Consumer advocate Ralph Nader probably wouldn't approve of being faster than a speeding bullet -- the former presidential candidate rose to prominence campaigning against the "unsafe at any speed" automobile industry -- but he has swept to the aid of an ailing publishing house in a fashion that would make Superman proud.
Nader has added his voice to the chorus attempting to get the federal government to intervene in the bankruptcy of LPC Group, an independent book publisher that distributes some of the most prestigious names in independent comics, including Top Shelf and Drawn and Quarterly.
As first reported last month, LPC's Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing came as a surprise to both the companies it distributes to bookstores -- including Image Comics, Oni Press, Dark Horse Comics, AiT/Planet Lar and more -- and to the company itself. The news briefly threatened Top Shelf's survival, and even today, the independent comic book publishers distributed by LPC face the possibility of a future without bookstore revenue and exposure to the audience outside the comic book shop.
Into this fray has leapt Nader. In a letter sent last week to the Comptroller of the Currency, Nader asked for a federal investigation of Bank One taking monies from LPC owed to the comic publishers.
"Banks chartered by the federal government are provided extraordinary privileges and powers," Nader wrote in the letter, dated May 2. "As the regulator of these institutions, you have a special responsibility to ensure that these powers are carried out in the public interest and are not used arbitrarily to the detriment of citizens.
"With this in mind, I want to call your attention to a bizarre set of actions by Bank One and its subsidiary, American National Bank which resulted in the seizure of more than a million dollars belonging to a group of small publishers.
"Bank One apparently grabbed the publishers' funds in a backdoor attempt to satisfy a loan the bank had made to LPC Group which had been contracted by the publishers to distribute their books. On April 1, LPC deposited a $1.2 million payment from sales of books owned by the publishers and which were on consignment with LPC. One million of the payment was to be sent to the publishers. Instead, the bank took the publishers' money.
"The true ownership of the money was well known by the bank at the time of the seizure, according to the publishers. In addition, it is reasonable to assume that the bank, in making the loan to LPC, had taken due diligence in ascertaining the nature of LPC's business that involved the distribution of books on consignment. The publishers were not involved in the LPC loan, received no proceeds from the loan and had no responsibility for its repayment.
"These are small publishers that can ill-afford to lose this money. And the nation can ill-afford to lose independent small publishers who keep the First Amendment alive as a vital part of our democracy. It would be a sad commentary on banking practices and bank regulation if these arbitrary high-handed 'collection' practices were allowed to stand. Such practices do not enhance badly needed confidence in the integrity of our banking system.
"I urge you to take a close look at this case."