A story you won’t read in tomorrow’s Star-Telegram

Laid-off Fort Worth Star-Telegram Watchdog columnist Dave Lieber won two top prizes at Friday night’s 2013 First Amendment Awards Dinner from the Society of Professional Journalists/Fort Worth chapter.

Columnist Lieber, who lost his job after 20 years in January, was the only Star-Telegram staffer who won the contest. SPJ is America’s oldest journalism organization, founded 104 years ago.

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Lieber says he’s not ready to give up on newspapers — or his readers.

Other winners came from Fort Worth Weekly, The Oklahoman, San Antonio Current, Corpus Christi Caller-Times, Texas Watchdog, The Ellis County Press, Texas Public Radio and WFAA-TV, Channel 8.

Lieber won first place in the Opinion/Commentary category for his piece called “Texas Insurance Department has made disciplinary information harder to find.” Lieber revealed that the state agency had hidden information from the public about disciplinary actions against members of the insurance industry. He asked the public to complain to the state about this coverup.

Apparently, enough did.  After the column appeared, the policy, initiated by Texas Insurance Commissioner Eleanor Kirtzman, was reversed a few days later and the public information was once again made available. That helped Texas consumers learn whom to avoid in the insurance industry.

Judges from the Indiana chapter of SPJ stated, “A very good example of what a columnist who serves as government watchdog should do – raise enough hell to shame public officials into acting on the public’s behalf.”

Accepting the award, Lieber, who founded consumer rights movement WatchdogNation, told the audience, “I like raising hell.”

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Lieber also won first place for Opening the Books for a story that uses business or public records to report on corporate practices. His winning column – “One DFW travel business takes on another” – traced the secret owners of Oasis Getaway, a Southlake, Texas travel club that charged excessive fees for helping consumers plan trips. The company closed its offices after the column appeared.

The judges said, “It was easy to see the digging involved with specific records cited.”

Accepting the award, Lieber cried out with a smile, “I need a job.”

Last year, Lieber won national, state and local journalism awards for his columns. (Read more here.)

In addition, one of Lieber’s heroes, the late Betty Brink of Fort Worth Weekly, was honored posthumously with the Open Doors Award for lifetime achievement. (Read Lieber’s letter to the newspaper when Brink passed away here.)

When Lieber was laid off in January for economic reasons, readers of the newspaper were never informed. Lieber says he still receives letters, emails and phone calls from readers almost every day asking what happened to him. (Read Fort Worth Weekly’s take here.)

For instance, on the day of the April 19, 2013 SPJ banquet, Lieber received this note from a senior engineer at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics: “I’ve always enjoyed your reporting. I kept clicking on the Star-Telegram link, week after week, thinking you must be on an important assignment and would eventually return. It slowly dawned on me you weren’t there anymore. That’s when I started looking for you. If they’d informed me you’d departed, I’d have looked much sooner. That must be why the Dave Lieber button is still there – it keeps us from suspecting anything and turning our attention away from ST.”

And maybe that’s why you won’t read about Lieber’s latest awards in tomorrow’s Star-Telegram.

Final note: Lieber’s winning pieces were edited by his former editor Lois Norder, now the investigations editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Norder was laid off from the Star-Telegram in August 2012, five months before her columnist. (Read “Lois Norder, One of America’s Best Newspaper Editors.”)

One of America's top journalists

Lois Norder

 

Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation wins national, state and local awards in 2012

In the past year, Watchdog Nation has been helped by readers and their wonderful suggestions and tips for future investigations.

We are pleased to announce that some of our recent stories won national, state and local awards in 2012. Here’s a list.

Local: The Fort Worth Society of Professional Journalists, 1st place for First Amendment Awards for reporting on open government.

 State: The Texas Associated Press Managing Editors, honorable mention for community service.

 National: The National Society of Newspaper Columnists, 2nd place in general-interest columns for large metro newspapers.

 The judge in that contest, Tom Ferrick Jr., former metro columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, writes: “If I were a government official in Texas and picked up the phone to hear, ‘This is Dave Lieber,’ my heart would skip a beat. And not from joy. Lieber is a classic watchdog journalist, looking out for the little guy – and he gets results. While it’s admirable that he is an ombudsman, it’s his flair and skill as a writer that earn him this award.”

 Read the web version of some of the prize-winning Watchdog columns:

 160  constituents make a difference with bill on North Texas Tollway Authority

 Fort Worth Official resigns after boss finds backlog of open-records requests

 Investors in Bless 7 financial program start complaining

 # # #

 The Watchdog appears regularly in the Star-Telegram here.

 

Watchdog Nation to testify before Texas Legislature

Should Texas roofers be licensed?

Yes, according to Watchdog Nation founder Dave Lieber, who will testify before the Texas Senate Business & Commerce Committee in favor of Senate Bill 311 sponsored by Senator John Carona, who is also chairman of the committee.

Watchdog Nation actually began after Lieber hired a roofer who roofed the wrong house! Then the second roofer Lieber hired went to prison for criminal theft. Read about Shawn Tatum here.

After that experience, Lieber decided to create a consumer rights movement that not only helped him stay out of trouble, but also everyone else.

"Roofer" Shawn Tatum, a convicted thief, is the spur that began Watchdog Nation. Photo courtesy of CBS11

“Roofer” Shawn Tatum, a convicted thief, is the spur that began Watchdog Nation. Photo courtesy of CBS11

Watchdog Nation has since shown thousands of Americans how to fight back and win.

Texas licenses hairstylists, used auto parts recyclers and auctioneers, but not roofers — or home builders.

So it’s not uncommon for consumers who hire a roofer to feel as if they were burned afterward. Often they complain to the North Texas Roofing Contractors Association, but that’s a professional organization that isn’t law enforcement. The NTRCA supports the bill. In fact, the group has pushed for it for years to clean up the profession. Excellent roofers are hurt by unscrupulous ones, too.

Watchdog Nation often gets complaints about horrible roofers. Here’s one Watchdog Nation example: Women learns lesson about checking a contractor’s background.

Learn about Senate Bill 311 here.

 

WORLD EXCLUSIVE: AT&T will take $14 off your phone bill, but there’s a catch

   Here’s big news that could save you $168 a year on your phone bill. But of course, AT&T isn’t calling to tell you.

   Watchdog Nation is.

   You may be entitled to a $14 reduction on your monthly phone bill – plus another three months of back credit for another $42. Over a year, that’s $168.

   But there’s a catch. Only Watchdog Nation, the consumer rights movement led by founder Dave Lieber, an investigative columnist, can tell you how to do this. In four words.

   You. Have. To. Ask.

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   Here’s the deal. One of the many free-and-easy guiding principles of Dave’s Watchdog Nation is this: you have to remember to ask each of your providers (cable, satellite TV, Internet, phone, electric) every few months if they are running any specials that will lower your bill. Tell them their competitors are offering you better prices.

   Almost every time we do it, it works.

   The other day, we, at Watchdog Nation World Headquarters in Texas, called AT&T’s customer service line. It’s no secret that Watchdog Nation is no fan of this corporate beast. (See our post “Is AT&T America’s worst company?”).

   What we learned in that call surprised us.  Turns out that for the past few months, AT&T has offered a new discount program that it has not publicized. Remember: You. Have. To. Ask. [pullquote]It’s called the “All Distance Bundle Package.”[/pullquote]

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    It’s called the “All Distance Bundle Package.”

   This is available to all AT&T customers who meet the requirements: aAnyone who has the “premium unlimited long distance and local calling plan” with AT&T and WHO ALSO pays for another AT&T service using the same name and Social Security number, can get the $14 monthly discount.

   Other services that qualify include: any U-verse product; any DSL Internet product (all speeds qualify); any wireless plan rated at $39.99 per month or higher, or anyone who subscribes to DirecTV.

   In other words, if you use AT&T, say, for your home landline and also have U-verse TV or DirecTV, you get $14 off your bill.

   But …

   You. Have. To. Ask.

   Remember the name: The All Distance Bundle Package.

   * * *

   Do you like this kind of up-to-date inside information? Learning how to save money, avoid scams and be smart about how you spend your dollar?

   You’ll love the new 2013 edition of the national award-winning book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong. Learn more at Dave’s bookstore here.

   Dave also shares Watchdog Nation’s simple concepts with a hundred or more audiences a year. Learn how to get Dave to visit your group here.

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong won two national awards for social change.

How to survive 20 years as a Texas newspaperman without voodoo

   Forget the awards and the thousands of columns I wrote and all the people I met and helped — and who helped me. Looking back on 20 years as a columnist at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram — a career that ended with a layoff last week — I’m proudest of the little box.

  The box is called “Voodoo Lou’s Office Voodoo Kit.”

   It sounds silly, I know. But I’m proud that I never felt the need to open it.

Voodoo kit voodoo office kit 2   

   Voodoo Lou was my backup. My nuclear option. If things ever got too tough for me in the hard-assed politics of a newspaper newsroom, I could open the box, pull out the doll and start sticking pins in it.

   Life is a test. Do they get to you? Or not? I bought that box in New Orleans. Where else? But as long as that doll stayed in the box, I controlled my destiny.

   To understand why that matters is to know my close relationship with the Star-Telegram. I dreamed of joining a newspaper as a columnist since I was 14. After 22 years of learning how to write and hundreds of rejection letters from across the country, S-T editor Mike Blackman hired me as a columnist in 1993 with instructions to practice what he called “New York style journalism.” The dream had come true. I was a columnist! But I was so naive and new to Texas that I didn’t realize that New York-styled anything doesn’t necessarily play well.

   I came down here from New York where I grew up and Philly where I attended Penn and later worked at the legendary Philadelphia Inquirer during its Pulitzer prize-winning heyday. I wrote a comic story about my Yankee-to-Texan transformation in the Pennsylvania Gazette here.

   As a new Texan, I was oh-so-rough around the edges. The S-T polished me up. Taught me how to behave. Act proper, as Texans say. Learning that the “you” is more important than the “I.” Listening is more important than talking. Getting both sides of every story and being fair to everyone. That’s what matters here.

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   As part of that, I was drilled in customer service techniques. I bought into it, so much so that I eventually taught the course in training sessions to the rest of the company. (Me? Ha!) For 100 years since it was founded by the legendary Amon Carter, the Star-Telegram has worked to be nice to people. Positive stories. Millions donated to the community. Embedding its staffers in committees, boards and foundations.

   Being nice? At a newspaper? Really?  

   * * *

   “There’s no bogging Dave down with office politics or other concerns. He knows who he is and what he wants to accomplish. But he doesn’t come across as arrogant or above the work that others at the Star-Telegram do. He shows respect for them and may be the first to tell a colleague they’ve done a good job.”  — From Dave’s annual job review, August 2012.

   * * * 

   It’s 1993. My first column. By way of introduction, I ask readers if chicken-fried steak is chicken or steak. I know. It’s a dumb way to begin. Maybe the dumbest. As I struggle to find my columnist voice, the bosses assist by assigning me extra duties. I am ordered to sell subscriptions door-to-door at night so I can understand the product. I am assigned to sit on a United Way committee creating an emergency hotline number. And there’s the company picnic committee. I get that plum assignment, too.

   Twenty years fly by. Lots of good things happen. I’m The Watchdog columnist. Thousands come to me each year with their pleas for help with unsolvable problems or tips about government or corporate corruption. Newspapers may be dying, but my column brims with life. “So many problems, so little time,” my outgoing voice mail greeting explains. My plate is full.

Watchdog Ad

   Then it all stops.

   I’m the latest casualty in the slow death of one of the most important industries in the history of the world – the 400-year-old newspaper business. Former Kansas City Star columnist Bill Tammeus writes on how my departure fits into the bigger picture here.

   I knew the inevitable was coming. So I prepared. Jeff Prince wrote about my layoff and future plans in Fort Worth Weekly here.

   The Star-Telegram gave me many gifts in 20 years. The freedom to write what I wanted. To kick butt like all newspapers should (and hardly do anymore). To root out corruption, chase after bullies, right wrongs, tell great stories, give folks a laugh and help make lives better. Wow.

   With the publisher’s approval, I co-founded the Summer Santa children’s charity, now in its 17th year. The paper backs it with thousands of dollars worth of publicity and donations.

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   The S-T allowed me to propose marriage to my future wife, her two children and her doggone little dog in my Sunday column. You can read that national award-winning story here. Or listen to me read it here.

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   The paper gave me room not only to write a column but also launch a national consumer rights movement, WatchdogNation.com.

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   I had lots of old-fashioned stupid newspaper fun, too. Ran my young son Austin for governor of Texas. (And raised money for Summer Santa in the process). Watch his TV commercial here.

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   And against the editors’ best advice, I rode bulls in rodeos, too. Don’t believe me?  Here’s the video.

bullride

   Most important, I got to partner with a brilliant editor, Lois Norder, who for all of those 20 years helped me work toward being what Oregon columnist Bob Welch so kindly described me as “America’s quintessential columnist: likeable, passionate, and hard-driving. Nothing could stop him.” Bob wrote an uplifting column about what my layoff means for him here.

   Lois is now investigations editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the paper where I began as an intern. I wrote a tribute to Lois here. In this pic below, Lois doesn’t know what to make of me showing up for a meeting in a Revolutionary era costume. Why? Watchdog Nation is revolutionary!

  

   “If I were a government official in Texas and picked up the phone to hear, ‘This is Dave Lieber,’ my heart would skip a beat. And not from joy. Lieber is a classic watchdog journalist, looking out for the little guy — and he gets results. While it is admirable that he is an ombudsman, it’s his flair and skill as a writer that earn him this award.” — Judge in the National Society of Newspaper Columnists 2012 contest who awarded Dave 2nd place for large U.S. newspapers.

   * * * 

   When they call me in on vacation, I figure the meeting is about my contributing video reports for the paper’s new iPad edition. Before the meeting, I search my library for a history book called The American Newspaper Columnist. My plan is to show the editors the line in the book stating that I “pioneered” the “multi-media Internet column” at the Star-Telegram in the middle 1990s with a regularly produced “video column.” Going back to my roots. Whatever you need, boss. I’ll do anything to help us survive. That’s what I plan to say. But I can’t find the book.

   It’s an omen.

   The purpose of the meeting is to tell me it’s over. I’m not expecting this. Well, I am, eventually, just not at this moment.

   * * * 

   “Say it ain’t so.” — Missy Cook Beevers reacting to layoff news on Dave’s Facebook page.

   “And Lieber did a lot of good for the community, looking out for underdogs, the voiceless, the aged, the conned, and the screwed over.” — Jeff Prince writing in Fort Worth Weekly

   “If wealth is counted in friends, Dave Lieber is the richest man in Texas.” — Paul B. Moore on Facebook

    * * *

   My father died at age 90 in July. He’s the one who sent me, as a teenager, out for the newspaper every night. That’s how I met the great columnists, including my hero Pete Hamill. My eulogy for Dad is here.

   Aside from losing Dad, I’m losing a gazillion readers. We’ve been hanging out together several times a week for 20 years. Will they find me on the Internet? And what about my gutsy sources? Where do they go for help?

   The assistant in the school superintendent’s office who secretly helps me analyze documents I received through an open records request so I can figure out what went wrong.

   The City Hall tipster who makes an anonymous call from a pay phone at night.

   The employee so paranoid about giving me information that she visits me in a disguise.

   And the people, all the people with requests for help. Where will they go?

   The friend of 5th-grade teacher Theresa Neil who tells me that Neil is dying of cancer. Her death wish is to meet Emmitt Smith. “Can you bring Emmitt to her classroom?”

   Check.

emmitt

   The 100-year-old Arlington woman who writes a check to her insurance company for $480 instead of $4.80. Ruth Wingfield, shown below, has a hard time getting a refund. “Can you scare ’em?” she asks.

   Check.

Ruth Wingfield at 100

   The big-time preacher, shown below, secretly running church members for city council so he can take over the local government. Perfect for zoning changes he seeks. “Can you expose that?”

   Check.

The pastor

   The city council holding public meetings over dinner in restaurants at taxpayers’ expense. “Can you get them to stop?”

   Check.

   A press pass is a ticket to a front-row seat watching the world, Pete Hamill says. It’s also a way to make things better, day after day, year after year, column after column. What a truly American honor. Every day, I saw being a newspaper columnist that way.

  press pass

   “This past year, Dave’s writing has been more consistently strong. He’s conversational and punchy. He can take complex stories and tell them in simple and engaging ways. He listens attentively to editor feedback — and he has applied lessons he has learned from the coaching seminars he has attended on his own to help him as a public speaker.” — From Dave’s 2012 job review.

   * * * 

   I wrote my final column as a farewell column. I was taught to always write every column like it’s the last. Only this one was the last, but I didn’t know it at the time.  That piece is here, as long as the link is up.

   Then I went to Vegas on vacation for a “Laugh Lab” humor conference led by the National Speakers Association. There I laughed — and learned — for three days from the “faculty,” shown below, along with me and the other students.

Faculty at the Laugh Lab kept me laughing.

 

   On the last day, my wife Karen, Austin, the almost governor, and I flew in a small plane above the Grand Canyon. I listened to Ave Maria on my headset. I felt something strong up there. God was preparing me for my next step. (See, to my old New Yorker friends, that’s what talking proper like a Texan sounds like.)

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   If you’re gonna lose your job, I do recommend laughing your hiney off for three days, then having a quasi-religious experience above the Grand Canyon beforehand. Puts everything in perspective.

   Fortunately, I’ve been building my new life for a decade. I’ve spoken to more than a thousand audiences in the U.S., Mexico and Canada. For me, writing and speaking go together. Now I get to do more of the latter.

   Sure, I’ll miss writing every week in a newspaper, something I’ve done for 38 years. My online sites are WatchdogNation.com, YankeeCowboy.com and  YourStoryBlowsMeAway.com. But I do love the platform and the live audience. The telling of stories and the sharing of ideas designed to make life better is a lot more fun in person than it is writing alone in a dark room. So helping others is the key to life ahead. Like a proper Texan.

    * * *

   Last week my final piece of mail arrived at the newspaper. It was a card. “Thank you so much,” it said. But nobody signed it.

   I’ll say in my proper Texas voice what my final editor at the paper, John Gravois, always says when he’s thanked for something:

   “No, thank you!!”

cowboy hat tip

 – 30-

 Dave Lieber

Watchdog Columnist

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Read a recent magazine profile about Dave by Rhonda Ross that gives more of the story here.

Catch Dave’s latest happenings on Twitter @DaveLieber.

Visit Dave’s Yankee Cowboy Store for books, CDs and other cool stuff.

 

A Texas Department of Insurance Cover-up

Update to readers: After this piece appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Dave Lieber Watchdog column, the Texas Insurance Department changed its policy and restored open government. In August, 2012, State Senator Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, cited this episode in a letter to press release about a letter she went to Texas Gov. Rick Perry seeking the resignation of Texas Insurance Commissioner Eleanor Kirtzman. Here’s the original report, with slight updates.

# # #

With governments everywhere moving much of the people’s business online for easy accessibility, the Texas Insurance Department took a big step in the opposite direction.

Until September 2011, the department, which promises to protect insurance customers, publicly released the names of insurance companies and agents who violated state rules. The September announcement, for example, noted that Great American Assurance Co. was fined $195,000 for failure to file policy forms or endorsements containing property and casualty benefits and that the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association failed to process claims in a timely manner or pay claims for storm damage that is a covered loss. Information on violators was also available in the department’s newsletter, TDInSight.

No longer.

Less than two months after Gov. Rick Perry appointed Eleanor Kitzman state insurance commissioner, the department abandoned its longtime practice of naming names. The information was still available, but with some heavy strings attached. You had to write and ask for it.

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong

For example, the most recent announcement, on April 25, says seven insurance agents had their licenses revoked and paid fines and restitution totaling $270,950. Want the names? Continue reading: “Copies of Commissioner’s Orders may be obtained by contacting TDI’s Public Information Office.”

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong

That’s an extra step that most consumers searching for the latest news on violators probably won’t take. And it protects the names of offenders since they will no longer show up in Internet search results.

I asked the department how many people had requested the list, and the answer was four.

The Watchdog asked the department for an interview with Kitzman. Spokesman John Greeley’s response? “The commissioner is not available for an interview.”

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Go figure. Online you can find out about all kinds of licensed professionals who get in trouble with the state. No problem finding out the names of nurses who get their licenses revoked or suspended. Actions by the Texas State Securities Board are a click away. The Texas Medical Board issues news releases naming disciplined docs.

The State Bar eventually reports the names of lawyers who run afoul of ethics rules. The Board of Architectural Examiners reports on architects who transgress, and the Department of Licensing and Regulation reports on auctioneers, barbers, electricians and 26 other occupations.

Alex Winslow, whose group Texas Watch monitors the Insurance Department, said Kitzman’s “job is to police the insurance industry and look out for the interests of policyholders. And if she’s sweeping these disciplinary actions under the rug, she’s doing the exact opposite. She’s covering the backsides of unscrupulous agents and insurance companies.”

Why is this information important?

“From a consumer’s point of view,” Winslow said, “that information must be public and must be available so that insurance customers know what they’re dealing with, whether it’s an unscrupulous agent or a company with a pattern of unfair claims practices. This is key information that insurance customers need when they’re making a decision about what agent and what insurance company to use, and how they’re going to spend their hard-earned money.”

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong

Gov. Rick Perry appointed Kitzman

I sent the Insurance Department questions but received only this statement: “TDI strictly enforces the Texas Insurance Code and takes prompt action when entities (companies or agents) violate the law. While not every regulatory action is equally newsworthy, TDI will continue to highlight enforcement actions of greater or broader significance, especially instances of fraud, to serve as a deterrent.”

Kitzman, originally from Texas, made a name for herself as South Carolina’s insurance commissioner. She’s also a close friend of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. Kitzman ran as a Republican for South Carolina lieutenant governor in 2010. She collected more than half her donations from the insurance industry, according to reports. She lost, but when she learned about the Texas opening, she applied and was selected by Perry.

Kitzman has been accused by critics of politicizing her regulatory office. A month after taking charge, she served as a star attraction at a September Republican fundraiser that attracted insurance bigwigs she’s supposed to regulate. The event was for her mentor, Haley. But it also served as Kitzman’s coming-out party, held at the Las Colinas corporate offices of Ethos Group, an insurance and consulting company. The Texas Observer released a copy of the invitation that said, “Also in attendance will be the new Texas Commissioner, Eleanor Kitzman.” Suggested ticket price to meet Haley and the commissioner: $500.

Her ties to the industry may call into question the reasons the department decided to protect the names of the disciplined.

# # #

Followup: After this piece appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Dave Lieber Watchdog column, the Insurance Department changed its policy. The names of those cited for improper actions were returned to the state website.

In August, 2012, State Senator Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, cited this episode in a letter press release about a letter she sent to Texas Gov. Rick Perry seeking Kirtzman’s removal from office.

# # #

Do you want to learn more about how to expose government wrongdoing? How to protect yourself from bad folks in the insurance industry? How to fight for openness in government and business? These tips and many others are in the award-winning book by Dave Lieber, author of this story. His book Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, shows you how to fight back — and win! The book is available at WatchdogNation.com as a hardcover, CD audio book, e-book and hey, what else do you need? The author is The Watchdog columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Visit our store. Now revised and expanded in a 2012 edition, the book won two national book awards for social change.

Read The Watchdog Nation manifesto here!

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Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong

Watchdog Nation reveals New Mexico crime ring preying on Texas senior citizens

An identity theft ring based in Albuquerque has stolen the identities of 232 people, most with ties to Tarrant County, Albuquerque police tells Watchdog Nation.

Turns out the thieves got the information from an unlikely place: Tarrant County court records available free online for use by the public.

As readers of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Dave Lieber Watchdog column first learned, millions of records with sensitive information were on the county website.

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong

Courtesy of golocalworcester.com

A member of the criminal ring showed an Albuquerque police detective on a computer how easy it was to pull names, birth dates, and Social Security and driver’s license numbers from county clerk records, according to a police report.

Data miners, part of a drug ring, used the information to steal the identities of Texans and residents of other states who had ties to Tarrant County through court cases, Albuquerque police say. The ring used the information to open lines of credit in the names of some of the victims.

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong

Victim Rebecca Watson of Fort Worth says she learned about the ring from Albuquerque police. She says that a detective told her he notified the county clerk’s office in November but that nothing had changed.

The detective was unavailable for comment.

County Clerk Mary Louise Garcia told me that nobody informed her what was happening until early March, when Sheriff Dee Anderson was briefed by Albuquerque police.

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong

Mary Louise Garcia

Garcia said she took immediate and unprecedented action when she learned of the criminal investigation in New Mexico.

She said she hired a vendor to audit 12 million court documents in her office’s online repository.

The vendor found that 2 million records on the website listed birth dates or Social Security or driver’s license numbers. Those included divorce records, real estate and family law records, and a dozen other types of court documents.

Garcia ordered that records with sensitive information be removed from online viewing. The vendor is deleting sensitive information before Garcia places the records back online.

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The process, which will cost about $89,000, should take several weeks, she said.

The paper versions of the 2 million documents containing sensitive information are still available for public viewing at the courthouse, as required by law.

Worries that online court records could be an easy source for ID thieves have been voiced for years, but county officials say this is the first major case that has come to their attention.

“It’s one of the vulnerabilities we all face,” Anderson said.

Five years ago, county clerk offices statewide rebelled after an attorney general opinion said they must redact Social Security numbers from court records, including those online. Offices froze in confusion, and some shut down. A week later, the attorney general’s office, citing complaints from legislators, rescinded its opinion.

Then the Legislature enacted a law permitting people to ask that their own Social Security numbers (but no other identifying information) be removed from paper court records as long as the requesters know the document, page and volume number.

County officials say only a few people each year do that, because most don’t know what’s in court records from old cases. The problem is that, for decades, sensitive data have been routinely used in court documents to legally identify the parties involved.

Some, such as County District Clerk Tom Wilder, want state law changed to allow a “sensitive data sheet” to be included in court filings but available for use only by the parties and court officials; it would never see the light of day in public paper files or online.

Because of the grand scope of this criminal investigation, lawmakers may look at requiring online records statewide to be scrubbed in a way similar to what Tarrant County is doing.

The law did not require Garcia to pull records and remove personal information. “It’s something we want to do in our office to protect our constituents,” she said. “The minute I found out [about the investigation], my administration — we moved on it.”

County officials know little about the criminal investigation, but Albuquerque police spokeswoman Tasia Martinez told Watchdog Nation that officers are immersed in writing a report detailing what happened to the 232 victims.

About 40 are thought to live in Tarrant County. The office has sent letters to victims, though some have been returned with bad addresses.

Several New Mexicans have been charged with theft.

Watson says thieves opened accounts in her name and ran up large charges. Her sensitive information, a detective told her, was culled from her 1999 divorce records.

One of the people arrested in the case told police that she searched divorces on the Tarrant County website until she found papers with Social Security numbers, then copied down the information, according to a police report.

Watson filed a redaction form with the county to remove her Social Security number from paper records. With the online cleanup under way, too, anyone who tries to access her divorce records will get the message, “Access is denied to that item.”

That’s all she ever wanted.

# # #

Want to protect yourself from ID theft? Are you tired of fighting the bank, the credit card company, the electric company and the phone company? They can be worse than scammers the way they treat customers. A popular book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, shows you how to fight back — and win! The book is available at WatchdogNation.com as a hardcover, CD audio book, e-book and hey, what else do you need? The author is The Watchdog columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Visit our store. Now revised and expanded in a 2012 edition, the book won two national book awards for social change. 

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Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong

Lois Norder Among Americas Best Newspaper Editors

By Dave Lieber/Founder, Watchdog Nation

 When one of my journalistic heroes, the irascible Jimmy Breslin, columnist of New York City, won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1986, he said to everyone in his cheering newsroom these words about his editor:

 “This award actually goes to Sharon Rosenhause, but I’m not speaking to her.”

 As I celebrate the 19th anniversary of my stay at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as metro columnist, I say almost the same about my editor:

 “This award actually goes to Lois Norder, and I AM speaking to her.”

 This year, a year for which I will be forever grateful, my Watchdog column won local, state and national awards.

 Nowhere on the awards, though, does the name Lois Norder appear alongside mine. A terrible oversight.  One that needs to be corrected. Have you heard of Lois Norder? Probably not. Yet she’s one of America’s top newspaperwomen.

One of America's top journalists

Lois Norder, Managing Editor/News & Investigations

 I know this because I have worked for her for 19 years. How many can say they’ve had the same boss for two decades? And not just any boss, but a boss who lifts you up and helps you see the big picture, the vision you must deliver to your readers week in and week out to stay vital in their busy lives. Simply put, unlike anyone I know, I’ve worked for the same great boss for 19 years. And that made all the difference.

 Texas is, more than anything else, a place to find your dreams. And so I had come to Texas to pursue my Breslinesque dream of writing columns that helped people live better lives. I left a newspaper with a paid Sunday circulation 10 times larger than the circulation of the edition at my new job at the Star-Telegram. In retrospect, it’s a good thing circulation wasn’t larger. I was no good.

 How could I be? I was making a leap of faith that things would work out in this strange new place of Texas, far, far from my hometown of Manhattan. At first, though, nothing worked. I was a tepid Yankee writer struggling in “Foat Worth” — where the West begins.

 My No. 1 boss struggled, too, with my style, my writer’s voice, my choice of story ideas. She was unhappy with me. Nobody liked my work, including me. The No. 2 editor in the office was quieter, more nurturing and smart as hell. She took an opposite tact. She worked with me, slowly and carefully, building my confidence. Then she did what every writer in the world needs to succeed. She began to talk me up. Told anyone who’d listen that I wasn’t nearly as bad as No. 1 and everyone else, including me, believed. She saw something that nobody else did. Lois Norder was my first Texas defender.

 When she was promoted to the No. 1 job and became my direct supervisor, she taught me how to pursue a higher level of story, looking into the reasons why problems happened, and what can be done to fix and change them for the better. That quest to look at problems in different ways, more than anything else, allows our partnership to thrive in an industry that as a whole isn’t doing so well. We’re not here to tell the public how to think, but give them information so they can decide for themselves.

 In 2005, Norder and Executive Editor Jim Witt created a different kind of column. They called it The Watchdog. Then they cut my leash and told me to run. Woof!

 The first house ads in the paper promised readers:  “Finally, you’ve got somebody in your corner.” The universal scope of The Watchdog was laid out for all: “If you feel stonewalled at City Hall or need help holding businesses to their promises, count on The Watchdog to be in your corner. Dave Lieber will let readers know what needs to be fixed in our community, and who’s responsible. But he’ll also offer stories about governments, businesses and organizations which do things right, along with consumer alerts and ways to protect your interests.”

Dave Lieber, award-winning investigative columnist

 And that’s what we did together. Since March 18, 2005 with a debut story about a travel club that promised free airline tickets but never delivered, a hundred times a year, each year, my boss and I are here to help. Whether a city hall tipster wants the boss’ extravagances exposed, or an elderly woman can’t get $4,000 that an insurance company owes her, The Watchdog swoops in and lives a comic-book fantasy.

 Here’s a short video showing the boss and I that Star-Telegram Managing Editor/Digital News Kathy Vetter made for the 2012 Texas Associated Press Managing Editors’ conference. It’s called Rescuing Mr. Benson.

 A few years ago, I compiled everything I learned from both Norder and from the stories we worked on together and created a philosophy of self-protection and self-preservation called Watchdog Nation. The accompanying book was dedicated to “Lois Norder – Editor, mentor and friend.” The book won a couple of national indie book awards for social change. (The newly-released 2012 edition made its debut on TV.) 

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong

 

 There’s a picture of us inside, with me dressed in a Revolutionary War uniform.

 She doesn’t get her name on my stories, or on the awards. But her influence hangs over each word. In a world of bad bosses, everyone deserves at least one great one in their life. I’m luckier than most. So that’s why these awards go to Lois Norder of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and most definitely, I am speaking to her.

 # # #

 Dave and Lois shared these awards in 2012.

 Local: The Fort Worth Society of Professional Journalists, 1st place for First Amendment Awards for reporting on open government.

 State: The Texas Associated Press Managing Editors, honorable mention for community service.

 National: The National Society of Newspaper Columnists, 2nd place in general-interest columns for large metro newspapers.

 The judge in that contest, Tom Ferrick Jr., former metro columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, writes: “If I were a government official in Texas and picked up the phone to hear, ‘This is Dave Lieber,’ my heart would skip a beat. And not from joy. Lieber is a classic watchdog journalist, looking out for the little guy – and he gets results. While it’s admirable that he is an ombudsman, it’s his flair and skill as a writer that earn him this award.”

 Read the web version of some of the prize-winning Watchdog columns:

 160  constituents make a difference with bill on North Texas Tollway Authority

 Fort Worth Official resigns after boss finds backlog of open-records requests

 Investors in Bless 7 financial program start complaining

 # # #

 The Watchdog appears regularly in the Star-Telegram here.

Watchdog Nation proudly sponsors Summer Santa children’s charity

Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation is a proud sponsor of Summer Santa, one of North Texas’ largest children’s charities.

The donation goes to the charity which sends several hundred children to summer camp each year. Summer Santa has no physical office and no paid staff. All of its work is done by volunteers.

Summer Santa was co-founded by Dave Lieber and Westlake Municipal Judge Brad Bradley in 1997. Since then, Summer Santa has helped tens of thousands of children with its back-to-school clothing program, free medical checkups, after-school activities, toy distribution to area charities for summertime play and sports league scholarship.

“I am just as proud of my work on Summer Santa as I am of my work creating Watchdog Nation,” Dave Lieber says. “One helps children; the other helps adults. Helping others is a key component of Texas culture. I’m so grateful that I have learned that lesson!”

Learn how you can donate to the tax-deductible charity here, and know for certain that your money will only go directly toward paying for these valuable children’s programs that help children in need.

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong

Cyn Choate, Summer Santa Chairman, accepts a sponsorship check from Watchdog Nation and Summer Santa founder Dave Lieber.

Book Review: 2012 Edition of Watchdog Nation “shows you how to win the war.”

Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong

by Dave Lieber

Yankee Cowboy Publishing

Non-fiction (New 2012 edition just released and only available here)

By Marianne Flanders

Dave Lieber has avenues of thought, no, more like 8-lane freeways, on the subject of consumer justice.
He has founded a new country:  Watchdog Nation.

His wit and ability to construct statements that show the strength of the idea being presented will amaze the reader. Or, as he explains it:  “Watchdog Nation seeks to inspire millions of Americans to rise up and bite back.”

This is more than just good ideas well-written, though. Here is a detailed plan of attack.

Lieber uses the power of the pen to expose the inane problems so many customers have with oh too many businesses and organizations, and then gives directions on how to deal with them — a step-by-step how to, plus the what and why in detail.  In other words, he instructs the reader on ammunition—and demonstrates how to fire it — and win the war. 

It’s not an easy task, but neither is it the all-too-familiar exercise in futility.  Americans stop asking questions too soon, Lieber says. The book contains a wealth (double entendre intended) of information regarding how to get lower rates or prices and a practical, informational plethora of information on what, when, where, and how to deal with shoddy work or unfulfilled contracts. Add to that the names of bureaus and phone numbers and the reader is ready to tackle most anything from phone stalkers to oil changes. 

No, this is not a book of stories or even your ordinary inspirational call to action.  This is invaluable information that leads the reader/victim to victory in the war for justice.  These are your marching orders.

You can get your copy of the newly published 2012 edition at www.watchdognation.com or by calling 1-800-557-8166.

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong