Ethics Hero: Attorney Greg Adler

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.


11 thoughts on “Ethics Hero: Attorney Greg Adler

  1. Pingback: Ethics Hero: Attorney Greg Adler (via Ethics Alarms) « Pilant's Business Ethics Blog

  2. I just had a thought.

    I was thinking, “I hope he serves his whole sentence.” But then I thought, “Is that fair? Must he serve the whole thing if he actually behaves himself in prison (then again, what choice does a white-collar criminal have than to try to behave)?”

    So I thought, and there may already exist something like this, but what if there was a stipulation to his early release that if he committed fraud again, he would have to serve his new sentence AND the years remaining on his previous sentence that he was comped? This would ONLY be if he committed fraud. If he decked his wife or robbed a bank, he’d go to jail just for that. But if he had the audacity to return to a fraudulent life, that would show his early release was a colossal mistake and they’d put the time he should have continued to be incarcerated back on the clock.

    Or is that how parole actually works and I’m completely daft?

  3. Adler said he was the right guy at the right time. I’m sure there are plenty of people that wished he was the right guy 6 years ago.

    • Here’s an article I wrote in May 2010 about how much work it took to bring the bad guys to justice:

      As soon as I realized something was wrong, I investigated, did what I could to stop it, and reported it to the authorities. As I mentioned to the judge at the sentencing hearing on January 7, my only regret is that I couldn’t do more. Thank you all for the kind words.

      • Hi Greg Adlerl: you are the hero of Attorneys! I am so proud of you!
        if the majority of attorneys like you, then the corruption could be prevented in our legal system! I do respect you as honorable !

      • Mr. Adler, you are a hero to my 83 year old mother who is struggling against a three-time federally convicted loan fraudster who persistently brings repeated lawsuits against everybody and their brother to delay her own case against him. Thanks for all your efforts in dealing with these parasites on the system.

  4. Pingback: Recommended Business Ethics Blogs « Pilant's Business Ethics Blog

  5. Pingback: He fights crime & He looks good in a tuxedo – Greg Adler | Keith Simonian Wedding Photography - San Francisco Bay Area - Napa Valley - Monterey - Carmel

  6. Mr. Adler truly is a hero, with a mission to protect people from scoundrels like Cardinalli and his son—they happen to be related to me, and I have known for more than 30 years of the elder Cardinalli’s criminal behavior. In 1980 he defrauded his insurance company into paying him for damage to fires he had set—in other words, he is a convicted arson and served 3 years for it. He was never able to do anything straight in his life, and saw an opportunity with a negligent small claims court judge to bilk thousands out of hard earned money. Most of his victims were poor people barely able to make ends meet. He is due to get out next year (his son just got out in Oct 2014) and we in the family are all taking bets that it will be only a matter of time before he is back in the business of short-cutting the legal system to make a fast buck.

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