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Ex-Congressman Bentivolio files for bankruptcy

David Shepardson, Robert Snell and Chad Livengood
The Detroit News

Former U.S. Rep. Kerry Bentivolio — after struggling for months with severe financial troubles — filed for bankruptcy protection Monday, listing nearly $300,000 in debts and unpaid bills.

In his bankruptcy petition, Bentivolio listed $100 in cash and $200 in a savings account. The Milford Republican said he owes nearly $100,000 in mortgage payments, law firm Dickinson Wright almost $44,000 and nearly $1,800 in unpaid rent for his Washington, D.C., apartment.

The situation wasn't much different in December, when he recounted how he was preparing to head home with barely enough money to get back to Michigan. Although he made $174,000 a year in Congress, Bentivolio said he didn't have a credit card and was only able to spend what he had to his name.

The day Congress adjourned for the year, he rented a U-Haul to bring back some furniture he bought at Ikea — a dresser and a day bed — along with all of his suits. He tried to sell his furniture but didn't get any takers.

"Was it a blessing or a curse?" he asked rhetorically of his time in Washington. "It's been a great lesson. ... This has been a really wonderful experience."

In an interview off the House floor in December, Bentivolio told The Detroit News that he was facing severe financial troubles after an Oakland County judge ruled the one-term member of Congress had to pay $120,000 to his fired former campaign manager, Robert Dindoffer, and said he might have to file for bankruptcy.

"This is what happens when a regular guy gets an opportunity to come to Congress," he said.

Asked what he planned to do when he left Congress, Bentivolio said: "I plan to follow in the footsteps of Jesus: broke and homeless."

In 2012, Bentivolio became the "accidental congressman," as some called him, after then-Rep. Thad McCotter failed to submit enough valid signatures to qualify for the August 2012 primary. After a humiliated McCotter resigned, Bentivolio was the only Republican candidate on the primary ballot and went on to capture the seat in the November 2012 general election.

The 63-year-old former part-time reindeer farmer and school teacher criticized the conduct of his former campaign manager and questioned the bills and his loyalty. Dindoffer, a Grosse Pointe Park attorney, sued Bentivolio in March seeking damages for fees, expenses and a bonus he claimed Bentivolio owed him for managing his 2012 campaign.

Bentivolio declined to comment further Thursday.

Settlement offered

Bentivolio's bankruptcy lawyer, W. Kent Clarke, said Thursday that Bentivolio made an offer to settle the court judgment.

He said the one-time cash settlement for a "minimal amount" that would have covered the legal fees and some additional costs wasn't accepted by the deadline they had set, so Bentivolio filed for bankruptcy.

"We tried to resolve the matter," Clarke said, saying the consent judgment was "ill-advised because it was clear that (Bentiovolio) was not going to be able to pay the amount."

Clarke said he was working essentially for free for Bentivolio — having received $50 for 50 hours of work so far on Bentivolio's behalf.

In his lawsuit, Dindoffer said he was fired without reason in April 2013 and was paid only $16,000 for three months work. Dindoffer estimated he was still due more than $154,000, which included a bonus to be paid should Bentivolio be elected.

The judgment is against Bentivolio and two of his campaign committees, Kerry Bentivolio for U.S. Congress and Bentivolio for Congress. The judgment, which represents 1.5 times the amount due and owed to Dindoffer, resolves the last pending claim and closes the case, the judge said in his ruling.

Bentivolio's finances were stressed when Birmingham foreclosure attorney Dave Trott spent more than $2.4 million to win the August GOP primary. Bentivolio ended up raising about $747,000 for his unsuccessful primary fight and a quixotic write-in candidacy in the general election that netted him less than 1 percent of the vote.

Bentivolio said he sold his reindeer earlier in 2014 to pay bills and fund his campaign along with borrowing from his retirement fund. He said he has been "beat up" by establishment Republicans and the media.

Bentivolio's campaign accumulated $129,576 in debt, according to the Bentivolio campaign committee's filing on Dec. 31.

Bankruptcy unusual for lawmakers

It is less common than it used to be for former members of Congress to file for bankruptcy, said Kyle Kondik, who follows Congress for the University of Virginia Center for Politics. The net worth of Congress has grown over time, Kondik said.

The net worth of the 50 richest members of Congress ranges from $6.2 million to $294.2 million, according to Roll Call magazine.

Bentivolio's lackluster fundraising and campaign financial troubles began to surface in early 2014, causing one campaign manager, David Wolkinson, to quit three months before the primary with Trott.

"I'm sorry to hear about Congressman Bentivolio's financial difficulties, I wish him the best in dealing with these issues and I hope the creditors are able to recover as much money as possible," said Wolkinson, who quit as campaign manager in May.

Thomas Llewellyn, a tea party activist from Milford and close friend of Bentivolio's, said the former congressman was never given a chance to prove himself by the Republican Party's establishment.

"He's a certainly been up against a lot these past couple of years, being the target of a lot of vicious attacks," Llewellyn said. "He's a strong guy, and I know he's going to bounce back."

GOP establishment to blame?

But Kondik said the former congressman was viewed as a good soldier and reliable vote for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. He helped cast one of two deciding procedural votes in December that helped advance a $1 trillion spending bill and prompted national political writers to proclaim that "Bentivolio saved Christmas" from a budget stalemate and possible government shutdown.

Boehner and Cantor held fundraisers for Bentivolio's re-election campaign.

"Even though Bentivolio doesn't have as bad a relationship with the establishment as he thinks, because of his support from Boehner and Cantor, he's not a suave smooth insider," Kondik said.

Bentivolio's background in military service, construction, public school education, reindeer raising and Santa Claus acting does not suit him to follow the career path of other former members of Congress, he said. Former Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Howell, has gone into radio commentary, while ex-Rep. Dave Camp, R-Midland, is pursuing policy consulting.

"He's not someone you would expect to easily transition into the lobbying world, for instance," Kondik said. "He's not a career politician. He doesn't have the natural post career employment options that maybe your typical former member has."

Bentivolio's liabilities

Former Congressman listed $294,177.99 in liabilities when he filed for bankruptcy protection:

Secured claims

■CCO Mortgage $87,269.99

■Charter One (second mortgage) $11,558

■Congressional Federal Credit Union (lien) $10,400

Unsecured claims

■Dickinson Wright (legal advice) $43,950

■Shifman & Carlson (legal advice) $11,000

■Karen Bentivolio (loan) $10,000

■Robert Dindoffer $120,000

Source: Bentivolio's filing