Kyndell Harkness

After a column ran about Assefa Senbet’s woes with Citigroup, a senator, attorneys and just plain folks offered their help.

Was Citigroup moved by compassion or self-interest? Either way, a little prodding paid off.

It may be a wonderful life, after all.

Just when it looked like a bank was going to bah humbug a Minneapolis parking lot attendant and saddle him with a large debt because he underpaid his credit card bill by $11, a guardian angel stepped in and turned this into a relatively debt-free holiday season for Assefa Senbet.

Or maybe it was a call from a U.S. senator and the promise of free legal help by two powerful law firms and a few offers from readers to help pay Senbet's bill. It's Christmas, so you can take your pick.

Senbet's odyssey began when he purchased a television set and dutifully paid his installments every month for more than a year. Senbet is from Ethiopia, so his English is shaky. He didn't understand the terms of his loan, which said that if he missed a payment he would be charged 30 percent interest going back to the day he bought the television.

Senbet nearly had the television paid off when he miscalculated and sent in the wrong amount. Even though he sent it 12 days early, he was $11 short. The credit card company, Citigroup, waited until the due date passed and hit him with an $887 penalty, plus compounded interest on that amount. Though Senbet kept sending in payments, the loan amount barely budged. He said every time he watched his 43-inch television, he felt confused by his perpetual debt.

Senbet is an outgoing and friendly guy, and over the past few years he has gotten to know some of the people who park in his lot at Fifth Street and Marquette Avenue, including attorney Mark Fiddler. They chat nearly every day as Fiddler leaves work. They have talked about Ethiopia, about Senbet becoming a U.S. citizen, and about Fiddler's bicycle racing. Senbet mentioned his credit problem and Fiddler, who normally represents clients in foster care and adoption cases, offered to help.

Fiddler didn't offer this and didn't seek credit, but by looking at his biography on his website, it's clear Fiddler wasn't trying to earn his wings, like the angel in the Jimmy Stewart movie. His record of helping others includes being a director with the Indian Child Welfare Law Center, trustee for the Science Museum of Minnesota and chairperson of the Indian Health Board of Minneapolis.

Fiddler wrote to Sears, where Senbet bought the television, and to Citigroup, asking them to give Senbet a break. They declined. He got the Minnesota attorney general's office to write to them, too, and he threatened to sue. No luck.

Citi was one of the largest beneficiaries of taxpayer bailouts. Fiddler was irritated that they got assistance, but wouldn't give some to a guy who made a simple mistake. So he contacted me and I wrote a column, in which I quoted Sen. Amy Klobuchar about banking laws.

Klobuchar's staff then called Citigroup and asked for compassion. Meanwhile, lawyers at the law firm of Fredrikson and Byron and at Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi read the column, and both firms volunteered to take on Senbet's case -- for free. At least two readers offered to help Senbet pay the interest.

Then late last week, a woman from Sears called Fiddler. Citigroup had called them, and they decided that Senbet made an honest mistake and had sincerely tried to make his payments. They were dropping all interest and penalties. All Senbet has to do is make his final payment on the television. He's elated, and grateful for all the help, he said Tuesday, before his shift at the parking lot where he has worked for 10 years. Fiddler reports Senbet is back to enjoying CNN, National Geographic and the Christian channel on his television, and is no longer confused.

Klobuchar said her office made it clear to the bank that everyone should be treated like Senbet. "It's good that this got resolved, but it shouldn't take a newspaper column and a call from a U.S. senator's office for that to happen," she said. "It's unfortunate that credit card companies have continued to take advantage of consumers with unfair and deceptive practices. New federal legislation will take effect in February 2010 that will add stronger protections for consumers."

Fiddler said he'd just like to acknowledge the actions of Sears and the credit card company.

"As a student of theology, I learned that the word compassion comes from the idea of sharing suffering [passion] with [comme] another," Fiddler said. "Was Citigroup being compassionate with Assefa or cutting its losses? It would be nice to think this was more than an isolated act of self-interested kindness. Is the idea that banks can feel your pain too radical of a thought?"

When Sears finally called Fiddler to settle the problem, he wished the woman a Merry Christmas, he said, and she wished him one back.