By Guest Columnist Robert Burns
Tom recently posted that Louisiana Sen. Rick Gallot may have used his influence to expedite and circumvent safety standards for a private school. Another Louisiana Senator, Francis Thompson (D-Delhi) may have well had his son, Brant, utilize his dad’s status to obtain fair and equitable treatment from the Louisiana Auctioneer Licensing Board (LALB). He was fully entitled to such fair and equitable treatment, but it begs the question as to why other Louisiana citizens, especially elderly widow auction victims, are given the shaft.
In early 2012, Brant Thompson allegedly consigned merchandise to auctioneer Bruce Miller. I use the word “allegedly” because, at a May 6, 2014 hearing, LALB investigator Jim Steele, as evidenced by this 4-second video clip, said, “There’s no indication that Mr. Thompson was a consignor at this auction whatsoever.” Nobody knows what may have happened to Mr. Thompson’s items, and auctioneer Bruce Miller died of a massive heart attack two days after his last auction. Mr. Thompson never received a dime for his items, nor did he ever even see his merchandise again. Understandably, Mr. Thompson got upset and justifiably filed a complaint with the LALB. Like so many other complainants, Mr. Thompson was frustrated when he received this brief letter from LALB attorney Anna Dow dated 1/16/14 indicating that, because the LALB could not ascertain if a violation had occurred, it was “closing the investigation……No further action will be taken.”
Thompson, like many other aggrieved complainants, wasn’t happy, so he drafted this terse two-page response dated 2/3/14. He indicated that he “takes exception” to the finding and states that “The system designed to protect me failed.” He emphasized that he was aware auctioneers carry a bond, and he relayed that he expected that bond to cover his alleged losses. Mr. Thompson is correct in his assessment that the LALB failed him, but it has done the same for a litany of other complainants. Mr. Thompson, however, was shrewd enough to copy Ms. Holly Robinson, Gov. Jindal’s then-Heard of Boards and Commissions. Obviously, Ms. Robinson would be very familiar with the fact Brant is Francis’ son. What transpired upon Robinson’s receipt of the letter? Who knows, but we do know this: in lightening-fast speed, the LALB, in an unprecedented move, not only “reopened” a closed investigation, but it actually conducted a full-blown hearing (on a deceased auctioneer) on 5/6/14. Remember Mr. Thompson’s goal of collecting on Miller’s bond. Now, watch this brief one-minute video clip excerpt from the hearing. Notice how Mr. Thompson is gently guided regarding the bond’s parameters (that it’s for $10,000 and has a 3-year filing period in which the LALB can file for him). Mr. Thompson, who speaks in a smooth and cavalier manner, is spoken to in turn by LALB members and its attorney in an almost reverent-like manner. The LALB not only filed the bond for Mr. Thompson, but in breakneck speed, he received a $3,500 check from the bonding company in early October of 2014 even though the company said the itemized list it was provided depicted ordinary household items that were “virtually worthless.”
Let’s contrast Mr. Thompson’s revered status as a Louisiana senator’s son with the tone and attitude taken with complainant Judy Fasola. In late 2012, Ms. Fasola contracted with notoriously-problematic auctioneer Ken Buhler for the disposition of her terminally-ill, 93-year-old mother’s estate. Ms. Fasola asserted at her hearing, which was in March of 2013, that Mr. Buhler adamantly refused to place reserves on her marque items and instead, over time, just kept defiantly selling them at pennies on the dollar (Fasola relayed she later learned Buhler sold many marque items to his own mother, mother-in-law, and other Buhler relatives) against her express desire and instructions. When she threatened an LALB complaint, he finally returned what few items he hadn’t sold in defiance of her instructions, and Fasola relayed he did so in a fit of anger, slamming her items on her floor and breaking most items in the process. Fasola filed an LALB complaint, and the LALB fined his father, Mac, who is not an auctioneer but was deemed the responsible party for Ken’s company, Estate Auction Services, $500 for “sloppy recordkeeping.” Due to Ken’s license being revoked from 2005-2010 (due to massive consignor losses), the LALB insisted that Mac oversee all negotiations and communication with customers. Ken had defied that restriction in negotiating with Ms. Fasola, but she was unaware of the LALB restrictions on Ken’s license. Ms. Fasola, like Brant, repeatedly asked the LALB to file a bond claim for her, but the LALB has steadfastly refused to do so. When Ms. Fasola learned of Mr. Thompson’s ease of obtaining a bond payment, she was understandably upset and requested to be heard on the matter at the 11/5/14 meeting to air her frustrations. Let’s examine, mainly through video excerpts of the meeting, just how she got treated.
Fasola began by giving an introductory statement relaying how she, like Brant, felt the system had failed her, and she asked if she may have been treated more fairly “if I were the daughter of a Louisiana State Senator?” LALB Vice Chairman James Sims tersely denied any knowledge that Brant was the son of a Louisiana senator until “seven days after the hearing.” There simply is no way to adequately place in words the hostility shown toward Ms. Fasola (and me, for that matter) at the meeting, so I ask readers’ indulgence in watching a 9-minute video clip of the highlights of Ms. Fasola’s presentation, along with captions wherein Ms. Fasola catches board members, attorneys, and the executive director in one contradiction and falsehood after another (proven by video clips merged into this 9-minute video clip which I strongly encourage readers to watch). In watching the video, it becomes apparent why I videotape these meetings because these board members flat-out misrepresent what they’ve said and done in prior meetings.
Now, in the above 9-minute video clip, considerable focus was placed on the above-mentioned restrictions on Ken Buhler’s license. When Estate Auction Services (Mac Buhler) was fined $500 and found guilty in March of 2013, the bonding company immediately canceled its bond. As mentioned above, Ken, pursuant to the restrictions on his license, was totally dependent upon his dad to remain in business; however, his dad could no longer operate due to lack of a bond. How did the LALB solve Ken’s problem in that regard? They simply convened another “hearing” on May 20, 2013 for the sole purpose of removing all restrictions on Ken’s license. Nevertheless, as evidenced by the video clip, LALB Vice Chairman James Sims kept insisting (incorrectly, on no less that three occasions) that the restrictions were lifted prior to Fasola’s auction. In reality, the restrictions were lifted after and as a result of Fasola’s auction. Hence, as Fasola pointed out, Buhler was actually rewarded for his victimizing of her! Also, although LALB Chairman Tessa Steinkamp literally blew a gasket at the 6:27 mark of the video when Fasola referenced concerns for her personal safety when dealing with Ken Buhler, Ms. Fasola had genuine reason for concern. Even as she was dealing with him, he was arrested and criminally charged for domestic abuse against his wife (the latest court date is Monday, 11/10/14). Additionally, Mr. Buhler was also found to have civil liability for the fraudulent use of interstate commerce instrumentalities in Federal Court in mid-2011. The LALB was notified of that fact, but they were completely indifferent to the fact it transpired, notwithstanding the fact that his liability entailed securities fraud directly related to his auction business.
As evidenced by the preceding video clip, the LALB basically continued to tell Ms. Fasola to “go to hell” regarding its filing her bond claim for her. Quite a contrast to the reverent tone taken with Brant Thompson, son of State Sen. Francis Thompson, huh? What’s alarming is the sheer number of elderly victims of auctioneers. Let me provide the following table of four such instances that readily come to mind:
|Auction Victim’s Name||Reason for Auction||Auctioneer and Appx. Date|
|Ms. Linda Williams||Liquidating 91-year-old mother’s belongings days before her death. Click here to listen to an impassioned plea by Ms. Williams for the LALB to NOT reinstate Ken Buhler’s license in 2010.||Ken Buhler. Months prior to his auction license being revoked in 2005.|
|Mr. David Swift||Liquidating the belongings of his 80-something father soon after his death.||Gary & Randy Hayes (business applicants like Mac Buhler), two guys who, to their credit, told the LALB at their 1/14 hearing, “We never should have been granted a license.” They went on to relay they’d lost over $100,000 of their retirement savings and would NEVER be in the auction business again.|
|Ms. Judy Fasola||Liquidating 93-year-old terminally-ill mother’s belongings months before her imminent death.||Ken Buhler. September, 2012.|
|Ms. Betty Story||Liquidating her belongings (and two homes) in order to move into an assisted living facility in Alexandria, LA. LA Voice readers may recall this 9/27/14 post on what a disaster her auction was. I’m happy to report that Ms. Story, serving as a pro se litigant (at 84 years old!!), scored a major victory in 36th JDC on 10/29/14 when Judge Martha O’Neal stopped the trial after Ms. Story presented only her second witness, with Judge O’Neal saying, “I’ve heard all I need to hear.” When auctioneer Schmidt asked if he’d be permitted to put on his defense and call witnesses, O’Neal said, “Yes, but you’re not going to be able to undo the damage you’ve already done on this witness stand in answering my questions,” (Story had him on the witness stand under direct examination). Click here if you’d like to watch a post-trial interview with Ms. Story. Her LALB litigation remains ongoing.||Marlo Schmidt. November 17, 2012.|
I recently made a public records request of the LALB seeking all bond claims it has ever filed. They could produce only two: Mr. Thompson and Mr. Swift. It’s interesting to note that these two claims were likely filed (beyond Thompson’s status as a Louisiana Senator’s son) because there would be no auctioneer pushback in either case. Mr. Miller is dead, so he won’t get upset. Gary and Randy Hayes, as evidenced by the brief video clip above, readily stated they’ll never be in the auction business again (hence no pushback from them). In sharp contrast, Ken Buhler and Marlo Schmidt are active auctioneers who would be very upset with LALB members if claims were filed against their bonds!
I’d like to conclude this Louisiana Voice post by expressing gratitude to Tom because I’ve presented the above cases to MSM outlets in Baton Rouge. While an Advocate reporter has expressed strong interest in publishing LALB elderly victimizations, his editors have said, “It’s a small board and nobody will read the article.” Further, 13 months ago, Ms. Linda Williams, the first victim listed above, suggested that I contact Chris Nakamoto of Channel 2 here in Baton Rouge. I still maintain a computer folder of numerous emails back-and-forth between Mr. Nakamoto and myself regarding a television investigative report on elderly abuse by auctioneers. He did qualify any such potential report, however, with the fact that, like the Advocate reporter, his editors too had to give the “thumbs up.” All I can tell Louisiana Voice readers is that, days prior to New Year’s Day of 2014, Mr. Nakamoto ceased all communication with me without even so much as a courtesy explanation of why he’d gone from responding to my emails within hours (often minutes) to suddenly no response at all.
In closing, if you or anyone you know is considering hiring an auctioneer, you owe it to yourself to visit Consumer Option # 2 on LAPA’s website, which is an alphabetical index of auctioneer issues since LAPA’s archive began in 2010 and also Consumer Option # 3 on LAPA’s website, which is guidance on conducting auctioneer due diligence. If it’s not conducted, the results, as illustrated above, can be devastating.
Lastly, anyone knowing of an elderly person (or the caretaker of such an individual) who is considering hiring an auctioneer, please bookmark this post and forward it to them. Why? Because auctioneers exist out there who view such elderly prospective clients just like lambs headed for slaughter.
Regrettably, we have a Governor and his LALB appointees who are only too happy to help with hoisting the guillotine.