Latest on The Watchdog’s #shameATT campaign. An ethics award, then a few hours later, embarrassed in the Michael Cohen money mess

AT&T won an ethics award.

I know! I look at that sentence, and even though The Watchdog witnessed this with my own eyes the other day, it still unnerves me.

AT&T winning an ethics award is like Jerry Jones winning an award for Best General Manager. (Note: This story first appeared in The Dallas Morning News, May 10, 2018.)

But the glow among the beaming crew of a dozen or so AT&T employees who attended the Tuesday luncheon of the North Texas Ethics Association in Dallas didn’t last long.

Three hours later, the company found itself mired in the detective story of our lifetime. Dallas-based AT&T, we learned through information furnished by Stormy Daniels’ lawyer Michael Avenatti, paid Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen $200,000 in consulting fees.

Later, various news outlets upped AT&T’s payment total to $600,000.

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Paying for influence may not be illegal, but it’s worthy of an ethics discussion for sure.

AT&T didn’t try to duck and hide. In its first statement, the company said that Cohen’s shell company, Essential Consultants, was hired in early 2017 “to provide insights into understanding the new [Trump] administration. They did no lobbying or legal work for us.”

The final payment was made in January.

In its second statement, AT&T said it “cooperated fully” with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation late last year. The company said it considers “the matter closed.”

Hardly. Nice try.

The right track?

AT&T’s award — called the 2018 Greater Dallas Business Ethics Award — was accepted by David Huntley, AT&T’s senior executive vice president and chief compliance officer.

In a prepared statement, Huntley said, “Operating an ethical company is a top priority at AT&T…. Recognition like this further validates that we’re on the right track.”

Michael Webb, head of the ethics group, invited The Watchdog to attend the ceremony because, he told me, “For all of these years, I’ve been kind of watching your column.”

Then he knows that for the past dozen years, I’ve received more complaints about AT&T’s putrid customer service than any other company in America.

The award, Webb said, “is based on process, not performance.”

He said, “Our philosophy is that ethical lapses and failures will happen, but companies with strong communications and programmatic ethic practices and expectations will be in a better position to avoid and correct ethic failures.”

What did the contest judges say about AT&T?

AT&T has “a well-developed and sound ethics approach for a very large company.”

“There’s a well-stated public commitment from the CEO…”

“The company showed a willingness to publicly speak on values.”

“Strong top-down strategic management leadership with bottom-up implementation.”

Too bad nobody asked The Watchdog.

Moving jobs overseas

Is sending jobs overseas an ethical issue? Or just a business issue?

Communications Workers of America, the union that represents many AT&T employees, released a report recently that shows that AT&T continues to lay off thousands of long-time employees because it has moved much of its call center operations to Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, India, Jamaica and Philippines.

The union calls this a form of “colonization” because low-wage overseas contractors, often poorly-trained, make much less than their American counterparts.

When foreign workers make mistakes, the union report said, American employees must clean up the mess. (From The Watchdog’s mail, I know this to be true.)

In bad company

AT&T’s money went into the same shell company as money used to pay a porn star to keep her silence about a sexual fling with the president. However, there’s no evidence that AT&T’s money was used for that.

 Still, it’s not a very ethical place to be.

Same goes for the Russian oligarch who also paid into Cohen’s fund.

AT&T claims it needed “insight” into Trump’s thinking, especially with its proposed mega-merger with Time Warner, which is now tied up in a court case. So it paid Trump’s self-described fixer a quiet fee. But it didn’t work. Trump’s Justice Department sued to stop the merger anyway.

This reminds me of the International Telephone and Telegraph scandal in the Nixon administration that preceded Watergate. An I.T.T. lobbyist pledged $400,000 for the 1972 Republican convention. In a memo she wrote that the money “has gone a long way toward our negotiations on the mergers.”

Is history repeating itself?

A slush fund?

Is Essential Consultants a slush fund, defined as an unregulated fund often used for illicit purposes? We’ll find out.

“There does not appear to be any legitimate business rationale for these payments,” New Yorker magazine reports.

The magazine adds, “Put another way, did the Russians and AT&T inadvertently help to pay” for a porn star’s silence?

What a spot for Randall Stephenson, AT&T’s CEO/Chairman/President/Big Kahuna, to be in. Stephenson’s tenure as president of the Boy Scouts of America, coincidentally, is scheduled to end this month.

Stephenson has fostered a progressive image and enhanced his reputation by supporting diversity, sustainability and even the Black Lives Matter movement.

Will he mention his company’s involvement with Trump’s fixer when he gives life advice as he delivers the commencement address on May 19 at Southern Methodist University? Tell the graduates the way the world really works, sir.

I’ve talked to Stephenson in the past about his company’s customer service failures. Every month, The Watchdog sends him a report of all the complaints I receive about his company.

I created the #shameATT hashtag, and I guess I’ll bring it out again.

One day, I dream, I’ll no longer hear constantly about AT&T’s failures with its customers trying to resolve billing and service issues.

The company is too big, and with the Time Warner merger, it wants to grow even bigger.

At the ethics luncheon the other day, nobody would sit next to me. That’s a good thing because of what I’m going to say next. I’m going to rain on this sunny parade.

Congratulations to you, AT&T, on your ethics award.

Now give it back. #shameATT.

No one would sit by The Watchdog at the luncheon. Good thing, because he rained on their parade.

Watchdog Nation column named best in nation

The Watchdog wins top honor in National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest

The Dallas Morning NewsWatchdog column won first place in the 2015 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ annual competition.

The column by Dave Lieber with Marina Trahan Martinez was praised for displaying “true excellence in column writing.”

The award was presented June 29 at the group’s 39th annual conference in Indianapolis.

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2015 Winners: Dave Lieber and Marina Trahan Martinez

The winning columns detailed the trial of an Oak Cliff woman’s killer, the legal difficulties of Dallas District Judge Staci Williams, and behind-the-scenes maneuvering by the Texas Department of Public Safety in its fingerprint program for Texas drivers.

James Haught of the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia won second place, and Robert Dyer of the Akron Beacon Journal won third.

PREVIOUS:

Watchdog Nation has been honored at the 38th annual National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference.

 For the third time in four years, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog column has been a finalist in the general-interest column contest for large U.S. newspapers.
 
 The 2013 judge explained, “In his Watchdog column, Dave displays courage and a willingness to challenge injustice and illogic wherever he finds it. He also gets positive results for others, which is always a hallmark of everyone who expresses their opinion for a living. And his work shows a willingness to even challenge himself and his own fallibility. He writes very well and fulfills his mission in a way deserving of national recognition. Were but more columnists blessed with his sense of outrage over even small injustices.”
 
Tom Rademacher of the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Press won, and sports columnist Rick Telander from the Chicago Sun-Times was third.
 
The winning columns were for work done in 2012 at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Dave Lieber is now The Watchdog columnist for The Dallas Morning News. The Watchdog appears every Friday and Sunday in the Metro section and on DallasNews.com. Dave also contributes the “Watchdog Video Tip of the Day” on DallasNews.com’ Videos section.
The contest judge cited columns about a decision by the Texas insurance commissioner to remove disciplinary actions from the public website (later reversed), about an Arlington businessman who scammed his best friend and how Dave was almost scammed by a gravestone company after his father’s death.
Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation won a 2013 writing award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists 

This honor caps off a wonderful half year of honors and awards.

 

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

 

Awards

2009 Winner of two top awards from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. “Every city needs a Dave Lieber,” one judge said. “Dave Lieber’s columns quickly and easily create a sense of outrage in a reader. He writes about rip-offs, scams and jerks who take advantage of the most vulnerable people in society.”

 

2009 Winner of Defending the Disadvantaged/First Amendment Awardfrom the Society of Professional Journalists.

 
 
 

Winner of Two National Book Awards in 2009. – The Next Generation Indie Book Award for Social Change and The National Best Books Award for Social Change. The book was also named one of the top 10 consumer books of 2009.

 

Judges in the 2009 Benjamin Franklin Awards call Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation “A really useful book! … I just kept flipping from page to page, case to case; laughing and learning from the lead watchdog.” A second judge: “I loved this book! It addresses, in a very clear fashion, how to stop scammers, as well as how to resolve bill disputes with AT&T, the electric company, etc. … Highly recommended.”