Jim Kenyon: Waiting To Collect

Do they have the money or don’t they? That’s the $700,000 question for the Hartford Elks in the sex discrimination case against them that’s still going strong after 15 years.

On one side, you have leaders of the fraternal organization who testified last month in state court that their private club is a money-losing operation unable to meet its legal obligations.

On the other side, you have lawyers and their clients who have chalked up numerous courtroom victories against the Elks over the years, but still await their payday. They contend that for years the lodge has made a killing on its legal gambling enterprises and has squirreled away a large stash of hard-to-trace cash to avoid paying more than $700,000 in court judgements. One of the lawyers looking to collect suggested in court recently that to find out whether there’s any hidden loot at the lodge on Route 14 might take sheriff’s deputies with a jackhammer.

Frankly, I don’t know which side to believe. I just want the movie rights.

What a saga.

In 1995, after the Elks’ national organization lifted its ban on women becoming members, seven women applied to join the Hartford lodge. Twice, Hartford’s all-male membership voted to keep them out. A sex discrimination lawsuit, spearheaded by the Vermont Human Rights Commission, followed.

The club eventually acquiesced and allowed women to join. In the last 10 years, three of its presidents (whoops, I mean exalted rulers) were women. But change came too slow. Over the years, membership has dropped from 1,400 to about 300, including a few dozen or so women. Five years ago, the club started falling behind on its mortgage payments, which are now being picked up by a lodge member whom the club is supposed to be repaying, but has yet to do so. Elks’ leaders project the club will finish the current fiscal year more than $23,000 in the red.

But Ted Hobson, the Burlington lawyer who from the beginning has represented some of the women who were denied membership, argues that the Elks are far from broke. He points to financial records the club recently submitted in court. The records show the club expects to earn roughly $188,000 this fiscal year from selling lottery-like “break open” tickets for a buck apiece. “They are running a very large cash operation,” said Hobson.

On June 25, I attended a hearing at the Washington Superior Courthouse in Montpelier, where Elks’ leaders denied hiding or taking cash out of the lodge. When I called him at home on Friday, Dick Blodgett, head of the Hartford Elks, reiterated what he and others had testified. “There is no money, there hasn’t been any money and nobody took any money,” he said.

Hobson is not about to give up — and for good reason. In 2009, a state Superior Court judge ordered the Elks to pay him more than $250,000 in attorney fees. (Hobson is owed the largest share of the $700,000 in judgements. The women who brought the suit were awarded about $7,400 apiece.)

With the Elks either refusing or unable to pay, — depending on which side you believe — Hobson and other lawyers involved in the case adopted a new tactic.

In May, a sheriff’s deputy toting a civil court summons (but not a jackhammer) knocked on Barry Betters’ door in Hartford. The summons informed Betters, a 75-year-old widower, that he was being sued. Betters and five other current and former Elks’ leaders, including one woman, are personally liable for the $700,000 in judgements against the club, the lawsuit alleges.

“All of the defendants knew or should have known during their terms as officers and trustees that the Hartford Elks were not incorporated during the liability phase of the litigation,” it states.

The club incorporated in 1940, but the Vermont Secretary of State revoked the corporate charter in 1989 for failing to file an annual report. The club remained unincorporated for 19 years.

As a result, the Elks had lost their “corporate shield, ” the Vermont Supreme Court ruled. “Creditors may seek to collect from individuals who were members when the various liabilities arose if they are unable to collect from the club itself.”

Betters joined the Elks in 1980. Over the years, he served a few times as a club officer, including treasurer. He’s no longer an officer, but insists the club is losing money. He’s also unaware of any hidden stash of cash.

A 1960 Dartmouth graduate, Betters worked many years for Pike Industries before starting a small paving company. He’s retired now, living off Social Security and a small pension. If the lawsuit against him is successful, he could owe more than $125,000. “I don’t have that kind of money,” he said.

The members who are being sued, including Blodgett, a retired truck driver, are “no millionaires,” Betters told me. I suspect Hobson and the other lawyers know that. A “possible way out” is if someone has “insurance to cover it,” said Hobson, referring to the individuals’ homeowner policies. “I don’t relish going after these individuals, but I’d like to get paid.”

At the urging of Superior Court Judge Robert Bent, the Elks and their adversaries recently started settlement talks. (Better late than never.) I just hope that any potential settlement wouldn’t require Betters or other club leaders to pay out of their own pockets. That would be a bit Draconian.

Ironically, when the ballots were cast 18 years ago, Betters voted both times to allow women to join. “We’ve created a lot of these problems ourselves,” he said. “I hate to say it, but we’re probably the most dysfunctional Elks club in Vermont.”

But still movie material.