lottery possibility is no more than a theory.
Dumbfounded but accepting, Zack moves on to other business--until Rita and Garnett are found dead. Given his familiarity with the two, he questions the official ruling that Garnett killed Rita, then himself. No stranger to criminal cases in his practice, Zack continues investigating on his own.
The lottery jackpot he tentatively linked to Garnett is eventually claimed, and Zack follows the money. It leads him to the mother of an abused teenage girl, to current and former priests, and to a Senator facing reelection. The path ends at the door of the politician's sister and billionaire family matriarch, Elizabeth Henley.
The closer Zack gets to Henley and the past she is protecting, the more dangerous the attempts to thwart him. When Henley unleashes the full muscle of her security staff, Zack must draw on his skills as a former military sniper. He formulates a plan to permanently protect himself and the innocents he has exposed along the way. But the risk he doesn't anticipate is the one making this case personal since he decided to pursue it on his own. A risk that if manifested, will turn his plan against himself.
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By Ronald Azzolina
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2010 Ronald Azzolina
All right reserved.
Chapter One"This is quite a bit of debt," Arthur Kaplan said, looking up from the list he held in front of him. "Tell me how you got here." Kaplan was the third bankruptcy attorney Adam Garnett had met with in as many days.
"Three years ago, I invested in and joined a company that developed security software for retailers," Garnett said. "I-"
"No, but they needed capital, which was one of the reasons I got involved. Anyway, it didn't work out, and I've been job-hunting ever since. Two years now."
"What did you do before?"
"I was in the securities business. Mutual fund sales."
Garnett made it sound as if bankruptcy was a recent consideration, even though he had been preparing for months. He purchased the authoritative self-help book, studied it thoroughly, and filled out the forms. Among the things he learned was to stop drawing on his credit lines or using his cards. Debts incurred within three months of a bankruptcy filing were not dischargeable.
Despite his financial condition, he stayed current with his payments, covering the most recent months by tapping into his IRA. His retirement account was under the million-dollar cap to make it a fully protected asset in bankruptcy, and the early withdrawals incurred a ten percent tax penalty. Nevertheless, he didn't want creditors chasing him. By declaring bankruptcy, all collection efforts would stop before they began.
"Living on credit is not a good thing," Kaplan said.
Garnett accepted the admonition without comment. Every lawyer he spoke to made the same statement. Maybe it was a requirement. "Do you agree that bankruptcy is my only option?" he asked.
"The pre-filing credit counseling supports your eligibility. And you have too much debt and too many creditors to try and negotiate with them. How old are you?"
"It's time to file," Kaplan said. "Put this behind you and move on. There are no guarantees, but from what you've told me, I wouldn't expect your creditors to challenge."
"What about the money I owe my ex-girlfriend? That obligation is also wiped out, correct?"
Kaplan looked at his watch. "We've been talking for almost an hour," he said. "I'd like to work with you, but I can't continue to do it for free."
"I know we've gone beyond the free consultation period," Garnett said, deciding Kaplan was his man. "I'll pay you for your time."
He went through his remaining list of questions. Kaplan's responses, including that in most cases palimony was dischargeable, were consistent with those of the other attorneys Garnett had consulted.
"How long will all this take?" he asked.
"Assuming none of your creditors contest, you should get your discharge in four to six months."
"And if someone does contest?"
Kaplan stared at him. "Based on what?"
"I'm thinking of my ex-girlfriend. She doesn't need a 'what.' She might react out of spite."
"Well, she can always start an adversary proceeding alleging you have the ability to pay, and are concealing assets. Then have an attorney start digging into your financial history. That could drag the process out for as much as a year. Maybe more."
Kaplan folded his hands on his desk. "That's worst case," he said. "But here's the potential problem. You've made a lot of money, spent it, and used up your assets. If your ex-girlfriend is willing to pay enough, an aggressive bankruptcy attorney will follow the trail of where it all went. Unfortunately, that takes time and costs money." He paused. "On the other hand, her attorney might advise her to go for a settlement if one were proposed."
"How would that work? I can't just decide to pay one creditor and not others. Isn't that right?"
"True. But, that doesn't apply to the money in your retirement account. It's not part of the bankruptcy estate. If the two of you could get past the hard feelings, maybe you can agree to a discounted amount. You're still a young man. Eventually you'll find a new opportunity and can rebuild your retirement savings. "
"There's nothing in that for me."
"Sure there is. The same things that are in it for her. Avoiding a big legal bill for one thing. And more importantly, eliminating risk. Any time you open yourself up to a court challenge, there's always a risk. In your situation, the result should be okay. But once again, that's an opinion, not a guarantee."
Garnett looked around the combination legal library-conference room. The reference books looked uniformly worn-too much so for a one-lawyer office. He wondered if Kaplan bought them used, or if they came that way to impress clients. "I'm resigned to filing," he said. "But I want to take the weekend to think through everything we've discussed."
"Good idea. But whether you hire me or someone else, my recommendation is to do it quickly. Time isn't on your side."
Foregoing a short cab ride or the subway, Garnett walked home, his thoughts locked on the problem of Rita Jensen. Even if her attorney advised it, she wouldn't settle for a dime less than he owed her-not without a fight. One that might last too long. Lottery winnings had to be claimed within twelve months. And the clock was running.
Half an hour later, he crouched on the floor of his bedroom closet and unlocked the freestanding safe. The lottery ticket was sealed in double Ziploc bags-the unclaimed right to millions in the form of a three-by-four inch slip of paper.
Winning brought redemption, if not financial paradise, even though the jackpot was seven-and-a-half million. The amount was payable over twenty years, with no lump sum option. Although, he could always sell the annuity to a third party. Either way, and after taxes, the result wasn't buy-an-island kind of money, but enough to live well for several years without needing to work-as long as his existing debts were wiped out.
Concealing assets was bankruptcy fraud, a federal crime punishable by up to five years in prison, a $250,000 fine, and asset forfeiture. Those were the maximum penalties, and long jail terms, if any, were unusual. All the lawyers he spoke to confirmed this, and nothing else they said about the subject gave him additional pause. A bankruptcy trustee would hear his case, and within a few months, he would receive a discharge. Neither the trustee, who was a lawyer appointed by the court, nor Garnett's creditors, had reason to continue tracking him. If he waited the full year allowed to cash the lottery ticket, how would they know? Again, the problem was Rita.
They met when she was twenty, he thirty-five. Their relationship had more ups and downs than an amusement park ride. Even so, they lived together for five years. She was an immature beauty, a sometime model who fed and tended his ego in and out of bed. In return, she spent his money freely, at a time when he was at the top of his financial game. Eventually, she became too much of an emotional burden, and her upkeep wasn't worth it. Their break-up was beyond acrimonious, inflamed by her learning he already had someone else.
Rita sued for palimony, and convinced a judge that she gave up the most productive years of a lucrative modeling career in exchange for being Garnett's partner. She was awarded what he considered an outrageous sum, payable over five years. His attorney felt they had a good chance to get the award reduced on appeal. However, after considering the idea during a post-trial vacation in St. John, Garnett decided against it. He was becoming wealthy, and expected his circumstances only to improve. When viewed from that perspective, the amount he had to pay Rita wasn't onerous. Besides, he was tired of the ongoing battle, and just wanted to be rid of her. But that was then. Before losing his securities license. Before the bad investment.
Two weeks had passed since the lottery drawing, and during that time, he investigated ways to hide his good fortune. The names of winners were public information. Setting up a trust or forming a limited liability company to claim the money offered little protection. Those legal devices were easily penetrable if anyone looked. An alternative was to have a third party collect the prize, and pay the person for doing so. But that required someone he trusted, as well as a foolproof funds transfer and tax avoidance scheme. He came up short on both counts. He concluded that he had to sell the ticket itself, and congratulated himself for having the discipline not to sign it.
He could wait the remaining fifty weeks, or close to it, before finding a buyer, regardless of what Rita did. Let her contest. Let her lawyer dig into his financial history. They wouldn't find anything. Even if the worst case materialized and her challenge dragged on close to the deadline, he could always offer a settlement. The thought made his teeth clench, but for seven-point-five million, he would adjust.
On Monday, he met with Kaplan again, and provided the required information for a bankruptcy declaration. As it had all along, the lottery remained his secret. Two days later, Garnett's petition was filed with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Boston.
Chapter Two"You remember my friend, Rita?" Karen Pruitt asked. "You met her a couple of times."
"We're talking about a Miss America clone here-and you only have a vague memory?"
"Depends on who you're looking at on a regular basis," Zack Bello said. He and Karen had been dating for almost a year, exclusively for the past six months.
She grinned and clapped her hands softly. "Good answer. You get big points for that one. So, you do remember?"
"The bimbo, right?"
"She's not a bimbo. She's a model, who happens to be very bright. So, she's a little showy. And young. But she's not a bimbo."
"What about her?"
They were sitting in The Bar, a club-style lounge in the Taj Boston Hotel on Arlington Street. Zack worked on his second gin martini while Karen explained Rita Jensen's financial situation.
"She's contesting the bankruptcy," Karen said. "But she's worried that hiring an attorney isn't enough. Evidently, this Garnett character is a sleaze financial guy who knows how to hide assets."
"Has she discussed it with her lawyer? If he thinks they need outside help, he should say so."
"We didn't get into that. But she asked if you would talk to her-give her some advice."
Zack waited for clarification, and when none came, he said, "For someone in the communications business, you can be very cryptic. Why did Rita think to ask for my advice?"
"Because I talk about you. When you have a good man, you brag about him."
"That's tit-for-tat payback for saying I didn't remember miss tits and ass."
Karen smirked. "Not at all. Besides, I knew you were lying about that. So, Rita and I are having lunch on Wednesday. Will you stop by and meet with her?"
Karen's marketing communications company was on the third floor of a building on Newbury Street, a minor league Rodeo Drive. Zack waited in a conference room with floor-to-ceiling glass walls on the ends, watching the staff flow by. Karen's employees were all female, most of them younger than her thirty-seven years, and the majority just as attractive. The boss herself was a stately brunette with the sleek body of an Olympic athlete.
Rita Jensen followed her into the room. Karen wore a black pants suit, Rita a short blue dress that exposed too much body to be called business attire. Auburn hair draped half her face and one shoulder. She greeted Zack as if they were old friends. Karen excused herself and returned to work.
"Thanks for meeting with me," Rita said. "Where should I start?"
Zack prompted her by summarizing what Karen already told him. Rita filled in the details.
"Why do you think your ex-boyfriend is hiding assets?" he asked.
"If he could do it for his clients, why not for himself?" Rita said, flipping her hair back. "Unfortunately, I can't prove that. I mean the part about his clients. He never said anything directly, and I didn't ask. But part of my role was to help him entertain." She caught herself. "That doesn't mean fuck the customers, so don't get the wrong idea."
"I understand." "Naturally, I picked things up. There was a lot of talk about money transfers and offshore accounts-stuff like that."
Before today, Zack had only been around Rita for a few minutes. Now, as he watched and listened to her, she reminded him of a TV actress in a commercial about erectile dysfunction. The woman's performance about the enhanced sexual experience for her man was so convincing that the commercial had generated its own national hype. And, just as that actress delivered blaring sensuality solely through facial expressions and body language, so did Rita, even when discussing an unrelated subject.
"At first, I thought I needed a fraud investigator," she continued. "I talked to my attorney about it, but he thinks it's premature. He said contesting the bankruptcy might give us all we need, and there are legal procedures to be followed."
"An investigator has to have information to work with," Zack said. "Which is probably what your lawyer means when he says it's premature."
Rita huffed. "Yeah, right. Any information we get from my ex will be meaningless. The man will lie, deny, and hide whatever he needs to. And if we don't believe his answers to our questions, or that he turned over all the information he's supposed to? Then we follow the so-called procedure and ask more questions and for more information. It's a dumb-ass merry-go-round."
"Unfortunately, that's how it works. You must know that from your experience with the palimony suit."
"There has to be a way to cut through all that."
"Why not wait until after the first round of discovery and see what you get," Zack said. "If you're not satisfied, then raise the subject with your attorney again. I'm sure he has fraud investigators he knows of or works with."
"I don't think I need a fraud investigator. I need someone like you."
"I think you might misunderstand what I do."
"Well, tell me if I have it right," Rita said. "You were a big corporate financial executive. Then you became a very successful private investor. And now, you do consulting work investigating white-collar crime. You have masters' degrees in business and criminal investigation. Oh, and you were special ops in the military." She smiled and did another hair-flip. "Did I miss anything?"
"You got all that from Karen?" Zack asked.
"Some of it just today-right before you got here. Something I missed?"
"First, I wasn't special operations in the military. Nor am I a certified fraud investigator, which is what your attorney would hire if it ever came to that. I'm a consultant that fixes financial and operating problems in small to medium-sized companies."
"Fraud problems, right?"
"Sometimes," Zack said. "But more than often than not, when fraud is involved, it's something that's discovered along the way, and not the main reason companies hire me. You need a certified fraud investigator who is a CPA. I'm neither."
"What I need is someone who's a match for Adam's brains and his experience. Not an accountant who doesn't know shit about the real world."
"To catch a crook you have to be one?"
"That's one way to put it," Rita said, missing-or perhaps ignoring-the intended humor in the remark.
She turned away, staring into the distance over Zack's shoulder. Just as the silence became uncomfortable, she looked back at him and said, "Adam Garnett is trying to screw me, and the more time he has, the better his odds. I don't want to wait for the so-called legal process to catch up with reality. And even if timing wasn't an issue, I don't want a fraud investigator, or whatever we call him, hired by my attorney. I want to do it. I want him to understand he works for me. Because there may be things he finds out that I don't want anyone else to know."
"Such as Adam being involved in something illegal. Maybe with his clients. My attorney tells me we'll put added pressure on him by getting the U.S. Trustee interested in the case. That's terrific. But if I find out that he's dirty, and the only way to get my money is to use that against him and keep it to myself, then that's what I'll do. I'm the one putting up the bucks to contest this thing."
Rita smiled sheepishly. "Sorry. I'm trying to keep emotion out of this," she said. "But it's hard. I guess that was kind of an emotional file dump. Maybe it didn't come out in exactly the right order, but I think you understand what I'm after."
Excerpted from Alter Boy by Ronald Azzolina Copyright © 2010 by Ronald Azzolina. Excerpted by permission.
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