If you caught today’s Washington Post article on allegations about defrauded churches, you may have noticed a reference near the end to Fred Cooke, former D.C. corporation counsel and current attorney for tax-challenged D.C. Councilman Marion Barry. Cooke is representing a coalition of congregations called Churches United for Justice (the Post piece misstated the name), which is looking to lead a nation-wide campaign against the leasing companies they say scammed them out of thousands of dollars.
“I’m doing some lobbying, I’m doing some defense, and I’m doing some proactive litigation,” Cooke said in an interview with Legal Times.
As the Post reported, the churches signed leases on electronic kiosks that were supposed to run paid advertising from community businesses. Unfortunately, according to Cooke, the middlemen in charge of managing ad sales and revenue allegedly didn’t hold up their end of the deal, and many of the computer terminals were little but empty monitors. The leasing companies, including United Leasing Associates of Brookfield, Wis., and Balboa Capital of Irvine, Calif., allegedly have kept charging for the service, sometimes withdrawing from the church bank accounts.
D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles has filed a civil suit against the companies, claiming fraud among other allegations, but in the meantime Cooke is pursuing his own legal strategy. He is currently representing about 30 churches in the D.C. metro area that say they were victims of the fraud, but believes there may be as many as 250 to 300 more churches in similar situations across the country. He says there is talk of forming a national coalition, part lobbying group, part legal fund.
By joining forces, the churches hope they can attract the attention of more state and local authorities and convince them to file suits similar to the D.C. attorney general’s.
“We believe there is strength in numbers,” he says.
Some Maryland churches are scheduled to meet with their state attorney general to discuss possible litigation.
The leasing companies have already sued several churches that stopped paying rent on the kiosks. Because of language in the leasing agreements, many of the suits are happening in Wisconsin and California, where Cooke has had to arrange counsel. He is also trying to defend against default judgments against the churches that the companies are seeking to enforce in the District, and he is considering filing a fraud suit himself.