Nader retaliates for PNC Bank's handling of court order

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Ralph Nader, the consumer activist and former presidential candidate, withdrew nearly $1.1 million from PNC Bank accounts Friday, moving the money to a much smaller bank and saying the Pittsburgh-based financial institution acted against his interests.

PNC recently pulled $34,218 from his personal accounts to pay Pittsburgh law firm Reed Smith as partial settlement of a court order, Mr. Nader said.

The way in which PNC angered Mr. Nader is part of a story more than nine years long. It began with a challenge to his attempt to get his name onto Pennsylvania's 2004 presidential ballots, continued through evidence in the Bonusgate corruption scandal in Harrisburg and eventually led here.

The case began in 2004 when Pennsylvania Democrats -- concerned that Mr. Nader would take votes away from candidate John Kerry -- challenged thousands of nominating petition signatures for the 2004 presidential election. Reed Smith attorneys represented the Democrats. A Commonwealth Court panel ruling on Aug. 30, 2004 barred Mr. Nader from the ballot.

Commonwealth Court further ordered Mr. Nader and his running mate, Peter Camejo, to pay Reed Smith $81,000 in stenography and transcription costs. The state Supreme Court upheld the ruling in 2006.

In 2008, testimony in the Bonusgate trial revealed that while the signature challenges were being coordinated by Reed Smith attorneys, they were conducted by legislative employees on state time and using state-owned computers. It is illegal to use state resources for political work. The evidence was central to convictions in the Bonusgate case, which stemmed from an illegal scheme to direct secret payments of state dollars to political operatives.

With his appeals in the civil case exhausted, Mr. Nader said, he transferred the $1.1 million to union-owned Amalgamated Bank in Washington, D.C., because he wanted to protect the assets after what he views as a breach of fiduciary duty and a conflict of interest. The money was for a nonprofit he founded, the American Museum of Tort Law, which expects to open a facility next year in Winsted, Conn.

Mr. Nader says PNC didn't notify him before complying with a court order that it release funds to Reed Smith from his personal accounts. At the time, Mr. Nader was contesting the judgment.

Nader attorney Oliver Hall persistently filed motions to have his case re-examined because of the Bonusgate evidence, but his filings were rejected.

Mr. Hall said Reed Smith was able to improperly seize the money quickly because its attorneys also represent the bank. The bank didn't abide by a 10-day waiting period meant to protect against erroneous judgments, he said.

Mr. Nader said Friday that the dual representation was a conflict of interest, and one he only recently discovered. He said Reed Smith should have disclosed the conflict during court proceedings and that PNC should have protected his assets from unscrupulous lawyers.

Daniel Booker, a partner at Reed Smith who was involved in the attachment proceedings, dismissed Mr. Nader's accusation.

"This claim of a conflict of interest vis-a-vis PNC and Reed Smith has no more substance or foundation than any of the other claims he's made regarding this situation that have been rejected by the courts," Mr. Booker said Friday.

Mr. Nader said his aim is two-fold. He wants to draw attention to judicial biases against third-party political candidates and to steer consumers away from large corporate banks that aren't as responsive to their communities as local financial institutions.

"Mega-banks like PNC understand only one thing -- money -- and consumers should stop giving it to those that mistreat their customers," Mr. Nader said.

A bank spokeswoman said she could not comment on individual customers' transactions.


Tracie Mauriello: tmauriello@post-gazette.com, 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.

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