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The Saga of Karen Brown

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By Tom Ferrick Jr.

Karen Brown has a compelling story to tell to voters about her life and times.

It is a tale of a girl from South Philadelphia who overcame a large doses of adversity over her 51 years -- three marriages, three children, serious illnesses, a terrible auto accident, a blood feud with a powerful political clan -- that culminated in her selection this year to be the Republican candidate for mayor.

It is melodramatic story, the stuff of a television miniseries.

"Life happens," Brown said, in explaining events in her life. "My story is not unlike any other in this economy.  People do the best they can in getting out of it. That is why I understand what they are going through."

In another way, Brown's tale is a simple one that can be told in numbers -- most of them with minus signs -- of mortgage foreclosures, taxes owed, gas bills unpaid, of bankruptcy and financial distress.

Karen Brown 4.jpgI stumbled on the second story first while checking public databases on all candidates in the May 17th primary election.  Brown, a life-long Democrat and political activist who only recently turned Republican, is the candidate hand-picked by local GOP leaders to face Michael Nutter for re-election.  She has an opponent in the primary -- John Featherman -- but the party endorsement makes her the favorite.

Put Brown's name and address in the civil courts database and the screen flashes with numerous listings of her name and the name of her husband, Lee Buchanan. They include:

-- Multiple mortgage foreclosures on their two-story rowhouse on Sigel Street in South Philly, not far from Sts. Maria Goretti-John Neumann Catholic High School. There is another foreclosure action listed against an investment property they own on Sigel Street a few doors down from their home.

-- A number of tax liens placed on one property or another by the city of Philadelphia for delinquent property taxes. Most were paid off, but there is one that is current for real estate taxes owed on the Sigel Street investment property -- $1,862.25 in back taxes for 2010 and this year.

-- Five judgments filed by the city on behalf of the Philadelphia Gas Works seeking payment of past-due cases bills.  The first was filed in 2004. They total $4,211.

In addition, a search of other databases showed that Brown and Buchanan have spent most of the last decade in bankruptcy, with multiple filings, between 2001 and 2007.

The sheer volume of legal actions, debt and bankruptcy filings surprised me. Neither Brown nor her husband are high-finance types.  She is a retired Catholic school teacher.  He works for Local 234 of the Transport Workers Union, which represents SEPTA employees.

It's unusual for people of modest means to have piled up so much debt.

I talked to Brown about these numbers in a telephone interview last week.  While I typed, she ironed a suit she planned to wear to a campaign event that morning.

Brown's story is this.

She said her family's financial problems began in mid-decade when her husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor.  The tumor ("it was the size of a grapefruit.")  was successfully removed but he was unable to work. His recovery was "very expensive and involved doing physical therapy."

Earlier, the couple had purchased five properties as investments. From the look of the foreclosure notices, they used the equity in their Sigel Street home to raise some of the capital needed.  They fell behind in payments. The banks moved to foreclose.  They filed bankruptcy to forestall those actions. (Brown said they did not have multiple bankruptcies, as the records indicate, but that the first action they filed was done incorrectly by their attorney. They had to withdraw it and, after going to a bankruptcy attorney, filed a correct one.)

During that time, Brown left teaching and got a job in the Philadelphia courts.  Later, she shifted to a patronage position at the City Commissioners office, which oversees elections.  She said she worked there part time for 4 1/2 years and fulltime four years -- until she was fired in 2009.

Brown said she was dismissed because she tangled with Rene Tartaglione, the chief deputy and daughter of Marge Tartaglione, the chair of the commissioners and Democratic leader of the 62nd Ward.

Rene Tartaglione quit her job late last year after the city's Ethics Board discovered she had engaged in a partisan election activity when she should have been serving as a neutral elections official. Brown implied that said she helped bring Tartaglione down, testifying in a closed session before Ethics Board investigators.

Her refusal to "do the wrong thing," as she put it, led her to be "banished" from City Hall to the Election Bureau offices on Spring Garden Street and Columbus Boulevard.

There, she injured herself, falling off a stool and hurting her back and leg.  She took a medical leave but she said that Rene denied her workers compensation and fired her in 2009.   Brown said she has a workers comp suit and an anti-discrimination suit pending against the City Commissioners.

On top of that, Brown said, she was injured in an auto accident in early 2008, when a tow truck slammed into a cab she was exiting it near her home.  Recently, she settled a suit involving that accident and received a $50,000 payment, one of the few plus numbers on Brown's civil docket ledger.

Her injury and her firing created more financial distress.  The settlement of the accident suit brought some relief and she described her current financial situation as "stable but struggling." As to the real estate taxes owed, she said: "We are working on an arrangement on that."
"I am not a deadbeat," Brown said. "Until my husband got sick, I had financial woes but I paid my bills.  Unfortunately, tragedy happens."

The latest sign of her financial stress: PGW filed a judgment in court April 20

seeking payment of $374.02 that is past due.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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