Generally, lawyers are well paid. Some would say they are excessively paid and, in many instances, that would be correct. Suffice it to say, lawyers are not in a line of work that customarily receives gratuities like waiters or taxi drivers. During the course of my career I received a few tickets to sporting events and two or three small plants. One client brought a cheesecake to the office after her closing; another brought a box of doughnuts. It stood out, therefore, when a client delivered a paper bag containing several thousand dollars of cash.
One day in the early 1990’s a contract for the purchase of a brand new home arrived via fax that was notable for several reasons. First, the price was five million dollars. While northern New Jersey is known for high housing costs, it was rare to see a transaction in that ballpark. It still is, even twenty-five years later. In fact, among the ten thousand transactions I performed between 1983 and 2009, only a handful of houses even exceeded three million dollars. Second, the buyer, identified on the document as “Victor Ramos, an unmarried man” had no financing contingency. If he failed to obtain a mortgage, for any reason, he would have had to pay for the house with cash or lose his deposit, typically ten percent of the price. Third, there was no contact information on the contract: no phone number or address for Mr. Ramos.
As was my practice, I immediately called the realtor who’d faxed the contract to thank her for the referral and to learn about my new client.
“He’s very private,” said Kathy G, after we exchanged pleasantries. “He asked me to pick a lawyer. He doesn’t really want to be too involved in the process.”
“I appreciate that, but this is a big price,” I said, with understatement, “and there’s no mortgage contingency. Is he planning to get a mortgage?”
“I doubt it,” said Kathy. “He said he has the money available. He’ll close in just two weeks.”
I strained to keep my professional tone and not sound awestruck, but I wondered what sort of work my new client did. Corporate titans, trust fund babies and professional athletes live throughout metropolitan New York. Extreme wealth is not unusual. But when those people purchased property, they usually used their company law firm or their family law firm or their team’s law firm. They rarely allowed their real estate agent to choose an unknown sole practitioner, even though, in my humble opinion, I could do a better job for a fraction of the fee.
“How can I reach Mr. Ramos?” I asked. “I don’t see a phone number.”
“He’ll call you some time today,” said Kathy. “He doesn’t give out his number.”
“Okay,” I said. “I guess I’ll wait a few hours before contacting the seller’s lawyer to discuss the contract. Do you have any idea what Mr. Ramos does for a living?”
“None at all,” said Kathy. “I barely met him. He stayed in the car at the office when I went to see the house with his personal assistant. She put in the offer after five minutes and that’s that.”
I hung up the phone and moved on to other matters, but I was anxious to see if Victor Ramos would call. I pictured an older man, perhaps a Latin American executive or a Spanish entertainer. I pictured his personal assistant as a middle-aged woman, efficient and educated in matters of finance. I imagined the contracted house would be one of a collection he had accumulated in Europe and Florida.
I received a call later that morning from Colton Robertson, the lawyer for the builder. As was typical in this price range, he worked at the New Jersey branch of a corporate firm in New York City. Busy with mergers and the like, his experience in house closings was probably minimal, but he recognized the main issue in this contract. After establishing that he’d never heard of my law firm, he sniffed:
“Your buyer has no mortgage contingency. What proof can you provide that he has the money?”
“I’m told he does,” I said.
“Don’t you know him?” he asked.
“Not yet,” I said, feeling ridiculous. “But I expect to hear from him today.”
There was uncomfortable silence.
“Contact me as soon as you hear,” said Colton. “We’re willing to wait a day, but there must be proof of funds.”
I was conscious of the passage of time that afternoon. The phone rang frequently and, each time, I thought my assistant, Dana, might say: “Mr. Ramos is on the line.” But she never did. At five o’clock, just after Dana departed and I prepared to leave, a young man stepped into my office dressed casually in jeans and a sweatshirt.
“Mr. Sanders?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “May I help you?”
“Victor Ramos,” he said, extending his hand.
Victor was dark skinned, with handsome features, not unlike Muhammed Ali. He appeared to be in his late-twenties. His smile was radiant, his teeth perfect.
“I appreciate you handling my house purchase,” he said, his accent vaguely Latin.
“And I appreciate that you’ve chosen me, or let Kathy choose me, or…” I tailed off.
“No problem,” he said.
We sat down at my desk, and I explained my concern about the lack of mortgage contingency and the seller’s request for proof of funds.
“Just give me your trust account wire information,” said Victor, “and I’ll send proof tomorrow.”
I provided a sheet of paper with bank instructions and also tried to explain some of the closing procedures, but Victor had little interest in the details.
“Don’t you want to review the costs?” I asked.
“Just get it done,” he said. “And make sure you take a good, generous fee for yourself.” He winked.
Most of my clients, no matter how wealthy, wanted to know about closing costs. I’d never had a client offer me carte blanche.
We stood up to say good-bye.
“I’ll call you tomorrow afternoon to make sure all’s good,” said Victor, as he left.
My office was on the second floor. After I heard the downstairs door close, I looked out the window to see Victor emerge and kiss a stunning woman waiting on the sidewalk next to a late-model Mercedes. I wasn’t sure whom I thought she resembled at the time, but picture Beyonce and Shakira combined.
“I’m representing Caribbean royalty,” I said to myself.
I arrived at my office at 9:15 the next morning. Dana looked frazzled.
“Angela at the bank’s called three times,” she said. “She has to talk to you.”
Such urgency was rare and usually meant a client had failed to sign a check or some similar minor catastrophe. No lawyer likes to hear that, and I dialed with trepidation.
When Angela picked up, I asked, “Is everything okay? Did someone leave my account short?”
“Quite the opposite,” said Angela. “You’ve received three wires already this morning, and I want to make sure they’re for something you know about.”
“Who from?” I asked.
“That’s the strange thing,” said Angela. “The sender information is blank. Anyway, you have $300,000 from Banco Popular in Puerto Rico, $250,000 from a bank in the Dominican Republic and $350,000 from Banco National de Colombia. Do you know about these?”
I paused for a second, my mind racing, then I thought of Victor.
“Yes, yes,” I said. “I have a new client who said he might send some funds as a deposit on a house.”
“You call $900,000 ‘some funds’?” said Angela, surprised.
“It’s a big house,” I said.
Angela called twice more that morning to report deposits from Trinidad and from Venezuela. In total, my trust account held $1,500,000 by lunchtime. I made a photocopy of the confirmations and sent them to the seller’s attorney with a note that read: “Here’s proof of deposit in my trust account from my client.”
In early afternoon, Victor called.
“You got the money?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “But you only had to send ten percent. The rest isn’t due until closing.”
“That’s okay,” he said. “You’ll get it all before the end of the week.”
“Are you going to inspect the house, or anything?” I asked, stunned.
“Nope,” he said. “I’m sure it’ll be fine. I’m not a complainer. See you at the closing.”
After I hung up I wondered about the situation. Is it unethical for a lawyer to receive funds? Not that I knew of. Is it wrong not to know a client’s source of money? Even if I did know, isn’t that protected under attorney-client privilege? Could I really have a transaction this large be so easy?
Over the next several days, wire transfers from various Caribbean countries filled my trust account with $5,000,000. On the day of the closing, Victor arrived with his “assistant” who he introduced as “Gloria.” Close up, she was more attractive than Shakira or Beyonce. She was Miss Universe attractive. I averted my eyes in embarrassment since I imagined Victor would have been less than delighted if he detected me staring, wide-eyed, at his girlfriend.
The closing finished in just minutes since there were no mortgage documents to sign. I charged Victor a normal legal fee despite his encouragement to charge more. After all, though the price was the highest I’d ever closed, the transaction was also among the easiest.
The next morning, first thing, Gloria burst into my office and thrust a paper bag into my hand.
“Victor wants you to have this,” she said. She blew me a kiss like Marilyn Monroe and left.
In the bag was a wad of fifty-dollar bills adding up to $3,000. Stunned, I wondered again if something was improper. Perhaps anxious to reach the conclusion, I quickly dismissed any concerns.
I never heard from Victor or Gloria again.
About a year after the closing, a banner headline in the local paper indicated the arrest of a Saddle River man for money laundering on behalf of the Cali cartel. My heart raced as I read about Victor Ramos’s (a/k/a/ Junior Campos, a/k/a Mauricio Perez) arrest, “amidst boxes of cash and an arsenal of automatic weapons.” I couldn’t believe it. The nicest client I’d ever had was an international fugitive.
During the next several months, I received phone calls from the FBI and the US Attorney. In each instance, they asked what my relationship to Victor was, if I’d known him before the house transaction, and if I had any knowledge of his source of funds. Each time, I answered truthfully and faxed copies of my trust account receipts. Relieved they never asked a question that would have made it relevant, I never mentioned my tip. I never heard from them again and, months later, a small article in the paper noted Victor’s conviction and sentencing to a thirty year term.
Several years later, the paper noted: “Saddle River money launderer found dead in cell.” The article explained that the inmate had died from a fall, cause unknown.
A recent driving trip reminded me of the foregoing true story. We’d randomly selected a John Grisham novel, “The Racketeer,” to listen to. In it, the narrator, sounding remarkably like the young me, tells the story of how he came to be in a federal jail cell. He’d represented a mobster who’d wired money into his trust account for a legitimate transaction. But an aggressive US Attorney, seizing a chance to make a big, political splash, indicted everyone who’d ever dealt with the mobster. In a Kafkaesque nightmare, the narrator found himself convicted and serving ten years.
I’m not given to expressing myself in the words of religion or the bible. But I must admit having driven for several hours with my mouth agape, my mind fixed on the phrase: “There but for the grace of God…”