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You may be thinking that Jerry Kapiloff is a deadbeat. Richard Gins would have you think again.

“Just because people are sued a lot doesn’t mean they’re deadbeats,” says Gins, a bankruptcy attorney who has represented nothing but debtors in the Washington area for the past two decades. “It could mean they’ve just had a lot of problems that they’ve never been able to get ahead of.”

Developer F. Bruce Corneal apparently is one of those unable to outrace his myriad difficulties: His name turns up 35 times as a defendant in D.C. Civil Court records; in some instances, the cases involved alleged debts. Developer Domenic Antonelli is also named in court filings, but the humiliation of bankruptcy and the psychic toll of overcharging just about everybody who parks downtown in his PMI lots apparently hasn’t dampened Antonelli’s good cheer: “Without question, the nicest, most gracious person I’ve ever served,” says “Maverick,” a process server.

Actually, even the Kapiloffs earn laudatory remarks from some hired to track them down. An employee of Metropolitan Process Service who recently served both Jerry and his mother

says it wasn’t hard to catch up with either of them. “It took awhile to get her because she’d moved a couple times,” he says, “but actually they were pretty nice.”

Kapiloff creditors are lucky he’s not a federal or District employee, both of which are exempt from wage attachments and garnishments. The reason has to do with the federal government’s having long ago declared itself immune to lawsuits (except when the Federal Tort Claims Act is involved), and this is the one aggravation that invariably sends creditors into a frenzy.

“It makes no sense!” cries collections attorney Martin Protas. “Two people go into Macy’s, charge a bunch of stuff, then don’t pay. One you can get a garnishment against, the other you can’t.” There’s been talk on Capitol Hill lately about legislation that would do away with the exemption, but so far it’s been only talk.

Moreover, Gins claims, it’s not the fault of the debtor that the laws tend to be in his favor. Congress passed the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act in 1977, he says, “because collections agents, who are nothing but boiler-room people with tele-

phones, drove people crazy calling your neighbors and relatives at all hours.”

Witness the Federal Trade Commission’s recent reprimand against Payco, the nation’s largest collections agency, for harassing debtors. Most creditors are willing to grant that the majority of people who don’t pay their bills aren’t trying to weasel out of them, particularly in a time when salaries are being slashed and people are being laid off. The trick is to know who has a genuine excuse for not settling accounts and who is exploiting the system—by filing motion after motion, demanding a jury trial (which buys them at least another six months in D.C.), dragging things out as long as possible—in order to wear you down and, ultimately, stiff you.

“Some people will tell you they just got laid off or something, and they’re being sincere about it,” says Cliff Wilpon, a collections attorney in Montgomery County. “Others know that these are the catchwords to get you to back off. You have to learn how to weed out the sincere ones from the ones that are just feeding you excuses. You have to know when to back off and when not to. You have to be firm and sensitive at the same time.”