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Retired colonel slams Barron, loan business

October 11, 2006 - Huntsville, Alabama

For a man without a dog in the fight, retired Army Col. Tom Brown uses fighting words.

Even though he said he isn't campaigning for anyone, Brown held three news conferences Tuesday across North Alabama to criticize state Sen. Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe, for owning payday loan businesses which may have caused financial hardship to soldiers. Brown referred to payday loans as "evil" and being run by "loan sharks" who charge "up to a criminal 400 percent" for a yearlong loan.

"Sen. Lowell Barron has fostered a predatory lending industry in Alabama that has, to quote the Pentagon, 'weakened our military' by targeting soldiers who are struggling financially during this time of war," Brown, 67, said on the steps of the Madison County Courthouse.

Brown, who said he came to Huntsville in 1984 and retired here in 1992, said he'd never heard of Barron's involvement in payday loans until the senator announced he was seeking reform for the industry. Barron said in February he was selling his 20 high-interest North Alabama loan companies to his business partner.

Whether or not Barron introduces legislation to ban rollover loans that rack up hefty interest fees could be moot. The federal Military Personnel Financial Service Protection Act was signed into law last month to protect soldiers and sailors from unscrupulous lenders.

Barron said he wasn't aware of the federal legislation when he began plans to draft a state law. He said he doubts any of his businesses ever made loans to military personnel because none are near a military base.

"I just didn't like the direction the industry was going in, and I wanted to be an advocate to clean up those abuses," Barron said.

Barron's opponent, Don Stout of Fort Payne, said he was surprised by word of the news conferences Tuesday. Stout -- who owns a metal fabricating business in Fort Payne -- said he'd never met Brown, but he agrees with the retired officer's assertion that payday loans are detrimental to soldiers.

"I don't know him, but I'll take his help," Stout said. "Oh, heavenly day, I'll take his help. I just hope he lives in the 8th District so he can vote for me."

Brown said he's never met or spoken with Barron or Stout.

Barron said Tuesday that Brown is a "paid Republican lobbyist from Ohio on a political mission to embarrass me and misinform the voters of North Alabama."

But Brown said he is not being paid nor does he live in Ohio.

"I was born in Ohio, but I left in 1962," the retired colonel said. "I've actually lived in Huntsville longer than anywhere else in my life."

He said he's registered as a lobbyist twice for consultant defense work he's done in Washington, but he hasn't had a paying lobbying job for more than five years.

"I used my own tank of gas today," Brown said. "I bought my own lunch."

Brown isn't the only one denying accusations in the word battle between the never-been-introduced Brown and Barron.

He said Barron wrote and promoted legislation in 2003 to allow payday loan companies to charge exorbitant fees for the quick-term loans.

Barron said he didn't touch the legislation -- not even to vote on it -- "because that would be a conflict of interest, and I don't do that."

Sen. Gerald Dial, D-Lineville, and Rep. Rep. Mike Hill, R-Columbiana, sponsored the bill.

News Source

The Huntsville Times, Patricia C. McCarter, Times Staff Writer

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