Mary Ann Lindley is wrong. Her recent attack against her opponent for Leon County Commission, incumbent Akin Akinyemi, in which she characterizes him as “irresponsible” because he is being sued on an allegedly unpaid business debt, strikes me as opportunistic and mean-hearted. More importantly I feel she is seeking political advantage by reinforcing some very destructive falsehoods that exist in our community.
This commentary is not intended to endorse either candidate. That is not the purpose of this blog. However, I do see redefining the misconceptions and false ideas regarding debt and the people who suffer from debt as part of my mission.
Capital City Bank is suing Mr. Akinyemi for a loan that was made to his architectural business and for which he cosigned. Apparently, the architectural business has been slow recently, and the business was not able to repay the loan according to the terms. This is hardly a unique event in the current business and economic climate. Every single day both businesses and families here in our community face the same problem.
There are many reasons why people default on debt obligations and only a small number of those reasons should be characterized as “irresponsible”. According to the press release from Ms. Lindley’s campaign, she would have us believe that financial difficulty is always the result of “irresponsibility” and renders a person unfit for public office. Ms. Lindley states:
“As a journalist my entire professional life, I have defended on countless occasions the reasons that disclosure laws exist and why they matter to an increasingly skeptical public. How a public official manages his or her personal financial life is without question reflected in their judgments when spending the public’s money.”
Ms. Lindley is wrong. The most common reason people don’t pay debts isn’t irresponsibility. In most cases it’s a lack of money that results from an unexpected change in income or expenses. For a business this can be a decline in sales, loss of a major customer, or a change in the marketplace. For a family this can be loss of a job, disability, serious illness, an unexpected car repair, or death of a breadwinner. Recently, many businesses and families found themselves having to make very difficult choices when fuel prices rose faster than income, leaving them with insufficient funds to pay all their debts.
Throughout history many responsible people have found themselves unable to pay all their bills. In his book “Bankruptcies and Money Disasters of the Rich and Famous” author Roland Gary James discusses the severe financial problems faced by famous leaders such as: Abraham Lincoln; Thomas Jefferson; Harry S. Truman; Ulysses S. Grant; George McGovern; Daniel Boone; John Wayne; and Mark Twain. According to the measure utilized by Ms. Lindley, none of these men were suitable to hold office or other positions of leadership. Ms. Lindley is wrong.
There is absolutely nothing in the existing record to support Ms. Lindley’s charge of irresponsibility on the part of Mr. Akinyemi. Nowhere is it said that he was taking extravagant vacations while his creditors went unpaid or that he attempted to hide from or mislead his creditors. My fear is that Ms. Lindley’s words will make others in our community who are currently suffering from debt feel needless shame and embarrassment. Simply stated: being unable to pay a debt does not in itself equate to irresponsibility. It just means that you don’t have the money. It doesn’t mean that you are trying to cheat people, are lazy, are a poor money manager, or are otherwise a bad person. Ms. Lindley is wrong.
Ms. Lindley also takes issue with and filed an ethics complaint based upon Mr. Akinyemi’s failure to report the debt on his financial disclosures. To support this she uses a letter tendering an opinion from a lawyer that the debt is “joint and several” and as such should have been reported. Without getting overly technical I disagree with Ms. Lindley and her lawyer’s opinion. The idea that it’s a joint and several debt seems to come from fine print contained in the contract that I think it is both confusing and deceptive to a non-lawyer signing the document. Despite the fine print, a review of the loan document clearly shows that Mr. Akinyemi signed as a cosigner. In the vernacular understood by most people, this means that he guarantees payment of the loan if the borrower doesn’t pay. The distinction between “joint and several” and cosigner liability really has to do with how and when the lender should demand payment. In a joint and several scenario, the creditor can demand full payment from any person responsible for the debt. However, in a cosigner situation, the creditor should not look to the cosigner for payment before attempting to recover from the actual borrower. Only when the borrower defaults can the creditor go after the cosigner for payment of the remaining balance on the debt.
Like many people in our community, Mr. Akinyemi is facing difficult financial times. However, this does not mean that he’s an immoral or dishonest person and we should not let our public figures encourage us to believe that it does. I am very disappointed to see that Ms. Lindley doesn’t recognize how her speech hurts so many in our community who share her opponent’s difficulties. She is wrong and I hope that she will rethink her perspective on this issue.