How Klan Lawyer Sam Dickson Got Rich
The former Klan lawyer from Atlanta has always been interested in money. What's remarkable is how he's been able to earn it.
by Alexander Zaitchik
One afternoon in July of 2005, Atlanta real estate investor Steven Ogletree received an unusual phone call. On the other end of the line was a local retired lawyer and real estate prospector named Sam Dickson. Ogletree had never heard of Dickson, knew nothing of his outspoken white supremacism, and was surprised when the pushy stranger urged him to undersell a plot of land in Atlanta's resurgent Vine City district. Dickson claimed to have already bought out Ogletree's three junior partners; he now needed the remaining portion to gain full title. Dickson named a price and demanded that the deed be signed over to him at once.
Ogletree recoiled, refusing the offer. It took several more phone calls, offers and rejections before a flustered Dickson told Ogletree that he no longer believed he was speaking to the right person. The reason, Dickson said, was that Ogletree sounded African-American, which indeed he was. Dickson declared that "no black man was capable" of masterminding such a profitable investment, Ogletree said.
The statement was a revealing burst of honesty in Sam Dickson's short but lucrative career in real estate. The year before, Dickson had declared at a conference sponsored by former Klan leader David Duke that "Negroes ... are hopeless."
But not without their uses, especially when they own property. It was at that same conference that Dickson declared, apropos of not much at all, "I like money. There's no virtue in poverty. I want money."
So he does. Since 2001, Dickson, a 59-year-old former Klan attorney and active veteran of numerous extreme-right causes and groups, has built a multi-million dollar business in the niche field of tax lien and title acquisition. His success has depended in no small part on keeping his otherwise well-known racism concealed from his targets, many of whom are poor and black. According to those who have observed and worked with Dickson, his profits have been earned through a combination of bullying, stealth, and legal pretzel-making in the arcane world of tax lien purchases, redemptions and foreclosures. When contacted, Dickson declined to comment on the charges.
Though unusual for the surfacing of racist bile, Ogletree's anecdote is consistent with other reports of Dickson's methods.
"Before he insulted me, he tried to swindle me," says Ogletree. "Everything he told me was an exaggeration. He called me at midnight and threatened me, using jargon, as if he had some special powers because he passed the bar. I wasn't intimidated by him, but [what if] he does this to defenseless old ladies, and makes it sound as if a siren is coming to their door -- it's just evil."
It's profitable, too.
Famous for their complex legal and procedural nuances, tax lien and deed auctions are essentially how cities and counties collect delinquent property taxes. In the case of south Atlanta's newly revitalized black neighborhoods, where Dickson is most active, the lots in question are sometimes little more than narrow strips of overgrown weeds.
But in today's high-growth Atlanta, where land values are soaring in neighborhoods considered worthless a decade ago, these craggy patches are worth chasing.
The chase begins when someone like Dickson purchases an unpaid tax debt. The purchaser (or "transferee," because the tax debt has been transferred to him) then has a legal obligation to notify the owners of record of the property that the execution of the unpaid tax debt has been transferred to him. If the notice to an owner of record is returned undelivered, the transferee has an obligation to try to identify his whereabouts and notify him. At this stage the property owners can clear the tax debt by paying the amount owed, plus certain fees and interest at the statutory rate, to the transferee.
But the clock is ticking. If the transferee's bill goes unpaid too long, he can force a sale of the property. At such an official tax sale, there is rarely much money left over for the property owners after the taxes, interest, fees, and other expenses are paid. Faced with this prospect, the property owners may end up selling their property to someone like Dickson to get what they can.
"Sam Dickson creates a sense of false urgency about the back taxes," says Dan West, a disgruntled former business partner of Dickson's who runs a real estate firm specializing in tax lien and deed acquisition. "He won't inform people of their full rights. He'll twist the information to gain their interest in the lot."
There is an industry phrase for Dickson's style: "Bullying title." It's not illegal, but it's not a pretty sight.