When a man in Sacramento, Calif., was apparently caught in the act of writing fraudulent checks, he didn't try to squirm out of it. He sued.
But Stockmans Bank in Elk Grove, Calif., got the last laugh.
Here's the story: In November 1998, David S. Romo, a developer and a restaurateur, opened an account at $180 million-asset Stockmans with a check for $335,000 from the Walt Disney Co., drawn on an account at Norwest Bank Montana.
Norwest told Stockmans that the check was suspected to be phony, and the Elk Grove bank stopped payment. Checks worth more than $65,000 written by Mr. Romo against his Stockmans account subsequently bounced, and Mr. Romo sued Stockmans to make good on the checks.
Mr. Romo, who could not be reached for comment, contended in his 1998 lawsuit that the check was good because it was from an associate, Eric Shaw of Las Vegas, who had done work for Disney. Mr. Shaw had asked Disney to write a check in Mr. Romo's name so that he wouldn't have to write the latter another check for a $335,000 loan, the lawsuit said.
It was a sticky situation, Stockmans president Gary Wright said.
"On one hand, we had a customer who had said that his funds were good and that we had no right to hold them, and on the other hand, we had Norwest Bank that had said his check was a forgery," he said. "All we wanted to do then was give the money to the court and say, 'You figure it out.' "
The Sacramento Superior Court did not buy Mr. Romo's argument, and refused to order Stockmans to honor the check from Disney.
It appears that was the right ruling. In May a federal grand jury in Sacramento indicted Mr. Romo on bank fraud charges. Christopher P. Sonderby, assistant U.S. attorney, says the check from Disney was one of several counterfeit checks that Mr. Romo received - not from Mr. Shaw, but from someone else.
In fact, the prosecution asserts that Mr. Romo has been the mastermind of a much larger scam. The grand jury indicted him and an alleged accomplice on charges of interstate transportation of more than $703,000 worth of stolen checks and money orders.
Mr. Sonderby said he has handled many bank fraud cases, but none like this.
"I've never seen a person actually file a bogus lawsuit in an attempt to support their bank fraud scheme," he said.