A shocking “Discover”y, and related lessons

First, one apology (of two) to my readers. I have been aware of this for about a year. I originally sat on this for a while because the relevant lawsuit was pending. I continued to sit on it because I felt an appeal and/or a new trial was pending, which would have been another three months or so. I have little excuse for sitting on it after 2015 October 1. (This should have been posted no later than the end of 2015 September.) On one hand I don’t like posting stale news; on the other, the only thing worse than posting this late is not posting it at all.

(The second apology will be made in context.)

Rewind to the summer of 2012. Specifically, 2012 August 15. A good month and a half had transpired since my reply to whoever was behind “admin@wordcamphouston.com” with nothing but radio silence. I had received a reply to the third message I sent regarding the financial statement from WordCamp Houston 2010 and who received the scholarship (well, and also what became of the video that was shot of the breakout sessions, but that’s not what this is about). The reply I got merely stated “Thanks for your inquiry, please look for information to be announced regarding the scholarship later this year.” (Again, along with a reply about the status of the video, but I have covered that already.)

Fast forward to early 2015 (I unfortunately don’t have an exact date, but it was well before July). I’m punching some names of people into public records websites as part of an unrelated project, and seeing if I find anything I don’t yet know but should. I finish with the names I had originally planned to look up and move on to some other names. One of those names happens to be Monica Danna (now Danna-Garcia), former WordCamp Houston organizer. What comes up is shocking, in at least two ways, which I’ll get to shortly.

What I found was that Ms. Danna had been sued by Discover Bank for an unpaid credit card debt, in the amount of $12,758.21. The first shock is the amount of the lawsuit, and at first I figured this credit card debt had been run up over a period of about five years or so. When I attended the trial setting on 2015 July 7, I found out the card had only been issued sometime in 2010 (I didn’t take notes, but pretty sure it was in the first half of the year, before the WordCamp Houston 2010 event date), which was perhaps the bigger shock of the two.

One of my original reasons for attending the trial date was largely curiosity on seeing how well the defense presented by Ms. Danna’s attorney, Robert Hinsley, would hold up. Also, I have not really observed that many court trials in real life (really, none of substance from start to finish save the one time I was actually picked for a jury).

As originally stated, I had originally intended to post immediately after the trial date, though that changed once the “trial” had taken place. Counselor Hinsley didn’t make it to the trial due to a medical emergency. (Whether that would have changed the outcome is a matter of debate.) Given that Discover had flown in a witness from Delaware the judge went ahead and allowed the witness’s testimony to be entered on the record so a default judgment could be issued. (Civil cases are decided by a preponderance of the evidence, and a preponderance means there has to be something there for the plaintiff to win.) That was on 2015 July 7. No developments occurred as of the last time I checked; the motions (to set aside the verdict and for a new trial) appear to have been denied and I can’t find any appeals, so it would appear to yours truly, technically a layperson but with a bit higher than average knowledge of law, that this case is a done deal.

With that said, let’s rewind a bit. Before I get into this, I have absolutely nothing to show that there was a plot to steal the WordCamp Houston 2010 proceeds in full, by any of the organizers. I wish I had the proverbial “smoking gun” (smoking credit card?) to show that was the case. But I don’t.

The proceeds from WordCamp Houston 2010 totaled $2,790.30. Take the balance at the time of the lawsuit, $12,758.21. Doing a web search for ‘Discover card minimum payment’ finds a typical minimum payment is the greater of $40 or 2% of the balance.

The responsible thing to do, when trusted by the community to handle money properly in such a situation, is full disclosure and full transparency from start to finish. To this day I have no clue whether or not the money was commingled with personal funds of one or more of the organizers (which it most certainly should not have been), or separated into another account as it should have been. A simple “hey, we still need to find a recipient for the scholarship,we didn’t get any nominees in August” would have helped. Even if a year of searching had been fruitless, how about “hey, the money is still safe and in a separate account, here is the (partially redacted) bank statement” or something like that?

And here’s where some of the lessons to be learned come in. First, my failure. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: stupid me, I trusted Ms. Danna, Mr. Valdez, Ms. Laird, and Mr. Everson to do the right thing, and keep the word given by Ms. Danna on the video-recorded introduction to the keynote speech in 2010. So much so, that my first message merely asked for the financial statement and what happened to the video. I decided to think like the rest of the community, and trust that the right thing had already been done. The moral of the story, again, is be careful who you trust and never assume someone will do the right thing, even if their history is impeccable. I still regret not jumping on this sooner. I hold myself to high standards, and my lack of pursuit of transparency of the financial end of WordCamp Houston 2010 until quite some time had passed is, to say the least, a departure from those standards. I am grateful the money did eventually find its way to a deserving college student. That doesn’t change the fact I still feel it’s completely unacceptable for it to have taken over two years.

Second, it should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: if you default on a credit card owing enough money, you will get sued! At the very least, even if you are not sued, your credit report and credit score will take a hit, and you may find your borrowing ability suffering for years. So, with that in mind, don’t borrow money you cannot afford to pay back. Realistically wouldn’t expect to get sued for a credit card debt under about $1,000, but as the amount goes up, the odds go up considerably; for a default on $10,000 or higher, I’d call a lawsuit a certainty.

Now, I will admit I haven’t been perfect here; without giving away too many details, what’s on my credit report currently is close to average, but as recently as 5 to 6 years ago, it was an entirely different story. I’ve never been in a position where I was likely to get sued, though, nor have I had to file bankruptcy. Neither are a good time from what I have heard and observed.

To those of you getting your first credit cards, here is my advice (based on both my mistakes and those of others): Use as little credit as you possibly can. Ideally, pay your cards in full every month and carry a balance only if you have absolutely no other choice. Pay on time, every time, with good funds. Late payment and returned payment fees are expensive, especially on top of a 20%+ APR. Annual fees can also get expensive; shop around every few months, and replace cards charging outrageous annual fees with ones that don’t. I’ll break this down into further detail in a post later in February, but these are the most important points for now.

This may seem like a very tardy post, and some may consider it to be beating the proverbial greasy spot where the dead horse used to be. I disagree. Learning of the lawsuit, and reading (and later re-reading) all the documents in the case file, gave me a newfound appreciation for just how lucky we were and are as a community. I am certain now that had I not spoken up when I did, my failure to do so would have haunted me for years.

Yes, this still angers me even though the actual scholarship award was three years ago. You can use whatever comparison you want, say it may as well be 10, 20, 30 years ago, a century ago, in some year BCE, the jurassic era… whatever. It really doesn’t matter to me, this may as well have been last week or even yesterday. I believe strongly in the saying of George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (More often said as “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it” and similar forms, but the sentiment is the same.)

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