Vincent Cardinalli had been running a remarkably lucrative and heartless scam for years in Santa Clara, California, filing phony lawsuits against innocent citizens for towing and storage fees on vehicles they no longer owned or, in some cases, never owned. He was aided by a commissioner who routinely sided with him in the suits while ignoring obvious signs of a swindle. Cardinalli’s salad days ended, however, because a young lawyer decided to do his own investigation, on his own time, and uncovered enough to send the crook and his crooked son to jail.
This is how the scam worked. The Cardinallis would tow a vehicle, sometimes from someone’s driveway or apartment parking stall, allow fees to add up and then sue any former owner of the vehicle for the past-due fees. For example, minister Ruben Magos, received a notice of a default judgment against him in small claims court involving towing fees for a 1972 Datsun that he hadn’t owned a for five years. When he went to court to explain he wasn’t the legal owner, the judge shook his head. Magos owed Cardinalli $2,500, and there were a dozen other people in court that day who got similar results.
In 2005, the Cardinalli family sued State Farm Insurance for back fees on two cars the company didn’t own anymore. As usual, Commissioner Gregory Saldivar ruled for the family in small claims court. But State Farm, unlike most of Cardinalli’s victims, appealed, and to prove it had sold the vehicles, sent Greg Adler to appear as a witness. Adler was a recent UC Davis law school graduate who worked for the online auction company that sold the cars for State Farm.
The young lawyer was amazed by the number of people being sued by the Cardinallis, and out of curiosity, began calling defendants to hear their stories. Increasingly convinced that something was seriously wrong, he began traveling around the state to copy court documents, thousands of them, with his own portable copying machine. 1,200 hours of his own, uncompensated time later, his diligent efforts accumulated enough evidence to document the fraud. Thanks to him, the Cardinalli scam is finished: Vincent and his son have been sent to prison, with his daughter and son-in-law convicted as well. Adler’s evidence also persuaded the courts to declare the Cardinellis vexatious litigants, limiting their ability to file future lawsuits.
“I just happened to be the right guy at the right time who put the puzzle together,” Adler told reporters. “The system failed miserably.”
Indeed it did. There are still questions about the commissioner who allowed this outrage to continue for so long. But where the system failed, an ethical individual prevailed.
One of the core principles of ethical conduct is that an individual who finds himself in a position to stop wrongdoing has an obligation to do so, regardless of whether he caused the problem or has an official or professional duty to discharge. Fix the problem. Ask questions, blow the whistle, confront the wrongdoer, pressure officials, call in authorities…whatever it takes. So many of the scandals and disasters we have witnessed in the past— the home mortgage meltdown, the Enron implosion, Abu Ghraib, Bernie Madoff’s scheme, baseball’s steroid scandal, the Catholic Church’s child molestation cover-up, and too many more to list—would have been ended far sooner if someone on the scene had followed through on this ethical imperative. We don’t know who those people who ducked their responsibilities are; all we know is that lives were ruined because they chose to be passive, and not to act.
If Greg Adler or someone like him, had been around, imagine how different our world might be today.