Monday, November 06, 2006

"You Owe Me A Job!" Valid or Not? Part VI (To Catch A Thief!)

Continuing the discussion...

Here's the first in a series of vignettes. Some will be more serious than others. All are being mentioned to illustrate the parameters of the question.

Here's something that happened to me a while back. The numbers are approximates, because I don't have the time to go through my records, but I do have the precise info in my files. It's a long story, but raises some important issues, I think.

There was a fellow I used to run into a few years back. We lived near each other and davened in the same shul occasionally. He knew that I was a musician and when I first moved in to the area, he told me he'd love to get me/my band into the school he taught at to perform. We'd run into each other from time to time and each time, he'd say "I've got to book you for our events" or some similar sentiment. Yet, he'd never follow up and call me.

One day, he called me for a short late morning gig the next day. He told me the school couldn't pay much, and offered $75 less than the going discounted rate that other schools were typically paying for this sort of gig. Since it was last minute, I was open, and it was fairly conveniently located, I agreed to do it.

The gig went quite well, and he, and others at the school were quite effusive about how it had gone. He told me he'd have to call me for some more gigs. Then, he gave me a personal check for about $50 more than we'd agreed and told me he didn't remember exacty what we'd agreed on, and he wanted to pay me right away, so "take this check, and then I'll look up my records and you'll just give me back the difference when I next see you." (In hindsight, I should have realized something was up at that point.) When I next saw him, I gave him a check for the extra $$$.

At any rate, I kept running into this fellow the rest of that school year, and he'd effusively tell me what a great job I did, and how we should do this again, etc. Yet, he didn't call me for anything the rest of that year.

Over the next two years, the same pattern repeated itself. One gig for less than the going rate, followed by an overpaid personal check, with a request to "settle up later" and refund the balance, and effusive praise followed up with no further gigs. This for a school that had many musical events throughout the year

The fourth year, I told him I wouldn't be able to do the gigs at the rate he was offering, so he asked if I could do an additional musician for a somewhat higher fee, and that would give hime the leeway to pay more per musician. After the first gig, he told me he didn't remember what we'd agreed on, and wanted to pay me on time, so he just told the school office an amount off the top of his head, and we'll settle up afterwards should there be any overage. Shortly thereafter, I received a check from the school for $300 more than we'd agreed on for the gig.

Coincidentally, that same day, another musician who owed me $150 played a different event for the school. He told them to deduct $150 from his check and send it to me. So, when I received the check, I assumed that it was $150 over, which was still high, but included $150 from the other musician. Nevertheless, the idea that the school could write a check for $150-$300 more than they usually pay for an event struck me as odd. I began to suspect that it was likely that this teacher was billing the school more than he was paying the musicians.

When I saw him later that week, he told me I owed him $300. Feeling uncomfortable about giving him the money, since the check had come from the school this time, I reminded him that $150 was actually supposed to be a payment on behalf of the other musician. Being that it was early in the school year, and he'd been saying for years that he wants me to do more events for him, I proposed crediting the $150 towards the next event.

He told me he'd have something for me and called soon thereafter to book two musicians for another event. At that event, the same thing happened. I received a check from the school for $300 more than we'd agreed. At that point, in November, I believe, I called him on his professed desire to book me more often, and told him I'd apply the $450 balance as a credit to future gigs. Being that it was still early in the year, there were sure to be many events at which music was needed.

I didn't get a single call from him for the rest of the year.

At the beginning of the next school year, he called me to say that I owed him $600. I reminded him that the balance was actually $450 and told him I'd be happy to credit it to perfomances in the coming school year. He informed me that the school was handling all gigs internally this year, using their music staff, and not hiring outside musicians for any gigs.

Hearing this, I knew something was wrong. So, I sent him a letter, describing the events I'd played for the school as well as the agreed upon fees, and the final payment amounts. I included the check numbers of the school's checks, making it obvious that I had detailed records of where the money had come from, and included a check made out to the school for the balance. The check was never deposited.

Several months later, I called my posek, to ask how I should handle this. He ruled that I was obligated to inform the school. Hoping that this could be avoided, I left a message for this person, informing him that the check hadn't been deposited for several months and that I was planning to close the account. At that point, he left me a message (at a time when he knew I was out working), saying that he'd never deposited the check because the money was owed to him personally.

This confirmed my suspicions. He was telling the musicians the school didn't have a budget, and meanwhile, billing the school a higher amount, and pocketing the difference. This explained why I'd only get one gig a year, for if I was doing many, he'd not been able to avoid applying the overage as a credit towards the next event. I imagine that he was pulling the same shtick with a number of musicians.

I left him a message saying that I didn't feel comfortable writing him a check because the money was owed to the school. He then left me a message saying that there are "cheshbonos" etc, and I could get him in trouble if I send a check to the school. I still have this message.

Reluctantly, seeing no other option, I contacted the school administrator. It was one of the hardest things I've had to do professionally.

Within an hour after making the call, I was in the school office talking to their financial person. And shortly thereafter, we were at a meeting in the adminstrators office. Turns out that they had suspected that something wasn't straight, which is why they'd switched from reimbursing him to cutting the checks directly to the musicians. So, I cut a check to the school for the balance owed, and that was the last I heard of the affair.

Not only was it the last I heard of the affair... it was also the last I heard from the school. Since then, it's been several years and the school hasn't called me for any gigs. (excepting one last minute call on Taanis Esther for that Purim night, when they were frantically calling everybody in the business).

(Incidentally, I've never shared the details of this persons identity with anyone outside of the above mentioned people at the school and one family member, who heard his answering machine message, is also aware of the details. I believe I handled this sensitively.)

At any rate, I'm interested in hearing feedback. Do you think the school owed/owes me anything?

More stories to come. I'll share my perspective after some reader feedback.

Previous posts on the subject...

Blog in Dm: "You Owe Me A Job!" Valid or Not? Part I
Blog in Dm: "You Owe Me A Job!" Valid or Not? Part II
Blog in Dm: "You Owe Me A Job!" Valid or Not? Part III
Blog in Dm: "You Owe Me A Job!" Valid or Not? Part IIII
Blog in Dm: "You Owe Me A Job!" Valid or Not? Part V