Interview with Martin Plone.
nexus, Volume 3, Issue 2, September 1997.
Martin Plone was swindled out of his life savings by his "so-called"
best friend, a real estate broker who helped him invest his retirement
savings in deeds of trust. It turned out that many of the deeds
were never recorded and that Plone's "friend" had defrauded forty
other people as well, including his own elderly parents. Although
his abuser went to state prison and was ordered to pay back his
victims, Plone discovered that recovering his losses was a legal
nightmare. After paying a lawyer over a hundred thousand dollars,
he decided to take things into his own hands. He taught himself
the law and was able to recover most of his losses. His frustration
with the system led Plone on a crusade to overhaul the restitution
system and become an advocate for those he considers to be the
"forgotten victims of economic crime."
Obtaining and enforcing a criminal restitution order was pivotal
in recovering your losses. Could you start by explaining what
restitution is and how it works?
Plone: Every state has some kind of restitution law. California
law says that in every criminal case in which a defendant causes
economic harm, victims are entitled to be compensated for their
losses. The amount that the victim is entitled to is determined
by judges during sentencing, which occurs after the defendant
is convicted or agrees to a plea bargain. These judgments, or
"restitution orders," give victims legal authority to recover
their losses without having to go through the expense and rigors
of obtaining civil judgments. Victims can then file abstracted
judgments, or summarized versions of the restitution orders, with
county recorders in counties in which they believe that the defendant
has assets. That way, if an abuser has property that the victims
don't know about and he tries to sell it, he's prevented from
doing so. It's like a lien. It also makes it difficult for the
defendant to get loans in the future. Restitution is especially
useful for victims who don't have the financial resources to hire
You were able to recover over $800,000 of your million dollar
loss. Can you explain in laymen's terms how you went about it?
MP: At first, I hired a lawyer to help me. But his fees
were outrageous and I couldn't keep up with them so I decided
I could learn to do my own legal work. I was fortunate in that
I had the ability to learn what I needed to. I was also lucky.
For example, I discovered that the person who defrauded me was
getting a $46,000 commission from a title company while he was
in prison for a big sale he made before he went to prison. I used
the restitution order to attach the commission. I only happened
to hear about the commission because I live in a small town and
people were outraged about what had happened and somebody called
me and told me about it.
also filed a claim with the California Department of Real Estate's
"recovery account" which compensates victims of real estate fraud
by licensed brokers. I was able to recover $80,000 from the fund
because my abuser was a broker. The Department tried to deny my
claim by refusing to recognize my restitution order, claiming
that I needed a civil judgment. But I fought them and won. I also
went after the title company, which had liability because my abuser
had forged my name on deeds of trust that he used to get bank
loans. If it hadn't been for their negligence, a lot of this wouldn't
Through others' cases and your own, you discovered a myriad of
problems with the whole restitution system. Can you describe what
Some judges simply refuse to order restitution. I know of a case
in which the judge refused to order it because he said the defendant
was a dead-beat and it would be a waste of time. Another problem
is that even though criminal restitution orders are enforceable
as civil judgments, some entities don't recognize them and make
victims get judgments in civil court, which is a waste of money
and time. Getting judges to name people on restitution orders
is another problem. Once a defendant has been sentenced, the victim
gets a copy of the sentencing order, which should list each victim
and the amount of their restitution. But a lot of judges just
say "the defendant is sentenced to 8 years and ordered to pay
restitution" without saying to whom. How on earth can a victim
enforce the order if their name's not on it? I know of a doctor
who lost his life savings in a limited partnership scam. The defendant
was sentenced to prison and ordered to pay restitution. The order
stated the amount to the penny - it was something like $9,280,722.45
but the order didn't name the victims.
are also problems with plea bargaining. Normally when someone
is charged with a lot of counts, they plea bargain and get most
of the counts dismissed. It is basically a lottery; some victims
get included in the plea agreement, while others do not. It shouldn't
be that way. What incentive is there for victims to cooperate
with the criminal justice system and spend all this time giving
information and preparing documents just to have it all dismissed
later at the prosecutors' discretion? In my case, the guy was
charged with 22 counts and had 21 counts dismissed. The count
he pled to involved the least amount of money. What notice is
this giving to the world?
When you conduct trainings for judges and district attorneys and
probation officers, what do you cover? What's important for them
In addition to talking to them about the legal aspects of restitution
- the case law and statutes - I try to get them to understand
why restitution is so important to victims. Because DA's are representing
"the people" and not victims, some of them look at victims as
something incidental, something that they have to deal with. I
try to get them to empathize. I ask DA's how they would feel if
their mothers were victims of fraud and how outraged they would
be if their mother's DA wasn't returning phone calls or if they'd
accepted a plea bargain in which she didn't get restitution while
You also discovered that state laws needed to be changed.
I've been working with a state senator to completely overhaul
the restitution code in California. One of the things we changed
was including interest on losses in restitution orders. Up until
now, if you were swindled out of $100,000, you got $100,000 in
restitution. But you should be compensated for the interest you
would have earned too. You would be in a civil case. We also got
attorneys' fees covered when victims need to hire attorneys to
represent them. Also, if you're a victim of violent crime in this
county, you get a nine-page handout from the DA on how to enforce
restitution orders. But if you're a victim of economic crime,
they don't give you anything. With the new law, a similar sheet
will be developed for all victims of crime in the state. We've
introduced new amendments this year that will give victims standing
to file motions to amend restitution orders. The federal courts
have said that victims have no standing to appeal restitution
orders because they're not part of the criminal justice system.
It's outrageous that judges take this intellectual approach. Victims
will also have the right to address the court at sentencing hearings
- this is important. It's part of the healing process.
You've taken a particular interest in elderly victims. Why is
Most of the major real estate fraud cases involve elderly victims
because that's who is investing. I have real empathy for elderly
who lose their life savings because they don't have time to make
up for their losses. And for many, they're not just losing their
principle, but also the monthly interest they depend on. I know
a widow who had invested her husband's insurance and lost it all.
She had been getting $1,200 a month from it along with Social
Security and was able to get by. But when the $1,200 a month stopped,
all she had left was Social Security and she was devastated. She
lost her house and is living in a little trailer. How does an
82-year-old woman start her life over again?
You've talked about the need for clinics and support groups for
victims of financial crimes. What is it that these victims need?
I talk to victims about how to deal with the criminal justice
system, what to expect, and what not to expect. I tell them how
they can recover without hiring attorneys, how to enforce restitution
orders, and how to record abstracts. I also talk to victims about
getting on with their lives if there is no way to recover. Eventually,
you have to let go. But I encourage victims to try to get restitution.
With restitution comes forgiveness and unless there's forgiveness,
there's no healing. Eventually victims have to forgive or it drags
on for the rest of your life.
to the nexus "reading room"
to the Restitution section