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The Cadillac Controversy

Two years after attorney Frank Longo skipped out on the bill for restoring his classic car, the garage owner still hasn’t been paid

Frank Longo’s expertly restored 1972 Cadillac Eldorado convertible is a thing of beauty, a regular at classic car shows since it debuted on the local circuit on July 6, 2007.

The car has only one flaw, according to Leonard Fink, an expert on vintage cars and the owner of Buffalo Street Rod & Restoration, which worked on the car from January to June of that year.

It’s stolen.

Fink says Longo stole the car just seven days before that July 6 car show. From Fink’s Ontario Street shop. With the help of officers from the Buffalo Police Department.

Here’s the story:

Longo, an attorney who works as a law clerk to Erie County Family Court Judge Patricia Maxwell, brought his Cadillac to Fink’s shop in January 2007 on the recommendation of a friend. He was looking for a paint job. Fink, who has been restoring cars for more than 50 years, assessed the car’s condition and told Longo that what was required, in his opinion, was more than a paint job. The car would need major body work first, and only then could it be painted. He explained to Longo his billing process for the body work: The customer could come in once a week to inspect the restoration work being performed; if the customer was happy with the progress, he would pay that week’s bill for labor and parts and the work would continue. If the customer didn’t like the work, he could pay the bill and take the car.

That would be part one. When the body work was finished, Fink told him, his guys would strip the car completely, remove the doors and fenders, block and paint the entire thing. That would be billed separately, and he told Longo that the shop’s paint jobs started at $7,000. He told Longo that his Eldorado would probably cost more, due to the car’s size and the detail work involved.

Longo agreed to the terms, signed a work order, and left his car with Fink. At first the relationship progressed swimmingly.

“He came by every week, looked at the car, paid his bill,” Fink told me. “He was happy as could be. He’d bring bundt cakes for me and my guys. If we weren’t there when he came by, he’d hang them on the door.”

The body work took four months and cost about $9,000 plus tax. (Longo’s attorney told me that Fink was missing some receipts, and that the full cost was $10,002.) Fink told me that work took longer than anticipated because Longo insisted on having a different mechanic come in to do restoration work on the convertible’s retractable roof. That set back the timetable about three weeks, and Fink says Longo began to get antsy, worrying whether the car would be ready in time for the summer car shows.

“He was starting to get impatient with me, calling me all the time to ask when he could have his car,” Fink said. “What could I say? I told him to be patient. You can’t rush good work. Besides, it was his guy that set us back.”

In any case, with the body work finally complete, Longo told Fink to get on with the paint job. When that work was finished, Fink called Longo and told him he could pick up his car whenever he wanted. And then things took an unpleasant turn.

Fink says that Longo arrived on June 29 with two guys in suits, glared at him, and demanded his car. When Fink gave him the bill for $7,584.60, plus tax, he says Longo threw it on the ground and refused to pay it.

Fink told him that he couldn’t have the keys unless he paid the pill, indicating that just above Longo’s signature on the work order authorizing the job was language explaining the meaning of an express mechanics lien, which basically permits a garage owner to keep a car as collateral against an unpaid bill. The purpose of such a lien is to protect small business owners like Fink, who might put considerable time and oney into a project upfront; the lien shifts the burden of litigation over a bill dispute to the customer.

Fink says Longo—an attorney who surely understood the meaning of what he a had signed—stepped outside and called the police. Soon three Buffalo Police officers arrived on the scene, followed later by a fourth. This seemed excessive to Fink.

“Four cops to the scene of a billing dispute?” he said. “Let me ask you, do you think that if you called the police and said you disagreed about your mechanic’s bill that they’d send four officers?”

One officer said to Longo that it didn’t look to her like Fink had done $15,000 worth of work. Fink asked her if she was an expert of classic car restoration. Another officer told Longo he could take the car. Fink showed them the signed work order and explained about the lien. The officers didn’t care; they ordered him to hand over the keys. Fink refused, and after much debate, Longo and the police left the shop. Fink drove Longo’s Cadillac around to the back of the garage.

A few minutes later, one of Fink’s mechanics entered his office and asked if he’d resolved the problem with Longo. “Because that guy’s out back taking the car,” he said to his boss.

Fink ran out to see Longo driving away, while police officers looked on from two squad cars blocking the driveways to Fink’s lot. When Longo was gone, the police cars pulled away, too.

Fink was furious. He’d laid out money for parts and labor on that Cadillac, and now it was gone. “He stole it,” Fink told me in his shop one afternoon, close to two years later. “Until that bill was paid, the car was mine. Not that I wanted the car, I want to get paid. But he stole it and the police just watched.”

Over the next several months, Fink wrote to Longo asking to be paid. He wrote to Buffalo Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson, asking him to consider the conduct of his officers. He wrote to the New York State Attorney Grievance Committee, condemning Longo’s conduct as an officer of the court. He wrote to the New York State Attorney General’s office and to Longo’s boss at Erie County Family Court, pleading his case.

In other words, Fink sent letters far and wide. (Any mechanic will tell you, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.) Most to whom he wrote brushed him off; Gipson did not respond at all. Longo continued to refuse to pay, arguing that Fink was never supposed to do more than paint the car—though he had visited the shop week after week as the body work progressed, signing off on the job and paying his bill. Longo argued that the police had told him he could take the car, so he took it.

“Who is this guy that the police come running when he calls?” Fink asked me. “Who is he that he thinks he can come in here and bully me around and not pay his bills?”

I tried to find out, calling around town, asking other attorneys about the case, with little luck. Longo is politically involved and has been an unsuccessful candidate for public office. That’s about as far as I got. Two years on, the affair has turned into a court case, so my calls to Longo himself were returned by his attorney. She would not make Longo available for an interview, but said that Fink was unable to document the charges he said Longo owed. “If my client owes him money, then my client wants to pay,” she said, adding that she doubted that he client did owe Fink more than he’d already paid.

She wondered why a civil dispute over $8,000 was of interest to me at all. I replied that Fink suspected that Longo had used his position and perhaps his reputation to obtain favorable treatment from the police, and to resolve the dispute in his favor. Fink said he felt like a little guy getting strongarmed by a connected guy and then ignored when he sought justice. If true, I said, that’s a story.

Longo’s attorney assured me that he would never have used his position inappropriately. I said that was why I wanted to talk to Longo, to hear why he thought he was the one who’d been wronged.

But no dice. Fink’s and Longo’s attorneys continue to negotiate a settlement.

geoff kelly

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