Prior to yesterday, I’ve only had one experience dealing with court. I was the defendant in a lawsuit that was filed against me (and the newspaper I wrote for as a restaurant critic) over a review I wrote. To say it was not good, would be the understatement of the year. Both the experience in court and the review.
Yesterday morning, I received a call from a friend I haven’t heard from in quite some time. He had once owned a highly successful restaurant that, during the time of its existence had been the heart and soul of our town. It hopped at lunch, had a AAA certified bar that was perfect for deal making and served more incredible food than your dollar deserved to get at those prices. It was the restaurant that had the magic “it” factor. The person behind it was my friend the chef/owner.
A little over a year ago, his ownership came to an end.
Between the fact that I travel fairly frequently for long stretches at a time, kind of live a solitary, off-the-radar, somewhat nomadic/artistic life and I am not nosy about the personal troubles of others, I had no idea what had happened since the restaurant closed.
What I do know about my friend is the following:
AJ (no, that’s not his real name) is an exceptionally gifted, talented chef.
He ran a wonderful establishment and had as loyal a following as he did employees.
He never showed up at any Thanksgiving dinner where we were both invited because he would spend the day feeding the homeless instead.
He actively participated in and donated food and time to charitable fundraising events that benefitted causes from battered women and children, breast cancer and the local hospital to churches, the school system, the local historic landmarked theatre and the Humane Society. If people needed something, anything, AJ was the first to offer.
He never took home a paycheck from his restaurant. Some weeks, he would pawn whatever he could of his own meager personal belongings to make payroll. He always made payroll, even if it was by the skin of his teeth.
He owns no property, rents an apartment in a less than ideal part of town, has never even had a speeding ticket, let alone a brush with law enforcement of any kind, has driven the same vehicle for the past ten years, doesn’t party or do drugs. Every dime that came in went right back into the operation of the restaurant we all loved.
When he started to choke under the weight of credit card fees and was forced to pay his suppliers COD, he sometimes had to borrow money to buy product and, when he borrowed it from me, I was paid back within one week without question.
He was always discussing new ideas and concepts for dishes and this was often the topic of our conversations. He lives for being a chef and owning a restaurant had been his dream.
Under the weight of all the financial pressure, AJ never once showed his stress to his employees or the public. He was gracious, outgoing, friendly and engaging with everybody, including me. Always.
He never took a vacation and worried more about the health of his mother and his Godparents (and just about everyone else) than he ever did or does about himself.
He is a terrible businessman.
When AJ called, he told me he had gotten a job up north with a restaurant consortium and was hired as the chef of one of their flagship establishments. It was like a new lease on life for him and he said that by finally earning a steady paycheck, this would be able to afford him to pay the back taxes that were owed which I was now hearing the first about. He then informed me that he was having his sentencing hearing yesterday afternoon and asked me if I would be willing to come as a character witness.
Sentencing hearing? WTF?
“Of course,” I replied without thinking twice. “Let me know what time, where and if there is anything else I can do for you."
“I’m looking at nine months to a year on top of having to pay more than $100,000 in taxes.”
Insert state of shock here and planning-ahead speed dialing of my attorney.
Not that I wanted to know how things had spiraled out of such control to reach this point and not that I could change anything about those circumstances, but the thought of him facing prison time when now, for the first time in years, his gainful employment meant he could start to reimburse the state TODAY instead of after serving time seemed insane. I wanted to ask my attorney what to expect being a character witness. I'm not big on surprises.
There were nearly 20 of us that showed up in the courtroom. As shocked as we were to hear the dollar amount that was owed, nothing was more horrifying than the story of the company that “processes” the credit cards, waits 72 hours to pay, collects the processing fee and an ADDITIONAL 20% for their “services”.
One by one, we took our oaths and shared how we knew AJ and what he had done for us personally or we had witnessed him do for others. We are talking serious pillars of the community here that set aside the afternoon to speak on AJ’s behalf. Several were high profile attorneys. One, from the most famous law firm around, offered that for as often as he appears in court, he had never found himself more nervous than he was on this day. The woman with the big PR firm offered to throw a fundraiser at her expense to raise the money that is owed to the state. She added, it would be helpful if AJ remained free from prison so that he could cater the event.
There was one story after another about AJ's character, generosity and goodwill.
For nearly three hours, we watched AJ from behind, standing before the judge, seeing his shoulders shake as he wiped tears from him his eyes while each person spoke of his character. One man’s life in the hands of another is a humbling thing to witness.
When it was my turn to speak, I told the judge everything that I listed above. And then I added this:
“Here is a man who for the first time in years is earning an actual paycheck and has every intention of paying back the state and is willing to do so under whatever terms you decide. The failure of his restaurant has been punishment enough. To incarcerate him would mean that you would delay AJ’s ability to pay restitution beginning today . How can this make any sense?
He is not some charlatan CEO of a bank, commodities firm or a credit card company preying on an already devastated population and earning millions of dollars at their expense and getting away with it every single day. This is a man with a conscience and to put him in prison would be unconscionable. I beg for mercy and leniency in your sentencing.”
The judge listened to the state speak and then asked AJ some questions before he began to proffer his decision. The first five or ten minutes of his shared thought process did not sound promising. He brought up another local restaurateur who had faced similar charges (for far more money; we're talking nearly half a mil) who lived a lavish lifestyle and willfully ignored the state’s attempts to work with him. He is currently doing time.
The judge then turned a corner and reminded himself that every case is different, no matter what and that he would not be able to sleep with himself at night if he sent AJ to prison. He said, “Not a single bone in my body believes that you did this willfully or with the intent to commit crime. What you are guilty of is being a bad businessman.”
AJ was sentenced five and ten years (concurrent) probation, 360 hours of community service, fined the court fees and ordered to pay restitution over ten years, without interest. He was issued one other ruling. In the event that he decides to open any business or run a restaurant of his own during this period, he must have a court-approved accountant to handle the books and the taxes.
We breathed a collective sigh of stunned and grateful relief.
I walked into court yesterday as a character witness and instead, witnessed how judgments can be made that change your beliefs about the trials and tribulations of this complicated thing called life. I witnessed the character of a judge who earned my respect on all counts.
With apologies for the length.