By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Never, ever volunteer: If there's a lawyer or, say, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives out there reading this, could you lend Nicholas Zimmerman a hand before the electric company turns out his lights?
Zimmerman is a local guy who joined the Army in 2004. In April 2005 he received an honorable, medical discharge. Heartwarming, no? A loyal young American steps up to do his bit for his country.
And proceeds to take one up the pooper, courtesy of the U.S. government.
See, two weeks after leaving the Army, Zimmerman says, he received a military paycheck deposited directly into his bank account. That was fine, he says; he had that one coming.
But guess what? The Army keeps paying him. Of course it does! After the second check, Zimmerman contacts the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, which handles military payroll, and tells them they've screwed up. He closes the bank account that was getting DFAS' money.
As if that could stop a bureaucracy intent on making a mistake. Hah! DFAS keeps sending the money to the closed account. The bank sends the money back, but DFAS doesn't realize the refunds have anything to do with Zimmerman. Apparently, they just thought it was a gift from the bank, like a free toaster.
Skip ahead 18 months. DFAS finally realizes half of its error and turns the case over to Linebarger, Goggan, Blair & Sampson, a Texas law firm that specializes in collecting money for the government. This spring, Zimmerman gets a bill for $16,000 from the firm. He sends off his letters and documents showing he didn't take any of the money DFAS insisted on sending.
Pissin' in the wind, my friend. Pissin' in the wind.
In May, the law firm informs Zimmerman he owes $22,181 and starts garnisheeing 15 percent of his wages. The lawyer assigned to his account at the firm in Houston won't return telephone calls. (We tried to call them too.) He eventually reaches someone at the law firm and tries to invoke the Fair Debt Collection Act, which requires an audit of his case. "They actually proceeded to insult me," he says. Get a lawyer, they tell him.
He's 22. He can't afford a lawyer. He volunteers for savedeepellum.org and does video editing and IT work for Global Fashion News. Since the law firm began garnisheeing his pay, he's had to move from a $700-a-month apartment to a $500 place. "I haven't paid my electricity bill in over two months," he says. "Luckily, they haven't cut it off."
You know what happens next.