Too Many Are Copping a Plea on the Corporates

Many of you don't know that I have a criminal record in Virginia. Probably ought not to mention it at all; but I hope by now the statute of limitations has run its course on my offense. I only bring this up at this time because my past indiscretion and subsequent conviction may provide a way out of "the corporate mess" for all of us.

The incident occurred about 10 years ago on a road trip from North Carolina to Washington, D.C., with my wife and three of our children — all early teens at the time. Actually, we were driving to D.C. to attend CUNA's Governmental Affairs Conference. So you know from experience it was February, cold and overcast-darkness comes early that time of year.

When driving with multiple children, it's usually wise to start late, feed early, and hope for the best. We had stopped at a DQ on I-85 at the Virginia state line as dusk fell. We thoroughly overwhelmed the drive-thru clerk, sorted out the ketchup, salt, and napkins, and then turned up the radio and headed north. A bit later, after an intense ketchup fight had been quelled, the car looked and smelled like a vandalized DQ franchise. We were practicing our family acappella to the Beach Boys tune Barbara Ann and things were really starting to roll. About the fourth round of Ba-Ba-Ba; Ba-Ba-Barba Ann, my wife, interrupted alarmingly with a "Slow down, you're going too fast!" I attempted to moderate my tempo of Ba-Ba-Ba's, but that was not exactly what she had in mind.

At that moment we crested a hill in the darkness and the blue light came on. The officer was a well-rounded, brown-shirted, county deputy. As I rolled down the window, he asked if I knew how fast I had been going. Before I could claim ignorance and try to explain the Ba-Ba-Ba distraction; my wife chirped in with a defense: "Officer, I had just told him to slow down!" I know what you're thinking; yes, we're still married.

"You were going 92 mph, sir." My embarrassment was not relieved by several voices from the back seat going: "Wow, 92 miles an hour! Did you hear that! 92 miles an hour! Wait until I tell..." Normally, I would have been arrested on the spot but the officer glanced at the "rather cool" expression on my wife's face and the three "bleeding" children (the ketchup fight!) in the back seat and decided a ticket and order to appear in court would be the best choice for the county. Things were, shall we say, rather quiet for the remainder of the drive.

The Genteel Are Less than Gentle

Back home, a week or so later, I "confidentially" called several credit union folks I knew in Virginia for advice and guidance. Most didn't even try to disguise their guffaws and hysterical amusement at my dilemma, but all, interestingly, recommended exactly the same local, country lawyer to represent me. By the way, Southern Virginia is still a very traditional society. A genteel aristocracy still exists who often conduct their lives in an "antebellum" fashion. The "bellum" in this case is either the Civil or Revolutionary bellum-depending on the length of your historical pedigree. There has always been some "social tension" between Virginians and North Carolinians. We've always suspected that the aristocratic Virginians viewed us as peasants; and Virginians have never bothered to deny our suspicions. North Carolinians, by nature, are egalitarians with a view toward a "classless society"-Virginians believe we have achieved that goal.

Called the attorney; he was pleasant and accepted my case. After he received a copy of my driving record in a large FedEx box; he became more circumspect. He didn't actually mention the possibility of hanging, but he was neither optimistic nor encouraging. He said a conviction at 92 mph meant a mandatory loss of driving privileges. We needed a plan, he said.

One County's Growth Industry

Won't bore you with the whole details of his plan, but it involved several driving courses, letters of personal reference, prayers, public penitence, and a delay until the regular judge went on vacation. My attorney had some hope that a "circuit riding" judge he knew might find more sympathy for a "special plea" from me. Eventually the circuit judge was scheduled to sit in November and I went to Virginia for "my day in court." Guess I should also mention that Southern Virginia is one of the poorest areas of the state; farming, textiles, furniture have long ago moved "off-shore." The principal crop in this county is now-you guessed it!- traffic tickets. The courthouse-you guessed it!-is new, large, and magnificent!

There must have been over 750 people in the courtroom that day. Crime wave? No, all were traffic violators, mostly with out-of-state accents! I met my attorney for the first time. He was distinguished, sophisticated, wore a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches, bow-tie, smoked a pipe. He reeked of polish and urbanity. I knew right away; I really was a peasant. He told me he had arranged for my case to be the very last case to be called on that day. We started at 8:30 a.m., and by a quarter to 12, justice had been served on 749 of the 750 cases. Convictions were nearly universal; fines and penalties were steep.

Only the judge, a recorder, my attorney and I remained in the cavernous courtroom. My attorney said that was part of his plan; he didn't want any witnesses. We approached the bench; the recorder recited the facts of my case. I was thinking it was going to be a long walk back to North Carolina.

The judge looked me up and down severely. He made one statement and asked three questions. "Mr. Blaine, the speed limit on I-85 is 65 mph and is posted on numerous signs up and down the highway. Are you from North Carolina?" Yes, your Honor. "Where did you go to college?" The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, your Honor. "Mr. Blaine, given your North Carolina background and inconclusive education I will make the assumption that you were speeding due to the fact that you could not read the speed limit signs. How do you plead to a charge of illiteracy, Mr. Blaine?" I hesitated; I didn't like my choices — negligence or ignorance. My attorney coughed loudly. "Well, Mr. Blaine, how do you plead?" I hesitated again; my attorney elbowed me sharply in the side. Guilty, your Honor. "You certainly are, Mr. Blaine, and it's now official. Court dismissed."

I wrote a check for the fine and court costs; signed with an "x" and headed home, slowly, for North Carolina.

OK, fine, but how does this help us with the "corporate problem?" Well, with all the controversy, name calling and finger-pointing going on over the corporate system debacle, I thought I might suggest that we all just "cop a plea." Credit union folks can continue to wallow in the "Who caused the corporate mess?" blame game, or we can just 'fess up and drive on. The "corporate violation" has happened; it cannot be undone. Perhaps it's time to consider a "Virginia solution."

I certainly couldn't read "the writing on the wall" about corporates, could you? Then, ma'am and sir, how do we plead? Ignorance or...

Jim Blaine is CEO of State Employees Credit Union in Raleigh, N.C.