The Washington County president judge ordered Recorder of Deeds Debbie Bardella to do just that, record deeds.
Because Bardella said she doesn’t plan to appeal the judge’s decision, a legal dispute is drawing to a close, but the recorder said she hopes changes in state law will close what she sees as gaping loopholes.
The matter began last year when Jan Ondra, his brother, George, Billy Joe Sanders and LotsofRealty.com LLC, which has as its address a post office box in McMurray, took Bardella to court when she wouldn’t record a deed for an entity known as EH Trust, which purchased property at 445 East Hallam Ave., Washington, at a sheriff’s sale.
Bardella questioned the validity of EH Trust and refused to record the purchase when, in April 2012, the trust presented a deed for filing and was willing to pay the filing fee.
The Ondras, Sanders and LotsofRealty.com claimed Bardella was overstepping her authority. President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca, in her three-page opinion, noted that Washington County is unique among Pennsylvania’s 67 counties because Bardella, in addition to holding the elected office of recorder of deeds, was also appointed by the county commissioners to the positions of director of the department of tax revenue and director of the Washington County tax claim bureau.
But as recorder of deeds, Bardella “is truly just a ‘custodian’ of documents,” the judge wrote.
“The right to record is not contingent on an instrument’s legal sufficiency, and even if it were, (Bardella) lacks authority to conduct such an analysis,” she continued. “The recorder of deeds is a ministerial officer charged with recording all documents presented to her, and (she) may only refuse to record where the fee is unpaid or the document lacks a proper acknowledgment.”
In the EH Trust case, the acknowledgment was made by the sheriff, not the the real estate dealers. The judge ordered Bardella to record that deed and all sheriff’s deeds issued to those who brought suit. As the case played out in court earlier this year, the names of many trusts, such as 107-109 Gibson Trust, 356 Jefferson Trust and 356 Jefferson Avenue Trust, all affiliated with LotsofRealty.com, came up in court testimony.
Bardella said her legal argument was that a trust is merely a document or a piece of paper, and the recording of a deed does not, in itself, present the problem. A problem occurs, however, if and when an owner doesn’t pay taxes.
“If it goes up for tax sale, you cannot serve a trust,” she said. “You need to serve a trustee,” or actual person. In Monday’s sale of properties for unpaid 2011 taxes, Bardella said 47 of 384 advertised properties were sold. They were not free and clear of liens and judgments. Whoever bought each of the 47 properties also assumed responsibility for the accompanying debts.
Posting a property and advertising tax sales are not the recorder’s sole legal obligations. State law also requires her to personally serve the owner with notice of an impending sale.
She likened it to corporations litigating, but noted that an officer of the corporation must sign related legal documents.
Bardella said a trust that did not list its trustees could rent its property to someone for decades but never pay property taxes. “The consequence of not paying taxes is you lose your property,” Bardella said. “But if a trust doesn’t pay taxes, our problem is notification. We can’t correctly run a property through a sale. There are a lot of loopholes that need to be tightened.”
Other loopholes of which she spoke aren’t related to the EH Trust.
Bardella said she has been contacted by a mother who was shocked to see the name of her son, who died eight years ago, listed as the purchaser of property. Names of others who are allegedly buying property are in prison or living abroad. “Even things that look suspicious to us, we can’t question,” Bardella said. “We have to take it. How do you protect people from these transfers?”
The transactions obscure clear title to property, and Bardella said clearing up title questions can cost thousands of dollars.
The recent court case is not the first run-in between Bardella and LotsofRealty.com and its trustees.
In 2011, LotsofRealty.com listed property at 8-22 W. Chestnut St., Washington, and 93-95 N. Main St., Washington, for sale at auction on eBay. The property was listed as being owned by the Main Street Trust, with the main trustee being Kim J. Gobert of Moscow, Russia.
The property received bids, but the sale allegedly fell through when it was discovered there were more than $1.2 million in federal and state tax liens against the property. The buyer would be liable for the liens, according to Bardella.
The recorder of deeds, like other Washington County row offices, is paid $73,544. Bardella, who is seeking her fifth, four-year term in that office, receives no additional compensation for the tax revenue positions.
Bardella, a Democrat, ran without opposition in the primary, but she will square off against Nancy Carr, who won a write-in nomination on the Republican ballot.