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AL MARTINEZ

One Is a Lonely Number

July 13, 1993|AL MARTINEZ

The name of Wallace Albertson will not likely grace the history books when heroic acts of social defiance are remembered a thousand years from now.

She will not stand with those who have risked everything for causes that guarantee peace or great freedoms for dependent masses.

Nathan Hale she is not.

Yet, there is something to be said for a woman who stands alone in the name of principle and in the face of a financial colossus that is demanding her silence. The lonely fighter deserves mention here.

The reason: She refuses to sell her right of free speech for 1.4 cents on the dollar.

Albertson, 68, the widow of actor Jack Albertson, is a victim of the collapse of a junk bond-laden insurance company two years ago.

The company was Executive Life. Its 350,000 policyholders were facing the prospect of staggering losses at the time California Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi seized its remaining assets.

It was the largest seizure of an insurance company in the nation's history.

Like the sorry failure of savings and loan institutions years before, those hardest-hit by Executive Life's downfall were older people. Albertson was one.

A former community college district trustee, she had built her financial security around an annuity in the trust of Executive Life. Now she was watching her economic future go down in flames.

*

When Garamendi seized Executive Life and pledged to fight for its resurrection, he was everybody's hero. When a French consortium offered to buy the failed company under the name of Aurora National Life Assurance Co., happy days were here again.

Albertson helped organize a group called the Action Network for Victims of Executive Life, ANVEL. The idea was to get as much as they could of the money they had coming.

It wasn't an easy time for anyone. Adversarial positions were taken. Endless meetings followed, and they were often explosive. One offer died in court.

The French, however, persevered. They had bought Executive Life's $9-billion junk bond portfolio for the bargain price of $3.25 billion . . . and the market was edging up again. The wily French have already made a bundle.

But at last a revised rehabilitation plan was created and ended up in Los Angeles Superior Court. At stake was how much of their money policyholders would get back. That's still being decided.

Lawyers for a half-dozen or so groups argued on behalf of their clients, and the case threatened to continue ad infinitum . . . until the French, with Garamendi's blessings, came up with what they called Article 26, a "Special Settlement Amount."

Aurora would guarantee an additional 1.4% to those policyholders who would cease "all objections or challenges" to a modified agreement.

The message: Shut up and make money.

*

The French dangled their offer like food in the face of a starving man. In the end, ANVEL, whose members had objected to the provision, finally agreed to accept 1.4% as the price of silence.

Albertson did not.

She bristled at the gag provision, charged that Article 26 abridged her right of free speech and went on a campaign against it. "I just can't stomach it," she said.

She won the support of San Francisco Dist. Atty. Arlo Smith, who demanded that the provision be removed.

The ACLU, alerted by Albertson, wants to know how Garamendi could accept a provision that infringes on the First Amendment rights of its critics.

Astoundingly, Judge Kurt Lewin, who is hearing the case, sees nothing wrong with it. He refers to Article 26 as "an enticement, a bribe" and adds that it's "not a bad idea."

"You get it (extra money) for one reason," he said, "for keeping your mouth shut."

Garamendi's spokesman, Bill Schulz, called it a "bonus" from Aurora's private money. "It's like you had a contract dispute with a ballplayer and the team's owner offered him an extra $1 million if he'd shut up and settle. There's no abridgment. The extra money wasn't his in the first place."

Albertson vows to continue her fight, and I hope she does. The 1.4% be damned. At stake here is the principle she correctly perceives, that of the right to challenge, to demand answers, to be heard.

The victims of Executive Life's failure have every right to speak. It's their money, and their honor, at stake here, and to hell with the expediency of silence that would allow for a quicker conclusion.

Wallace Albertson may be a lonely warrior at the moment, but the principle she fights for is a mighty one: Free speech ought not to be for sale at any price.

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