FONT & AUDIO
Tigard's vigilante disabled parking crusader takes on retailer
Attorney with a checkered past stands against parking violations
Tigard's Daniel Bernath has had a hard time keeping a low profile since arriving in Oregon. He's been the target of advertising complaints related to his business representing Social Security Administration claimants, and has regularly sparred with the Oregon Bar Association, the agency that denied him a license to practice law in the Beaver State in 1998.
Bernath's verbose Web chronicles his military and professional accolades, and portrays him as an accomplished news journalist and attorney.
Bernath's latest battle involves his attempt to bring traffic violations against Eugene-based discount retailer, the employee-owned Bi-Mart Corporation. He is arguing that the corporation's Tigard store held a garden promotion and used outdoor space reserved for disabled parking along the front of the store to stage its wares, including pallets of bagged potting soil and folding tables laden with plants.
A Navy veteran who served in the Vietnam War, Bernath says he has chronic nerve pain in his legs among other war-born disabilities. He is also a California-licensed attorney and a self-proclaimed champion for disabled people's rights.
He said he informed Bi-Mart employees multiple times about the violations. He has a mailbox at The UPS Store, a business in the same shopping plaza at 13500 S.W. Pacific Highway as Bi-Mart, and was there to pick up his mail. When he left the plaza, the violations hadn't been resolved, but he soon returned armed with a camera to document the obstructions and, arguably, to make a scene.
In fact, Tigard Police Department records show a Bi-Mart employee reported that Bernath drove his black Cadillac STS, American flag propped in the center console beneath the disabled-parking placard, into the pallet of potting soil, endangering other employees in the area.
'The original call was made by a Bi-Mart employee,' said Jim Wolf, public information officer for the Tigard Police Department. 'It's important to know that Bi-Mart contacted the police, that's the reason we arrived.'
Three police vehicles arrived at the scene, including two motorcycle officers and an SUV, Wolf said.
Police arriving at the scene cited Bernath, who was wearing a jacket and ball cap decorated in military medals, for menacing and reckless driving. The case is pending in Washington County Circuit Court.
No citation was given to Bi-Mart, however, and Bernath is now prepared to bring a legal claim against the corporation in an attempt to force it to pay for blocking the handicap parking spot. Bernath said he wants to show Bi-Mart executives that the company was in the wrong and to have the store revisit it's training policy for the treatment of disabled services.
'All I want to do is have Bi-Mart learn the lesson that you can't violate the law,' he said. 'You have to treat handicapped people and wounded war veterans with respect. That's all I want.'
From Jan. 1 to July 1, the Tigard police have issued 13 citations to people illegally parked in a disabled parking space.
Calls placed to Bi-Mart were directed to John Harris, the corporation's president. Harris was aware of the incident and refused to answer a question about employee training as it relates to the use of disabled parking spaces.
'I can't even speak to that. That's one of the dumbest questions I've ever been asked,' Harris said when asked about the employee training.
Police photographs taken of the scene outside the Bi-Mart show that the company's garden display did in fact take over at least one reserved disability parking space along the storefront.
'That particular parking space was inaccessible due to an event that was being conducted by Bi-Mart,' Wolf said. Other disabled spaces in the lot were accessible and open for parking.
Disabled parking spaces, whether on private or public property, are to remain free and clear for the sole purpose of allowing parking for people with disabilities, according to state statute. Blocking a disabled space is a traffic violation that can yield a minimum $50 citation.
Tigard police did not cite Bi-Mart for the obstruction.
For Bernath's part, he said he later received a letter in the mail from a law firm representing Bi-Mart informing him that his membership to the Northwest discounter has been canceled, citing Bernath's 'threatening, abusive and inappropriate behavior towards Bi-Mart staff.'
Now, Bernath has prepared a 17-page complaint against Bi-Mart and a dozen other defendants and has mailed out press releases announcing his plan to bring citations against them for what he alleges were several days of disabled parking violations. Bernath is citing a seldom-used Oregon law that opens the door for any private party, not just law enforcement, to file a traffic complaint. If successful, the store would have to pay any resultant fines to the state, not Bernath.
Harris alluded to Bernath's spotty history, and said Bi-Mart has no intention of additionally examining the incident. He said further comment would give Bernath more 'ammunition and fodder' to take the incident to the next level, raising the specter of whether Bernath's actions are little more than a publicity stunt to drum up business for his Social Security enterprise, which is mentioned on his Web site in connection to his allegations against Bi-Mart.
'We can't speak to it because of the level this gentleman has taken it,' Harris said. 'There's nothing there to deal with, because the police got involved immediately and cited him and that's the end of it for us.'
A shadow of doubt has crept over Bernath's credibility as an attorney since he moved to Oregon from California in 1994, at which time he applied for and was denied an Oregon law license. Specifically, Bernath failed to convince the Oregon State Board of Bar Examiners that he had the requisite 'moral character and fitness' to practice in Oregon.
Bernath appealed the decision to the Oregon Supreme Court, resulting in a five-page 1998 opinion that cited 18 reasons to deny him a practicing license, ranging from his failure to pay child support - something that got him a one-year license suspension in California in 1995 - to a $34,000 judgment against him in California for malicious prosecution.
He has since subsisted mostly on the Social Security claim business. A licensed attorney is not required to argue claims in front of the Social Security Administration judges, though the federal administration must first approve the fee schedule for anyone other than the claimant representing the case, and imposes rules of conduct for such people. Bernath also runs A Special Day Photography, working as a wedding and special event photographer.
Bernath maintains that the bar decision and its findings are bogus. Today he remains actively licensed to practice law in California and in federal appeals courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, and in May 2007 the Oregon State Bar cleared him of a complaint that he had been practicing law without a license.