Lawyer makes dirty debt collectors pay

The Avenger: Pete Barry goes after those "who live off the misery of others"

• • • • •

THE LEADING COLLECTION industry trade group resides in a beige and brick, two-story building on a pleasant stretch of France Avenue in Edina. ACA International's home captures perfectly the design aesthetic known informally as 1960s office park. The glass double doors remain locked mid-morning on a weekday, and a receptionist only buzzes a visitor in after he explains that he has an appointment. Within seconds, an amiable, well-dressed man in his mid-30s arrives with his hand outstretched. He introduces himself as John Nemo, and though he doesn't say so, he's charged with the difficult task of convincing the media that the debt collection industry is more misunderstood than monstrous.

It quickly becomes clear that a key arrow in his quiver is humor. "Did you show him our AK-47?" he quips to the receptionist, who has clearly heard this one before.

Barry's boot camps have trained more than 200 lawyers. "I'd like to be able to do them from my grave," he says.
Nick Vlcek
Barry's boot camps have trained more than 200 lawyers. "I'd like to be able to do them from my grave," he says.

Nemo leads the way to the office of Rozanne Andersen, ACA International's executive vice president. A middle-aged woman with shoulder-length chestnut hair and a background in international banking, she speaks with the conviction of a lawyer representing a wrongly accused defendant.

"I come to work every day thinking that I can contribute to making this industry more appreciated and professional," she says. "I really actually believe that. If I thought this was a broken industry I wouldn't be here today."

To hear her tell it, the debt collection industry plays the role of an older sibling who gently reminds people of their responsibilities. She points to a recent industry-commissioned survey that found debt collectors took in more than $50 billion in 2005, nearly 80 percent of which was returned to creditors—banks, electronic superstores, and cell phone companies. This money, Andersen points out, keeps prices down for everyday American consumers.

In Andersen's view, excessive regulation has left the industry with one hand tied behind its back. Although Andersen's group initially opposed the federal Fair Debt act in the 1970s, it eventually came around to supporting the bill as a way to keep dirty collectors from gaining an unfair advantage. But Andersen and her allies think it's time to revisit the rules. With so many technicalities, a confusing patchwork of state codes, and overlapping privacy laws, debt collectors are caught in an alphabet soup of regulations.

Only recently have legislators become sympathetic to the plight of the debt collector. In 2006, ACA International ramped up its lobbying efforts. With the balance of power up for grabs in both houses of Congress, the group, which had long favored Republicans, figured it wise to spread the wealth around. ACA International found a sweet spot in Massachusetts's Barney Frank, the ranking Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, who stood to inherit the chairmanship. That year, ACA International gave Frank the maximum allowable donation of $5,000, more than double what it had given him over the previous three years combined.

It proved to be a good investment. In 2006, Frank helped push through the first industry-friendly amendments in the history of the Fair Debt law. Though the changes were minor and for the most part too technical for the average consumer to understand, they had a symbolic value: What had long been sacrosanct was now a matter of negotiation. (Frank declined to be interviewed for this article through his spokesman, Steven Adamske.)

Just a few days after the amendments passed, a dozen leaders of the collection industry got together at the modern-day equivalent of a smoke-filled back room: an airport hotel conference room with free sandwiches. Perhaps fearing that the meeting might look like an attempt by competitors to conspire, they hired a court reporter to transcribe the meeting and later posted it on Collections & Credit Risk's website.

"Well, everyone is here, so we should begin," announced John Frank, then the publication's editor, smiling warmly at the 11 men around the table. "I want to thank you all for coming to our first of hopefully many industry roundtables to talk about key industry issues."

The man of the hour was Gary Rippentrop, the silver-haired, bespectacled patriarch of ACA International. It wasn't every day that debt collectors got to bask in the glow of the first positive change to a resented law in nearly 30 years, and there was no shortage of pats on the back for the accomplishment.

"Thank you very much, Gary, for what you guys have done," said Jessie Riddle, a Utah-based collection boss.

"At the end of the day, we're delighted that we were able to help guide it through," responded Rippentrop. "It's an industry win."

The meeting had an element of expectancy. Now that the door had been opened to revising the Fair Debt law—the "sacred instrument" in Riddle's memorable formulation—they would have to decide what to do next. The question hung in the air, unresolved by meeting's end. But a recent visit to Rozanne Andersen's office reveals ACA International's bold answer.

Andersen almost can't help talking about it. "You are interviewing us at a very exciting time in our industry," she says, her voice perking up. Just two weeks earlier, she was entrusted with an important project: researching a sweeping new model of self-regulation. It's still in the planning stages, but she offers the broad outlines: Instead of a debtor with a gripe running to federal court, the plan calls for a new entity under the umbrella of the Federal Trade Commission to step in to play policeman.

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