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|Thursday, January 18, 1996
Quake Repairs Run Headlong Into
Stonewalls; What Disaster Has Joined Together, Money Has Torn Asunder;
By: SCOTT HARRIS
This tale of suspicion and intrigue would be set in a large condominium complex in the San Fernando Valley, sort of like Rockpointe, a 739-unit community in Chatsworth. To their common grounds and shared walls comes a shared trauma--a major earthquake. People pull together. But as the homeowners struggle to collect on their group and individual insurance policies, disputes fester. Our plucky heroine, her personal finances in ruin, fears she may lose her beloved townhouse. The homeowners association has collected $27 million. Where, she wonders, has all that money gone?
Perhaps we should package a best-seller first. Either John Grisham or Michael Crichton would do. Having done a little real-life research of my own, having spoken with the president of the Rockpointe Homeowner's Assn., I have my heart set on a director.
It's got to be Oliver Stone.
John Fochman is the president of the Rockpointe board of directors. For all I really know, he might be a swell guy. Maybe I caught him on a bad day. But in the movie, we'll need a heavy.
Sandra Kamin suggested I call him. Her 10-page letter dated Nov. 14 painted a dire picture of the quake-rehab process at Rockpointe. At that time, she said, she hadn't been able to collect on either Rockpointe's policy with Farmers Insurance or her private policy with Allstate. The homeowners association had received a $27-million settlement, but had yet to disburse funds to individual owners. A partial payment was disbursed later that month, and more is said to be on the way, but Kamin and some of her neighbors still think something funny is going on.
I was simply trying to find someone to speak for the Rockpointe board when I reached Fochman. Kamin's letter wasn't in front of me. How much, I asked him, was the settlement?
"I'm not going to tell you," he said. "The final settlement is a matter of public record if you want to do the research."
Nixon's men called this "stonewalling." The tactic isn't known to foster goodwill and trust. I asked Fochman why, if it's public record, he simply wouldn't tell me the amount.
"Because I choose not to."
But why? I persisted. Fochman said that because I was not a Rockpointe resident, he had no obligation to speak to me whatsoever. "I'm doing that as a courtesy to you." He also pointed out that he had no way of knowing whether I really worked for a newspaper.
That's all true, though I began to appreciate why Kamin and other disenchanted Rockpointe residents I spoke with expressed so much frustration in getting answers to their questions. One woman, who requested anonymity, said the rehab work was so poor it was as though "we're paying for a Cadillac and instead we're getting a Yugo."
Fochman suggested that among Rockpointe's 2,300 residents, the disgruntled are few and far between.
"The one thing I will say," he added, "is that we're undergoing an audit to account for every nickel and every dime of these funds." The audit, he said, is "voluntary. . . . It's underway and it's time-consuming."
Kamin had mentioned something about an audit. She said one reputable firm had met with Rockpointe and decided to steer clear of this mess. Whether this is true, I have no idea. If this same company was indeed performing the audit, it would be a reason to doubt her credibility.
What firm, I asked Fochman, is conducting the audit?
"That's none of your business, period."
Fair enough. You can't make a suspense thriller without mystery. Answers are often so dry and dull. Unanswered questions are always more intriguing.
Two years and a day after the Northridge earthquake, Rockpointe is one of many condominium complexes where human fissures remain. Rockpointe is bigger than most, and a quake is a dramatic source of trouble. Still, disputes are the nature of the beast. Many moviegoers could relate to condo hell.
It's a can of worms, but it's their can, not ours. The problem with digging into it is that there's really no telling whether you'll find any snakes. It might be boring journalism. But with a little imagination--some sexual tension here, some violence there--"Condo" could be a box-office smash.
There may even be room for comic relief. In real life, John Fochman ended his litany of no-comments by asking a favor: "Before you publish this, I'd like to see it."
You can imagine how hard it was to say no.
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