NEW ORLEANS -- Brad Robinson and his wife Michelle lived a surreal nightmare after Katrina: Their home and several rental properties were seized by a felon who filed bogus paperwork into the public record.
The felon, a convicted forger named Nathaniel Dowl Jr., had lost several properties for failure to pay taxes. When the Robinsons and others bought the properties in blight sales, Dowl turned his ire on them – and used the paralegal training he’d gotten in prison to file bogus documents that wreaked very real havoc.
“Mr. Dowl was my paper stalker,” Brad Robinson says. “I'd go down to court records, and every time I'd go down to court records I'd find a new document filed into the public record claiming ownership of something me and my wife owned.”
But Robinson didn’t learn all that until he applied for a small rental repair grant from the state Road Home program after Katrina.
The program denied his application because it had already paid a grant on the property in question, 8633 Zimple St. in the Riverbend area of New Orleans – a homeowner grant of $132,000 to Nathaniel Dowl’s wife, Barbara.
Nathaniel Dowl had filed a bogus quitclaim deed, which made it look like the city of New Orleans had transferred its rights to 8633 Zimple St. – rights it no longer had – to Nathaniel and Barbara Dowl. In turn, Nathaniel Dowl passed his (non-existent) rights to the property on to Barbara, for $1.
Never mind that he had no rights to the property in the first place, or that nobody from the city had ever signed this document. That didn’t stop the Road Home program from believing it.
The quitclaim was enough to trick the Road Home program into thinking that Barbara Dowl was the rightful owner of 8633 Zimple St. three years after her husband had it seized by the city. Road Home paid her the grant and the U.S. Small Business Administration gave her a $105,000 loan.
I was the first to expose the story of the Dowls’ schemes against the Robinsons and others in The Times-Picayune in December 2007, just as the feds were taking up the case. Later, the Dowl saga was featured on the public radio program “This American Life.”
It took years of fighting in state and federal courts, but both Dowls were finally convicted in 2009: Nathaniel in Orleans Parish criminal court and Barbara in federal court. Hers was the first Road Home fraud conviction. She is now serving 69 months in federal prison for her crimes, and he is in a supervised release program in Lake Charles.
When the Road Home denied the Robinsons' application for a Road Home Small Rental grant, they appealed. And they won their appeal in relatively short order.
By October 2007, the Road Home's fraud investigators had confirmed that the Robinsons were the rightful owners and their application for a rental grant could move forward.
But then, they hit another snag. Brad Robinson said the Road Home told them to remove Barbara Dowl's Road Home covenant from the land records or they couldn’t get the grant.
"I said, look, I can't remove something you placed. You have to remove it,” he said. “All I can do is call and ask you to remove it, again. And I said, 'I've sent letters from attorneys, I've sent phone calls, I've done everything I can within my power because I have to come to you.'"
But the state refutes that characterization. In court filings, the state contends that Robinson didn’t properly ask for the Dowl covenant to be removed until June 2009, and then it took just a few weeks for the document to be removed.
It argues that the real reason the Robinsons didn’t move forward on the restoration project is that they didn’t have the money and their application for a zoning variance so they could turn the house into a double was denied in March 2008.
Robinson does acknowledge that he fought the zoning denial. He had been allowed to make a double just two doors down, got a grant there and fixed the property. But neighbors fought the 8633 Zimple project, and Robinson decided that making it a single was cost-prohibitive.
“Once the two-family construction was shut down by the Board of Zoning Adjustment, Robinson Ventures did not develop any modified construction plans for the property or submit a modified application to Small Rental Property Program for a single family unit,” said a recent court filing by the state.
That same state court filing questions the Robinsons’ own transfers of the property after the Dowl covenants were finally removed.
First, they sold the vacant lot to Brad Robinson’s sister, then had the sister donate it to Brad and Michelle Robinson’s children’s trust. A day later, the trust sold it to another entity for almost $50,000.
The Robinsons’ lawsuit contends that none of this would have happened if former Gov. Kathleen Blanco's administration hadn't eliminated basic title searches from the Road Home process. Under immense pressure to pay grants, Blanco's Louisiana Recovery Authority got rid of the title searches in April 2007.
Brad Robinson said that any normal title search would have easily found that the Dowls’ claim to the property was false, before the state ever paid Barbara Dowl a grant or attached any constricting documents to the land records.
The state and its former Road Home contractor, ICF International, have filed various pre-trial appeals to dismiss the case, but they have been denied. The trial still hasn’t begun and the discovery process has been delayed for two years.
We asked the state to show us how much public money it’s spent defending the Robinson suit, but it refused to do so, saying that the pending lawsuit makes those records exempt from the Public Records Act.