Rep. Elijah E. Cummings knows what it’s like to find yourself in a tough spot financially. He grew up with six siblings in a South Baltimore rowhouse. His dad was a South Carolina sharecropper, then a laborer. Money was tight.
“I know the desperation associated with a moment,” Cummings (D-Md.) said Thursday. “The idea that you have to pay your rent, and you don’t have a job and those urgent moments of life.”
That’s why, Cummings said, he was struck by a report in The Washington Post this week on an industry that buys lead-poisoning settlement payments from poor blacks for dimes on the dollar. Critics say the companies unfairly profit off people whose judgment may be compromised by lead poisoning.
So on Thursday, Cummings wrote a letter to Access Funding, a company that has done numerous settlement-purchase deals. He requested a meeting with chief executive Michael Borkowski and information that details how the company purchases structured-settlement payments in exchange for lump-sum payments.
“I want to get more information,” Cummings said, adding: “I want to dig deeper, and once I’ve found out what’s going on, then we need to look at the laws that are out there, both state and federal, and try to come up with some reforms to protect these folks.”
Borkowski, in a statement released Thursday evening, said he is “eager” to work with such policymakers as Cummings to “educate them as to the actual practices and regulations already in place. We are also supportive of and have proactively adopted various initiatives being discussed to update the current Maryland structured settlement transfer laws to be on par with other more stringent policies throughout the country.”
Cummings is the latest official to question how the settlement-purchasing industry operates in Maryland. On Wednesday, state lawmakers called for strengthened legislation, and Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh said his office plans to look into transactions involving structured settlements.
Traditional settlements are paid out in one lump sum. But structured settlements dispense money in regular payments that often stretch across decades in an effort to protect vulnerable recipients from immediately squandering their compensation.
Many companies compete to purchase the rights of structured-settlement payments in exchange for fast cash.
To industry advocates, these deals help get money to desperate people who need it now. But to critics, the industry profits from disability and poverty.
Cummings, who questions whether recipients really understand what’s happening, now counts himself among those critics. He’s requesting information that divulges how Access Funding “identifies and solicits structured-settlement recipients.”
He’s also asking for any documentation that might clarify what sort of counsel independent professional advisers give to settlement recipients before their deals go through.
The congressman said he wants to make sure people understand that while selling their settlements “may solve something for a moment . . . a year from now, when they spend all the money, they’ll get nothing else and they will be worse off.”