Old wounds still hurt
Reduced to peddling on the street, FINSAC victim recalls being tossed out of home
Mecheck Willis is 72 years old and lives in a one-room dwelling on Whitehall Avenue in St Andrew, the rent being paid by members of his church family. The meagre earnings from his street vending are not enough to sustain him.
His sparse goods of markers, pens, chewing gums and masks are spread out on a small retractable table, about 24 inches long by 20 inches wide, on the sidewalk near the drive-thru exit at the Half-Way Tree Road branch of Scotiabank.
Depending on crutches to move around, Willis usually sits at the same place from Mondays to Fridays, from early morning to late evening, trying to make a living.
Rewind 30 years to 1993 and the picture is a far cry from his current situation. He owned a six-bedroom house on Patrick Drive in St Andrew, where he lived with his wife and children, and operated a thriving business supplying uniform material to operators in the tourism sector, as well as fabric for drapes and table cloth to other companies.
He and his wife had big plans for their children.
But it all came crashing down and he lost everything.
Willis is one of the 44,000 identified victims of the 1990s financial meltdown, which resulted in the establishment of the Financial Sector Adjustment Company (FINSAC) and cost tax payers billions of dollars.
Willis said he lost his house when his property title was used as collateral for four loans he had no knowledge of, but was made to pay back, even after losing everything.
He relives that day in 2007 over and over when he was evicted from his home.
Talking to The Sunday Gleaner last week, it was evident that the circumstances and situation are still a source of great sadness for the senior citizen, whose towering voice masks the pain he bears and the scars he no longer tries to hide.
His woes were compounded by being left with restricted mobility from two motor vehicle accidents. He is yet to be compensated for the second accident – as his lawyers are yet to locate the owner of the motor vehicle – which left him hospitalised for months and aggravated the injuries from the first incident.
Willis considers himself a victim of both legal and financial fraud, sharing with The Sunday Gleaner that at least two of the four lawyers he hired did little or nothing, forcing him to seek others.
“I started business long before FINSAC happened. The bank manager at Eagle Commercial Bank, where I had my account, left the bank about two years after I began doing business with the bank. He encouraged me to move my account with him when he left to join the then Island Life group and I did,” Willis told The Sunday Gleaner.
A line of credit was extended to him for $1 million to help expand his lucrative textile business, and he swears that he only used $480,000 of that sum.
The line of credit was signed in 1992 and activated two years later when the manager moved.
Willis said he was advised that if he repaid what he borrowed within 30 days, it would not register on his house title, which he used as collateral.
The monthly payments were manageable and business was growing. His clients paid promptly, which allowed him to make timely deposits.
“I know I used the money three times and paid it all off before FINSAC. I paid it all off, plus interest, in less than 18 months, because as soon as I got the cheques, I just took it and made the payments,” Willis recalled.
“I paid back $1.5 million and then I realised that something was wrong when the manager wrote me a letter to say that my monthly instalments would be $105,000 per month. I was confused and tried to find out what happened.”
Willis said he sought the services of a now-disbarred attorney, who advised him to get another bank to take over the loan.
When he was informed how much he would have to pay, Willis said he objected after being told that he owed another $1.5 million.
He hired another attorney, who asked for a statement of his account.
Willis not only received the statement, but the financial shock of his life.
“I discovered that [someone] took out four loans against my title. One was for $1.1 million; another for $400,000; another for $700,000 and the last one for $250,000. The money I was told that I owed was to pay for the loans I knew nothing about,” he told The Sunday Gleaner.
He went to another lawyer, paying more than $100,000 in fees to file a lawsuit against the bank and its manager after writing to outline irregularities pertaining to the account.
The bank asked him to bring evidence of his claims.
TOSSED ON TO THE STREET
During the time when he was preparing the statements through his lawyers, FINSAC stepped in and shut everything down.
During the same period in January 2001, he was involved in a serious motor vehicle accident, which left him hospitalised and immobile. He had to rely on his wife and children to deliver written correspondences to the lawyer.
Shortly after, he said, the lawyer’s office advised him to find another lawyer.
Willis said FINSAC wrote to him, saying that the matter was turned over to another institution, and despite outlining his situation, he said he and his story were waved away and the account sold to Jamaica Redevelopment Foundation (JRF).
“That is how my house was sold. I was told that I owed $11.5 million and my house, which valued about $13 million at the time, was sold for $3.5 million. That meant I still owed them about $8 million. I tried to contest it in court, and I got another lawyer. My church helped me. Because I could not move around, I had to take taxis to deliver letters or use the phone,” he shared.
Willis’ house was sold in 2005 and the new owners gave him notice.
On May 24, 2007, he was evicted.
Unable to walk, he said all he attained through hard work were tossed out on the sidewalk in Patrick City.
The rains came shortly after, washing away his dreams, livelihood and family.
“I was in my bedroom with my two-month-old granddaughter at the time, and my son came in and told me that some men were inside the house, putting the things on the road,” he recounted with pain in his voice.
“By the time he came in the bedroom, some of the men came in behind him and told me that I have to come out of the house. I said, ‘No, give me a chance to talk to the lawyer’. They said they have no time for that.”
When he went to the lawyer’s office and reported what had happened, he was told the matter was out of his hands and his file was handed to him.
‘I KNEW NOTHING OF ANY FRAUD’
Willis would later discover that the matter went before the court on several occasions and he was not told. Neither was he aware that case management was recommended. The inaction on his part caused the judge to order the eviction.
He also learnt that the JRF defence was that his complaint was statute barred, and that he knew about the fraud of sums being drawn on his title but did not make a report.
“I knew nothing of any fraud. I knew something was wrong and that’s when I went to the lawyers, but I was not better off getting help from them. I went to the Fraud Squad and reported it and they said they can’t do anything about it because they would not know where to find the person,” he noted.
Willis told The Sunday Gleaner, “My signature was frequently used, and some forms on the file showed attorneys who said they knew me personally and I have never seen or heard of them in my life. I live in Kingston and a justice of the peace from St Catherine also witnessed me signing. I don’t know anyone of them then, and I don’t know them now.”
Following the entire ordeal, Willis wrote a book, God Is My Guide: Reform of The Mind.
‘THE MAN IS SUFFERING’
Willis testified at the FINSAC Commission of Enquiry set up by former Finance Minister Audley Shaw in 2008 to probe what went wrong in the 1990s financial debacle.
“I know his story very well. He testified at the inquiry and his situation was that his signature was forged on several occasions ... . Now the man is suffering, and like all of us, we have suffered and not even the first page of a report we cannot get,” Yola Gray-Baker, president of the Association of Finsac’d Entrepreneurs, told The Sunday Gleaner, referring to the long-overdue FINSAC Commission report.
Noting that under the circumstances, Willis should not have lost his house, she said, “I have written to Prime Minister Andrew Holness about his situation because I see him giving out houses to people. Mr Willis lives in a place where not even one of his children can live with him, and he should not be living alone.”
Willis owns no land, nor has any place to go except the one-room rented property.