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Out of Their League

The Real Story of How a Group of Cambodian Buddhists in Uptown Lost Their Garden.

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For the past several weeks the Cambodians of Uptown have been telling anyone who will listen the sad tale of how the county snatched away their land and sold it to someone else. Observers say it's a classic case of trusting, easily intimidated newcomers getting victimized by a complicated system. "This case is like the layers of an onion--it gets stinkier and stinkier as you peel it away, and after a while it just makes you cry," says Mike Quigley, a Cook County board commissioner from the north lakefront. "The Cambodians got screwed--man, did they get screwed. They survived Pol Pot, and then they didn't survive us."

Most of the people at the heart of this story came to Chicago in the early 1980s as refugees fleeing the horrors of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime. Like Kompha Seth, many of them worked at low-paying factory jobs and took English classes at night. "I myself was very fortunate to get out of Cambodia before the killing fields, but my wife survived the killing fields," says Seth, now the executive director of the Cambodian Association of Illinois, a not-for-profit social-service group. "We are people who have endured a lot of suffering. It's a miracle that we have survived."

By the mid-80s about 2,000 Cambodians had come to Chicago, most of them settling in and around Uptown and Edgewater. By 1985 the new Cambodian Buddhist Association had scraped together enough money to buy a house owned by Robert Ruhloff at 1258 W. Argyle, which they converted into a temple. "We collected donations from our members to buy this property," says Savat Khem, a founding member of the temple. "We did it with donations of $10, $20, $30 each."

The house sat next to a vacant lot that was also owned by Ruhloff, and as part of the deal he sold the Buddhists a 20-foot strip of the lot that ran alongside the house. They turned the strip into a garden. "It's very important to have a garden for meditation and quiet prayer," says Dary Mien, a member of the temple. "Our community had many broken families and missing children from the killing fields. Part of dealing with the post-traumatic experience is through meditation that heals the wounds."

Over the years the garden of vegetables, fruits, and flowers was tended by temple elders, who spent hours each week weeding, planting, and harvesting. Occasionally someone would complain about the early-morning gong-banging ceremonies, but by and large, the Cambodians got along well with their neighbors. "They're good people," says Roberta Stadler, who lives on the same block and is president of the Argyle-Magnolia-Glenwood Block Club. "Their garden was lovely."

The Cambodians tended to keep to themselves and not get involved in local politics. But they were savvy enough to ask the county for a property-tax exemption on the grounds that their temple was a place of worship. They followed proper procedure, doing a search of the tax records and discovering that their property identification number ended in 046. They requested an exemption for PIN 046. In 1991 the county granted them that exemption, and they stopped paying property taxes. "The exemption covered the temple and the garden," says Saingchou Sith, then president of the temple.

Or so they thought. What they didn't know is that before the sale Ruhloff had filed a petition with the county to have the 20-foot strip categorized as a distinct piece of property, which allowed him to sell it separately, and in 1986 the county approved his request, even though he no longer owned the land. The garden was given a separate PIN, 064. "The county never told us they did that," says Sith. "We never received a notice."

In fact, the county sent them very few notices about their property. That's because the Cook County treasurer's office, which distributes tax bills and other tax-related stuff, mails such information, as a matter of policy, to the last taxpayer of record instead of to the property's deed holder. And the last taxpayer of record for 1258 W. Argyle was Ruhloff. So instead of mailing relevant tax notices to the Cambodians, county officials mailed them to Ruhloff. Eventually they started mailing them to a fellow named Daniel Herman. "Herman had nothing to do with Argyle, but he had bought another building from Ruhloff," says Seth. "So because Herman lived where Ruhloff used to live, the county sent him the bills for Argyle Street--even though Herman never lived on Argyle. Isn't that confusing?" For about a year Herman paid the bills, until he realized that the county was mistakenly billing him for property he'd never owned.

"We always bill the taxpayer of last record," says a spokesman for the treasurer's office. "They were not treated different than anyone else." Maybe not. But the Cambodians were more dependent on accurate information from the county because they were operating on the assumption that the 20-foot garden was part of PIN 046 and therefore tax-exempt. Meanwhile the county was taxing PIN 064, and from 1991 until 1997 the taxes on it went unpaid, racking up a delinquent bill of $3,479.51.

In 1997 the county placed the tax-delinquent property in a scavenger sale, and on August 12 it was bought by a north-side resident named Andres Schcolnik. "We didn't know anything about this," says Sith. "We didn't know it wasn't part of PIN 046. We didn't know we owed taxes. We didn't know it was sold at a scavenger sale. We didn't even know that Mr. Schcolnik bought it." (Schcolnik didn't return phone calls for comment.)

On December 1, 1997, the temple received a form letter from Aurelia Pucinski, then clerk of the circuit court of Cook County, notifying them that the property "has been sold for delinquent taxes." Oddly enough, for 12 years county officials hadn't been sending information to the real owner of the property, though once it was sold they knew exactly where to send a notice. The notice explained that, as with all delinquency sales, there was a period during which they could "redeem" their property--get it back by paying the taxes they owed.

But Sith and Seth and the other temple leaders were confused. They didn't understand why the county was holding them responsible for paying taxes on property that was tax-exempt. "There was also a language barrier," says Seth. "We were new to English. The letter was confusing and mysterious."

Sith says he showed the letter to a woman he remembers only as Elaine, who once worked with him at the Asian Human Services Office. He thinks she was a lawyer, though he's not sure. "She is no expert in these things," he says, "but she was very nice, and she took the time to read the letter. She also felt that the county had made a mistake. Remember, we did not know that the garden had been turned into a separate lot." They concluded that some county official had mistakenly transposed numbers, turning PIN 046 into PIN 064, and so they were being taxed for a lot they'd never owned.

Hoping to clear up the confusion, Elaine drafted a letter that Sith signed and sent to Pucinski on December 16. "This letter is to advise you of a Take Notice regarding Permanent Index #14-08-311-064, which was erroneously sent to me," Sith wrote. "The Cambodian Buddhist Association owns a tax exempt property, and its Permanent Index # is 14-08-311-046." Sith noted that his "advocate" (Elaine) called the Cook County assessor's office and "spoke to 'Rita,' who researched the files and found that our organization...is not in arrears and currently has tax exempt status. It appears that my organization erroneously received the Take Notice because the last two digits of the Permanent Index #'s were transposed and because of the proximity of the two properties. The Cambodian Buddhist Association is located at 1258 W. Argyle Street. The property that appears subject to the take notice is an empty lot, and is located at 1256 W. Argyle." He included his phone number and urged Pucinski to call "should you have any questions."

Neither Pucinski nor anyone else from the county called or contacted Sith. So the temple leaders figured the matter had been resolved. "What other explanation could there be?" says Seth. "We wrote the letter. They did not respond. It's over. Right?"

Wrong. Eight months later their property was the subject of a hearing in the chambers of Judge James Henry. The Cambodians weren't at that meeting, but Schcolnik's lawyer, Michael Wilson, was. He asked the judge to officially turn the deed for the garden over to his client.

Not so fast, Judge Henry responded. And from his file he pulled the letter Sith had sent to Pucinski. "It appears from the letter sent by the Association to the Clerk of the Court that they are, at best, operating under some misapprehension," said the judge, according to the transcript. "They don't seem to beelieve they own this property."

In other words, says county board commissioner Mike Quigley, "the judge understood--he got it. He understood that the tax-delinquent lot could not be transferred to Schcolnik so long as the Cambodians were operating under the assumption that it was not the lot they owned."

The judge then ordered Wilson to send a certified letter to the Cambodians advising them that there might be a misunderstanding: "It is incumbent upon you to show you have contacted them and explained the situation to them and you have proved up the case and are seeking a deed." Later he added, "I am not saying you are not entitled to a deed, but I am not going to issue one until they at least realize they have lost their property--and perhaps there are some defenses they may have. I don't know."

The judge then got very specific. He would not assign title of the property to Schcolnik until he heard from the Cambodians. "If they show up and they have some position to take I will hear it," he said. "If they fail to show up pursuant to your notice by certified mail, return receipt requested, and you have proof that you served them, I will issue a tax deed to the subject property....There may have been a mistake made--not from your end, but apparently from their end. I will hear what they have to say or, at least, give them an opportunity."

The certified letter arrived, and Sith showed it to an associate at work, a lawyer named Michael Elliott, who volunteered to look into the matter. He went to court, talked to Wilson, and asked the judge for a continuance. Later, after talking to another lawyer, he concluded that the Cambodians' legal position was weak--because there was no guarantee that Judge Henry would let them keep the title to the property or, if he did, that Schcolnik wouldn't appeal. "I felt that he could have gone to the court of appeals and won," he says. "Then where would we be? Imagine all the legal fees for the Cambodians!"

Elliott decided it was better to agree to transfer the land to Schcolnik and then buy it back from him using money from the county's indemnity fund, which gives money to people who couldn't pay their taxes--usually because they were in dire straits--and therefore lost their property. "I thought we had a dead-bang winner there," he says.

Sith says Elliott told him his options. "He said that the county said we had lost our land, and there were two ways to get it back. We could sue the county for mixing up the PINs, or we could get money from the county's indemnity fund and buy back the land from Schcolnik. We decided not to sue. We decided to go with the indemnity fund." He says the temple leaders didn't really understand the implications of that choice, though they knew applying for the indemnity funds would be a long process.

Sith had Elliott contact Schcolnik. According to Sith, Schcolnik told Elliott he'd already received a $34,000 offer for the garden lot, but he said he was willing to be reasonable, given how much the garden meant to the Cambodians. "Instead of taking that offer, Schcolnik said he would sell us the land for the same price," says Sith. "We told him that we didn't have that much money, so we would have to wait to see if we could get it from the indemnity fund. So we agreed to pay a down payment on the land and pay the property taxes while we waited for the indemnity fund."

On November 18, 1998, Sith wrote a check to Schcolnik and Wilson for $4,060. "It was for the down payment and property taxes," says Sith.

In the meantime Sith and Seth decided they needed to get expert advice before they applied to the indemnity fund. "Someone told us we should go see our alderman," says Seth. "After all, the alderman knows how these things operate."

So they went to the office of 48th Ward alderman Mary Ann Smith. "Alderman Smith was not in," says Sith. "Instead we met with her chief of staff, Greg Harris. We told him what had happened. He said, 'In this country, nothing is free. Hire a lawyer.'"

Sith says Harris recommended Camillo Volini. Volini, who died last year, happened to be the husband of Marion Volini, one of Alderman Smith's closest political allies and a previous alderman of the 48th Ward. He's also father of Michael Volini, the ward's Democratic committeeman. On this point there's disagreement between Sith and Seth and Harris. The temple leaders say the only lawyer Harris recommended was Volini. Harris says he gave them "two or three names of lawyers."

Whatever the case, Sith and Seth chose Volini. "Mr. Harris even called Volini to make an appointment for us," says Sith. "After talking to Volini, we hired him to represent us."

That upset Elliott, who'd found them a lawyer whose specialty was indemnity law, but he turned over his files to Volini. He says he was surprised that Volini never called him about the case. "Here you are in esoteric terms of law, and you don't know what's going on," he says. "I figured he'd call--that's the way lawyers do it."

On March 28, 1999, the Cambodian Buddhist Association gave Volini $1,000. Volini used some of that money to pay the most recent property taxes. On May 25 Volini formally applied to the indemnity fund on behalf of the Cambodian Buddhist Association.

On November 28, 1999, the Cambodians wrote Volini another $1,000 check. "Mr. Volini paid the property taxes while we waited for the indemnity fund," says Seth.

Then on October 28, 2000, Volini withdrew the association's request for financial assistance from the indemnity fund. "Why did he pull the request? We don't know," says Sith. "He didn't tell us he was going to pull it. We didn't ask him to do that. It is a mystery."

But when Volini withdrew the application, the Cambodians violated the terms of their agreement with Schcolnik, whether they realized it or not. And Schcolnik was free to sell the land to someone else.

In the spring of 2001 he did just that, selling it to Tom Stevens, a well-connected local developer; he and his brother Matthew Stevens already owned the vacant lot next to it and an adjoining three-flat. According to Harris, Stevens paid $70,000 for the garden strip. "We didn't know Schcolnik sold the land to Stevens," says Sith.

As far as the Cambodians were concerned, nothing had changed, and the elders continued to tend the garden. Then on September 12 a work crew came and plowed over the garden with a bulldozer. "It was horrible," says Savat Khem. "They tore down the fence we had there. One of our elders was gardening. She had a flower in her hand. She told them to stop, but the bulldozer almost ran her over."

To the temple members, the timing of the garden's destruction couldn't have been worse. September 12, the day after the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had been attacked, was a day of national mourning. "Of all the days to destroy a tranquillity garden," says Dary Mien. "It's very sad, very disturbing. We were heartbroken, particularly the elders."

It's not clear why Stevens had the garden destroyed. He still hasn't announced any building plans for the land. "It's only 20 feet wide--there's not much you can build there," says county board commissioner Quigley. "I don't know why he did it. Maybe to stake his claim. Who knows?"

As a tactic the bulldozing may have backfired, because it drew attention to the matter. Within a few weeks, community activists and politicians were rallying to the Cambodians' cause. The Organization of the NorthEast, a prominent community group, assigned an organizer, Mehrdad Azemun, to help the temple gather information. Roberta Stadler, leader of the local block club, also joined the effort and started digging through county files. Eventually she, Azemun, and others pieced together much of what had happened.

The Cambodians saw themselves as the victims of bureaucratic incompetence and negligence. It wasn't their fault that the county hadn't notified them that the garden had a new PIN. It wasn't their fault that no one in the county had taken the time to investigate the matter and set the record straight. "This is just a horrible breakdown that victimized innocent people," says Melba Rodriguez, ONE's president.

ONE advised the Cambodians that it was best to adopt a new strategy. Instead of quietly and passively depending on the kindness of lawyers and other experts, they should rattle the cage. On December 7 the Cambodians held a press conference on Argyle Street at which several monks spoke. The Tribune ran a story, and several TV stations put it on the ten o'clock news.

Quigley learned of the matter through ONE. Someone contacted the corporate law firm of Katten Muchin Zavis; one of its attorneys, Thomas Sweeney, volunteered to take the case pro bono. "We started digging, we started making calls," says Quigley. "What's pretty sad is that Schcolnik wanted to sell them the land for $34,000 that they could have retrieved for, what?--$3,400 in back taxes. And they were paying taxes on property they didn't even own in an effort to get it back. That's really sad."

Alderman Smith has come under criticism from some of the Cambodians and their supporters for not being more vigilant. Yet she and her chief of staff, Harris, say they did all they could. "I love the Cambodians," says Smith. "I hold them in high regard--they really are God's people. But they didn't always act in their best interests. They are God's people who don't listen to their lawyers, and when they are told to follow through on something, sometimes they do and sometimes they don't. That's the heartbreak. There were a number of times when they could have intervened. But I don't blame Camillo [Volini]. You can't blame him. I never talked to him about his case, but he was a very good lawyer. I don't think they could have found a better lawyer."

Smith says she'll push for county funding to help the Cambodians buy back their property from Stevens. But it won't be cheap. According to Harris, Stevens is now looking to sell the old garden, the adjoining vacant lot, and the three-flat as a package. "The last I talked to him about it, he was talking about $900,000 for all the land together," says Harris. "I don't know if the Cambodians can get that kind of money." (Smith and Harris say they called Stevens, whose phone number is unlisted, and asked him to contact me to comment for this article, but he didn't call.)

Many observers believe that the Cambodians were doomed by the negligence and indifference of county officials and by a lawyer who inexplicably withdrew their request for help from the county's indemnity fund. "I suppose the Cambodians were too passive," says Stadler. "When they told me what happened I told them it was their job to stay on top of their lawyers. They told me they didn't know what Volini was doing. I told them, it's your job to know what he's doing. You don't let time lapse without knowing what your lawyer is doing. I wish they had been more aggressive. I wish they had stayed on the case. But having said that, where were the people in the system who were supposed to protect them? What did Alderman Smith do for them? Nothing. Just sent them to Volini. What did the county do? Just dropped their letter in a file. Where was the follow-up? Why didn't the county send someone out to investigate? How could they just let these people lose their land?"

Stadler says their story shows, once again, that the system works best for those who know how to work the system. "It's scary," she says. "You can lose your property--it can be taken away even though you did nothing wrong."

The leaders of the temple say they've learned a lesson. "We were too trusting," says Mien. "We didn't know anything about the law. We are refugees and immigrants. There was a language barrier. When it comes to taxes and paperwork we always look to people who know. In that sense we are too trusting. We always believe that other people will keep to their word and will act honorably. I think we learned it's not always that way in Chicago."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Dary Mien.

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