A recent 30-second television spot opens with a photo of Eric Choiniere, a Democratic candidate for the 28th Legislative District, fronting a page from his 2003 bankruptcy filing.
The ad was put out by Choiniere’s opponent, Republican Steve O’Ban, and it goes on to make two claims that are echoed in a separate political mailer:
• Choiniere twice filed for personal bankruptcy and “avoided paying his child support and a U.S. Army loan.”
• Landlords were forced into court twice to evict Choiniere from his home.
The ad ends: “Eric Choiniere can’t be trusted with his own money. How can we trust him with ours?”
O’Ban’s campaign, Friends of Steve O’Ban (R), paid for the television advertisement. Change Olympia, a political action committee, paid for the mailer.
Choiniere, a University Place City Council member, is running against O’Ban, a Tacoma attorney, for the open legislative seat.
Choiniere doesn’t dispute that he twice filed for bankruptcy, although he accused his opponent’s campaign of taking the actions out of context and running a “smear campaign.”
Choiniere said the bankruptcies were mostly due to expenses incurred from “some life-threatening medical hardships.”
Court records show that he and his wife, Donelle, first filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in April 1991. The schedules list $19,547.10 in liabilities, including $5,000 in back taxes, against $4,376 in assets.
There is $8,433.63 in unpaid debt that is clearly labeled as medical-related. Another $702.21 in unspecified debt is listed as owed to collection agencies. The Longshoremen Credit Union listed $4,655.35 for an unpaid loan.
The Army listed $282.91 for an unpaid loan. And there’s $500 listed as owed for child support.
The bankruptcy court discharged the case in July 1991.
The couple filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy again in October 2003. This time, the schedules listed $144,192.40 in liabilities against $18,153.87 in assets.
Of the total liability, $16,300.24 is identified as medical expenses. The largest claim is $79,680.98 for collection on a loan for a foreclosed home. There also are claims for unpaid credit card balances, a payday loan, delinquent property taxes, cellphone expenses and a personal loan.
The bankruptcy court discharged the case in January 2004.
In 1988, the owner of a Tacoma apartment sought the eviction of Choiniere and his wife because they owed $475 in unpaid rent. The lawsuit came after they served the Choinieres with notice, and the rent was neither repaid nor did the couple move out. The court dismissed the case in August 1990 because there had been no new filings in a year’s time.
Seven years later, a different apartment owner sued to evict the couple for $500 in unpaid rent and also sought their eviction.
WHAT THE SIDES SAY
Choiniere said he filed for bankruptcy the first time when he was in his early 20s and working as a deliveryman because his employer didn’t provide medical insurance; he said he incurred thousands of dollars in debt he couldn’t repay from an emergency appendectomy around January 1990.
The Army loan was an extra paycheck he received while still in the military, and he stressed he repaid it.
The child support was for his daughter when he and his wife had separated for six months. The couple reconciled and are married today. He said the debt was discharged as a result of the bankruptcy.
Choiniere said he lost two pints of blood after a blood vessel burst in his nose in 2001, and he incurred more medical bills, leading to the second bankruptcy. He said he was under a lot of stress working 85 hours a week as a systems administrator at a call center, and wasn’t taking care of himself. His employer at the time also didn’t offer insurance coverage.
“We really tried to work with these people (creditors),” he said. “They sent everything to collections right away.”
Choiniere said his mortgage lender wanted the outstanding mortgage paid or refinanced, and he was unable to do either.
“We had to walk away from it (the home) because they wouldn’t work with us,” he said.
Both evictions were due to job losses, he said. Both times, Choiniere said, the couple moved elsewhere and paid what was owed to the owners of the apartments.
Choiniere, who now works as a health care customer service representative, said the matter was personal and his past financial troubles could help him make decisions if he’s elected to serve in Olympia “because I understand what average people are going through” in difficult financial times.
“In the end, it really has no bearing on my ability as a legislator,” he said.
“If Mr. Choiniere had filed for bankruptcy once, we wouldn’t be raising these concerns,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Bad times can happen to just about anyone. But here, Mr. Choiniere has demonstrated a pattern of financial mismanagement beginning in 1988 with his first eviction.”
He added later: “Clearly, this is information voters have the right to be made aware of and to make up their own minds about. We believe this history of financial mismanagement does not make Mr. Choiniere a bad person in any way, but it is directly relevant to whether he should represent us and make decisions about how to spend taxpayers’ money.”
The claims in the television advertisement and mailer are true. Choiniere twice filed for bankruptcy and twice faced eviction. It’s up to voters to decide if these situations were forced by unfortunate circumstances, as he claims, or were the result of poor financial management, as his opponent alleges.Christian Hill: 253-274-7390 christian.hill@ thenewstribune.com @TNTchill