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You get what you pay for

December 12, 2008|JOEL STEIN

This column may not meet the high levels of quality to which I have made you accustomed. That's because I haven't been getting paid.

News accounts of Tribune Co.'s bankruptcy filing on Monday detailed the $1 billion owed to JP- Morgan Chase and $737.5 million to Deutsche Bank, but the vast sums owed to Steinacopia Inc. were left out. These sums are so vast that my editors don't want me to mention just how much, for fear of making the other columnists jealous. I deeply suspect those other columnists are me.

But the vast amount -- let's just say there are four figures -- was payment for my last two columns, for which the L.A. Times had not yet sent me a check before entering Chapter 11. Apparently, those weren't columns; those were blogs.

But Steinacopia, as anyone who reads Companies With One Employee Created Solely for Tax Purposes Quarterly knows, can play rough right back. I called my accountant, Marty Fox, at Bernstein, Fox, Whitman, Goldman & Blaumbatt LLP, to ask how I can get in line ahead of JPMorgan Chase.

Fox explained that, unlike JPMorgan Chase, I'm not a "secured lender." So I'm automatically placed at the end of the payback line with the other vendors because I didn't ask for collateral when I gave Tribune my loan. I countered that the reason I didn't ask for collateral was that, unlike JPMorgan Chase, I had no idea I was giving a loan. This was clearly another example of the law bailing out big companies and their rich executives while ignoring a small company and its rich executive.

Brainstorming clever accounting solutions, I suggested going to the L.A. Times and stealing enough office equipment to make things even, though I doubt I could carry off enough 2003 Dell computers to be worth four figures. Fox strongly advised against this, calling it "grand theft." Why accountants allow some stuff and not others, I'll never understand.

Fox tried to cheer me up by saying that I would have the right to attend the creditors' meetings in Chicago with JPMorgan Chase, where I could annoy everyone by demanding my money over and over like the newspaper delivery kid in "Better Off Dead." I intend to explain, in graphic detail, how I wrote one of those two columns while suffering from food poisoning, and how a joke in another upset my therapist mother, which, as anyone with a therapist mother knows, cost me about $100 in overtime cellphone minutes. I also think, based on past performance, I can consume four figures worth of hot beverages and cookies at those meetings.

The most likely outcome, Fox told me, is that in two years, after lawyers' fees are deducted, I'll get a little less than 10% of what I'm owed; though Fitch Ratings' "D" rating on the unsecured debt implies that I won't see any of it. Fox tried to give me some perspective. The debt probably represents about 1% of the money Steinacopia has been paid by the L.A. Times over four years. "So big deal," he said. I hope Bernstein, Fox, Whitman, Goldman & Blaumbatt keeps that same attitude when Steinacopia doesn't pay them for the two weeks at the beginning of April.

Since things weren't looking hopeful, I decided to stop this boring pursuit of a bankrupt company and instead start the much more fun pursuit of its non-bankrupt, billionaire chairman and CEO. I started to think of Sam Zell as just another guy who owes me money. He'll have to duck me at bars. He'll avoid my phone calls. If I ever meet him, he'll look down and shuffle his feet and mumble something about his e-mail not working.

I immediately e-mailed Zell's office and offered to let him work off the debt. My first choice, I explained, would be to have him do stuff around my house, because I'm two years into a six-month renovation and no one is showing up anymore. But I also gave him the option of doing something that plays to his talents: accounting work. I bet he'd find a way to get Steinacopia's money in no time.

Sadly, Zell refused to talk to me about my offer. See you in Bankruptcy Court, buddy.


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