El Jefe

Card Shark

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It didn't work out the way Barham planned. He says he and a friend from Houston invested half a million dollars. Though handsome cards picturing vintage motorcycles like a 1913 Indian Twin were issued in 1993, sales were disappointing. He says Harley-Davidson double-crossed him after he called the company, as a courtesy, to report his plans. "They put together their own cards and sold 400 million cards in no time," he fumes. "It really put a damper on my business."

San Francisco court records show that his landlord at the time, the Woo Family Trust, sued to make him pay $900 in rent in June 1993. Though the dispute was settled a couple of months later, Woo won a judgment of $6,818 against him in September 1995. Around the same time, an outfit called KFH Land Co. sued Barham in county court in San Francisco, demanding $25,584. Barham defaulted on both. Barham says the Woos were after him because he led a rent strike over poor living conditions, and "I just walked away from it." He says he has no idea what the second judgment was about.

But that was only the beginning of his problems. In 1995 and 1996, Barham issued a series of trading cards featuring marijuana. They pictured California Red, Sri Lankan, Afghan... you get the idea. The buds look tasty. The prose? Well, how's this: "It has become a cliché in our times that Marijuana should be made legal and taxable... If the alternative amounts to a police state and/or police state mentality, then we must do something soon to change the status quo and the direction in which we as a society are going. We appear to be evolving into a circumstance that will be increasingly difficult to reverse."

He claims he sold 35 million pot cards. "Head shops and hippies, that was my market," he says. "Then Tower Records began selling them."

Even so, Barham's financial fortunes didn't improve markedly. In 1996, after he moved to a place at 210 Hillcrest Ave. in Berkeley, California, his landlord, Halcyon Ferrari, tried to evict him for unpaid rent. Barham made out an $83 check to the court. It bounced. In February 1997, a $6,800 judgment was entered against Barham and his roommate.

In 1998, Barham came up with yet another brilliant collector-card idea: tattoos and body piercing. He called tattoo shops around the country, gathered pictures of some of their weirdest creations -- think black-and-white-striped buttocks -- and assembled prototypes. From a card: "Tattoo Piercing and Body Modification appear to be an individualistic response to an increasingly conservative and predictable culture."

"These didn't hit the market that well," Barham says. "I got out of the business."

No wonder. In 1998, the State of California placed a lien against his property for $3,500 for unpaid taxes. The next year, the state added $21,100 more. And in May 2001, California filed a lien against Barham for $53,000. According to the state Department of Revenue, his company, InLine Cards, hadn't filed a state tax return since 1992 and can no longer do business in California. Barham blames any problem related to income tax on his accountant, who he says is now out of business. "I don't know what happened since I left California," he shrugs. "I never took any money from anyone, nor have I done anything dishonest."

Barham says he moved back to Key Biscayne in 1998. He worked for a time as a stockbroker. When his mother became ill, he moved north to Delray Beach. That move, as it happened, didn't pan out very well either.

In March 2000, a Topeka, Kansas, newspaper called him one of 30,000 "independent marketing associates" for a company, Renaissance: the Tax People, that was under federal investigation. This past April, prosecutors charged one top employee with being part of a conspiracy that defrauded the public of $100 million. Barham was not accused of participating in the misdeeds, which prosecutors have called a pyramid scheme.

A company he formed in March 2001 to match accountants with clients, Professional Referral Services, didn't do well either. When the landlord of the house where he now lives in Delray Beach tried to evict him in July 2001, he penned a pathetic, error-ridden letter to the judge pleading for time. "Our business projections fell perilously below the targets we believed could reasonably be reached... Dispute the 80 plus hour week efforts... we have fallen seriously behind in our rental payments... Never the less, we believe we have discovered the error of our ways."

In August 2001, Barham signed over a property he owned west of Homestead to the landlord and thus managed to keep the roof over his head.

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Chuck Strouse is the former editor in chief of Miami New Times. He has shared two Pulitzer Prizes and won dozens of other awards. He is an honors graduate of Brown University and has worked at newspapers including the Miami Herald and Los Angeles Times.
Contact: Chuck Strouse