The Buzz

Court issues order to garnish Emanuel Cleaver’s congressional wages in car wash case

Bank of America has reached a settlement agreement with Rep. Emanuel Cleaver and his company in a dispute over $1.6 million in delinquent loans he obtained to buy this Grandview car wash.
Bank of America has reached a settlement agreement with Rep. Emanuel Cleaver and his company in a dispute over $1.6 million in delinquent loans he obtained to buy this Grandview car wash.

U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver’s struggle to pay off a loan for a car wash business hasn’t gone away.

On Tuesday, the Jackson County court clerk issued a wage garnishment order against Cleaver’s employer — the U.S. House — on behalf of Bank of America. The order instructs the House to withhold part of Cleaver’s salary to help repay more than $1.3 million he and his wife now owe the bank.

It’s the second time the bank has asked the court to garnish Cleaver’s wages for the debt, first incurred more than a decade ago. The bank’s first garnishment was processed in July.

Garnishment is a relatively common practice in debt cases, experts say. In a garnishment, a creditor asks a court to collect money from a third party to satisfy claims against a debtor.

“A garnishment is one of several devices available to a party that has a judgment, to collect that judgment,” said Kansas City lawyer F. Coulter deVries.

But garnishing the wages of a sitting congressman appears to be rare.

In 2012, part of the congressional wages of then-congressman Joe Walsh were withheld to satisfy claims of back child support, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. The newspaper also quoted a House spokesman as saying child support payments had been withheld “over the years” from other members’ checks, but no specifics were provided.

It’s not publicly known how often congressional wages have been garnished for a loan debt.

Payroll services for House members are provided by the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer. A spokeswoman for the office declined to comment on the garnishment of Cleaver’s wages or the general history of garnishments in the House.

The press office of the House Committee on Administration also declined to comment.

Cleaver’s office issued a statement: “As the congressman and Mrs. Cleaver have repeatedly said, for almost two years now, they are working with Bank of America to meet their financial obligations, in a broad spectrum of ways, and that hasn’t changed.”

Cleaver, a Democrat, is a candidate for re-election to Missouri’s 5th District House seat this year.

He earns $174,000 a year as a congressman. In his last financial disclosure, Cleaver also claimed annual income of $21,976 from a pension agreement with the city of Kansas City and $9,664 from the Missouri Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

The disclosure covers 2012, so it doesn’t include Cleaver’s debt related to the car wash. His net worth that year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, was between $348,012 and $1,019,999.

A spokesman for Bank of America also declined to comment on the garnishment request, as did the bank’s Kansas City lawyer.

Tuesday’s orders also involved the employer of Dianne Cleaver, the congressman’s spouse. She is also considered liable for the $1.3 million debt. She works for Urban Neighborhood Initiative Inc.

The amount of money potentially withheld from Cleaver’s House paycheck to satisfy the garnishment isn’t clear. In general, federal law limits the amount that can be garnished to 25 percent of a debtor’s net wages or salary.

The court file shows the House Office of Members’ Services sent a check of $834.41 to the Jackson County clerk in late December, along with a letter asking that the funds be credited to Cleaver’s account in connection with the debt.

That amount was sent to the Bank of America’s attorney Jan. 10, court records show. A second payment, for $811.80, was posted Feb. 11.

It’s highly unlikely garnished wages alone would ever satisfy the Cleavers’ debt to the Bank of America. On Tuesday, court papers show, Emanuel and Dianne Cleaver owed the bank $1,320,275.

The debt is the result of a loan the two obtained in 2002 to buy a car wash in Grandview. The car wash business, which performed poorly, was sold last year and the proceeds used to retire part of the Cleavers’ obligation.

But the sale fell far short of covering the entire amount of the Cleavers’ debt. Last April, the congressman and his wife settled a longstanding lawsuit with the Bank of America over the remaining balance of the loan.

In that agreement, the Cleavers admitted they owed the bank more than $1.2 million. Interest costs continue to accrue on that debt.

Roughly 75 percent of the loan is guaranteed by the Small Business Administration. That federal agency may be responsible for part of the debt if the Cleavers, or their company, default.

Experts said the garnishment requests might be part of the ongoing process to recover money from the Cleavers before turning to the SBA for funds.