Mark J. Grisanti filed for personal bankruptcy due to heavy credit card and other personal debt in 2005, five years before he was first elected to the State Senate, according to U.S. Bankruptcy Court records.
Grisanti, who is in a closely watched re-election race because of his controversial vote for same-sex marriage in 2011, acknowledged the bankruptcy Thursday but said the timing of the disclosure just days before the election was suspicious.
Grisanti said he got into financial trouble when debts dating from his college and graduate school days mounted, at the same time as his wife, Maria, lost her part-time work.
“Basically, in 2005, I had to make a choice: losing my home or getting rid of these credit card debts,” Grisanti said. “Back then, I was no different from many others, facing a difficulty.”
The Buffalo News checked into the Buffalo senator’s financial records in response to a tip.
“This is public record,” Grisanti said. “But for this to come up five days before an election, to me is a despicable attempt to turn this into a campaign issue.”
Grisanti, 48, an attorney who works in a law office his family has occupied on the West Side for three generations, declared he had credit card debts totaling $72,100 in the Chapter 7 filing made in September 2005.
The credit card debt included five separate cards, with the highest balance amounting to $26,700, court documents show.
The records further showed that the North Buffalo resident also stated that he had slightly more than $44,000 in student loan debt as of 2005.
“Look, I had financial difficulties before I was a senator,” Grisanti said. “This was back in 2005. I wasn’t a senator back then. This has nothing to do with how I work as a senator in bringing resources to Western New York.”
Grisanti, a Republican, is running for re-election in the 60th State Senate District, which spans Buffalo and parts of its northern and southern suburbs.
He has raised sizable campaign contributions, including from gay rights groups and activists, in the wake of his controversial vote on same-sex marriage in 2011 – and has been spending as much as $20,000 a day on his campaign.
The senator said Thursday that the 2005 bankruptcy was due to growing bills and rising interest on the credit card debts he had started accruing in college and law school, where he had used the cards to fund his books, classes, and living expenses – first at Canisius College, then at Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Michigan.
“It’s embarrassing,” Grisanti said. “One of the experiences I got out of this – because it was embarrassing – is that I do a lot of pro bono legal work.
“Because I lived it. It wasn’t pleasant.”
In the court records related to his bankruptcy case, Grisanti, who represented himself as an attorney in the matter, cited payments for all credit cards totaling about $1,200 a month.
He said Thursday that his interest rates on some cards ballooned from about 9 percent to nearly 30 percent during the years between his law school graduation and the time he filed for Chapter 7 protection.
“It became impossible to keep paying the credit card debt,” Grisanti said. “[The higher interest rates] are what I started being charged about a year prior to me filing. Prior to that, I had made all my payments.”
Grisanti was first elected to the State Senate in 2010, beating incumbent Antoine M. Thompson in a tough race.
In his current campaign, Grisanti is squaring off against Michael L. Amodeo, a Hamburg attorney who is the Democratic candidate, and Charles M. Swanick, a Kenmore resident and former Erie County legislator who is running on the Conservative line.
Grisanti has heavily outspent both Amodeo and Swanick in the race. He has received significant amounts of campaign contributions, many of them from across the state and the nation in the aftermath of his vote last year to legalize same-sex marriage in the state.
In 2005, Grisanti filed as an individual in the Chapter 7 action, which was handled by Carl L. Bucki, chief judge of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of New York.
He listed debts including the jointly held mortgage on his North Buffalo home, valued at slightly more than $100,000 at the time.
Monthly expenses cited by Grisanti in the filing included $420 for student loan payments and more than $900 in mortgage payments, federal court records show.
Grisanti stated at the time that his net monthly take-home income totaled $4,900, the federal court documents show.
He had office expenses, including office supplies and a secretary, and other household and living expenses, the records show.
Grisanti’s wife was not part of the bankruptcy action . However, Maria Grisanti factors into the filing, which cites the fact that she had lost her part-time jobs – both at a local bank and for Erie County – in 2005.
Grisanti’s assets at the time included a home on Duluth Avenue in the city, $300 in cash on hand, $800 in a joint checking account with his wife, and $4,500 in household goods and furnishings, bankruptcy court records show. He reported owning a 2000 Buick Regal valued at $2,500.
In the filing, Grisanti claimed that he was owed $1,700 on legal work he had completed for clients that he had not been paid. “Unable to collect,” the records read.
“Unfortunately, it gets bigger every year, trust me,” Grisanti said of the fees he is not able to collect at his law practice. “You want to collect, but I probably have 30 or 40 files where I won’t collect. People are struggling.”
In typical Chapter 7 resolutions, the debtor’s credit card debt and some other unsecured debt is wiped away, but student loans and mortgages typically are not.
Grisanti said that held true in his case. His credit card debt was eliminated, but his student loans and mortgage payments were not, he said.
The 2005 filing was the only bankruptcy Grisanti has had, he said, adding that “I’ve never made any attempt to hide it.”
The candidates in the 60th State Senate District race will debate in a live videocast at 11 a.m. today on BuffaloNews.com.