Company’s defense of sales tactics doesn’t square with complaints

Some chambers of commerce in Texas and across the nation have complained about an Arlington company that sells maps, advertising and other promotional items to chamber members. The problem, these chambers and their members say, is that salespeople for Universal AdCom and its affiliated companies claim they are working for the chambers when they aren’t.

Company officials, however, say they do not engage in deceptive sales practices.

“We try to run a clean ship and operate aboveboard and with integrity, but there are just some individuals that you’re always going to have a beef with,” says Hiram McBeth III, the company’s general counsel. “Believe it or not, when you deal with a high-volume business such as ours, there are some people who try to avoid their debt.”

The Watchdog found that in the past decade, chambers, as well as other government agencies, schools and newspapers, have issued warnings to steer clear of the company in Washington, Vermont, Texas, Oregon, Mississippi, California, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Kansas, West Virginia and South Carolina.

Attorneys general in Arkansas, Illinois and Georgia have taken action against the company. Not so in Texas.

“We have no complaints over the past two years on this company,” says Tom Kelley, spokesman for the Texas attorney general’s office. “No legal action either.”

The Better Business Bureau at Fort Worth gives the company an “F” rating because of complaints. But the BBB’s Web site shows that almost all the complaints — 120 in the past year — have been resolved by the company.

“We’ve done very well, I think,” says McBeth, who adds that he personally works to resolve complaints. “We may have had a few problems a decade ago…Any company has its growing pains. They are certainly straightened out right now.”

John Riggins, head of the Fort Worth BBB, says, “The source of complaints is basically the same thing over and over — businesses complaining about poor quality of products or sales tactics or billing errors.”

The company operates under several names, including Premier Map Co., Hometown Productions, Multi Marketing Corp., D & L Map Service, Gildenblatt Enterprises and Texas High School Publications, the BBB says.

The listed owner is Tom Gildenblatt, who owns two houses in Southlake, according to county tax records. I called him and sent a letter requesting an interview, but he didn’t respond.

Two people I interviewed for this report shared examples of the company’s sales tactics.

Fred Richardson, former owner of a Palestine printing and advertising company that creates chamber maps throughout Texas, said the company tells chamber members they are creating an official chamber map.

A few years ago, he got a call from the company asking whether he wanted to renew his company’s ad in the Palestine map. Richardson didn’t recall buying an ad from the company, so he asked the salesperson to fax him a copy of the ad.

When it arrived, he saw that it was his own ad from a map he had produced for the chamber. His copyright information was included on the fax.

He recalls asking the salesperson, “Do I need to get an attorney?”

The salesperson replied, “I can’t talk to you anymore” and hung up, he says.

He never complained and never filed legal action because his lawyer said legal costs would outweigh any settlement he would receive.

When I interviewed Nancy Wyatt, president of the Auburn Area Chamber of Commerce in Washington state last week, she said she had received a call from the company that morning. The salesperson said that he was moving to Auburn and requested a relocation packet, she said. She recognized the company from her Caller ID.

That’s their tactic to get a list of the chamber members and also see who advertises on their maps and other items, she said.

“They’re hitting our members at the same time we’re doing our legitimate projects,” she says. “We’ve educated our members to the point now that unless they get an e-mail that we’re heading into our project, they know immediately to call the chamber office when they get a call like that.”

A few years ago, she continued, a company rep called her and said, “Nancy at the Auburn Area Chamber sent me to you.”

She recalls replying, “That’s funny. I happen to be Nancy at the Auburn Area Chamber.”

She added, “They’re so blatant.”

McBeth, the company’s general counsel, says the company has a sales agreement with every entity it does business with. I asked him to provide a sample copy of the agreement, but he declined.

Meanwhile, a former saleswoman for the company, Sherrell Mpizion, sued the company last year in Tarrant County district court. She claimed that she was fired because she had complained that she was tired of misrepresenting herself in sales calls “as employees of cities or chambers of commerce.”

In her lawsuit, Mpizion says her boss told her to “be an actress” and “say whatever it takes” to get a sale.

A year ago, the suit claims, she was fired because she was “poison” in the company and had gossiped in the office.

The company, in court papers, denies every allegation in the lawsuit and claims that Mpizion resigned and was not fired. “No evidence exists” to support her lawsuit, McBeth wrote in court papers.

Mpizion’s lawyer, R.S. Rhio, declined to comment.

McBeth calls Mpizion “a disgruntled employee trying to seek extra money in these hard times.”

The case has not yet come to trial.

News researcher Cathy Belcher contributed to this report.

Even those with a claim to fame can have credit card problems

He is the most patient man I know. Jim Leavelle, the retired Dallas police detective who was handcuffed to Lee Harvey Oswald the moment Oswald was fatally shot, answers every question about those dark days in November 1963 as if he were hearing them for the first time.

Forty-five years later, Leavelle still wears a replica of the famed Resistol hat at public events when he is asked to talk about history. He is 88 now, retired in Garland, an old-school gentleman who still looks much the same as he did in that legendary photograph of Oswald crumpling to the floor while tethered to him.

Leavelle is always patient with history buffs, but he’s not so patient with his credit card company. A couple of months back, after he had canceled a cookbook he supposedly ordered, American Express kept billing him. He grew so angry that he cut his card into pieces and mailed them to the company.

With that, the owner of one of the most famous faces in American history thought he was through with AmEx. Maybe so, but the company wasn’t done with him.

The bills kept coming for Food and Wine Cookbook, which Leavelle doesn’t remember ordering. Even if he did, he says, he canceled within the allotted time. He was told that everything would get squared away. He’d get a credit on his bill. He never did.

He called again. Same line.

The bills kept coming, and he threw them away. Eventually, his original disputed $35 charge ballooned with interest and penalties to $114.

Soon a collection agency started pestering him. He ignored it, too. That’s when I heard about it.

Admittedly, an 88-year-old man doesn’t need to worry too much about his credit score, which drops when a delinquency, even an inaccurate one, is charged. But surely he doesn’t need the pestering. Especially this guy, who has been pestered his entire adult life because one day, a long time ago, he found himself in the worst place at the worst time.

An American Express spokeswoman confirmed that Leavelle had properly tried to cancel the cookbook and asked for the refund. But the refund request, which was approved, never went through, the spokeswoman said, because a third-party vendor sells the books.

“He’s correct,” spokeswoman Marina Hoffmann said. “He canceled us. He wanted it refunded. Obviously, looking at it, it was very clear that the customer was not at fault.”

Yet nothing he tried worked. Then Leavelle was so agitated that he pushed it aside, even though he was in the right.

I asked Hoffmann what a customer is supposed to do.

“Just be persistent,”Hoffmann said.”I realize he spoke to three different people. It’s kind of a lesson for your readers. To be vigilant and make sure that customer service follows through with what they promise you.”

See, everybody? It’s our fault now.

Leavelle’s credit report was cleared of the supposed delinquency. His credit card, though, is in pieces and long gone.

Don’t give up when a company is sending you bills that are unfair or inaccurate.

When buying through a credit card company that works with a third-party vendor, cancel with both the credit card company and the vendor, if possible.

After canceling, check your free annual credit report to verify that the cancellation didn’t mar your record. Get one free credit report every year at www.annualcreditreport.com.

Getting a refund: It’s not like the good old days

Today, we listen to Ruth Wingfield, a 98-year-old great-grandmother in Arlington, as she describes her bout with the Cigna Medicare Rx drug plan:

 

I’m really mad because they’ve got my money and won’t give it back. And I’m their customer.

This all started [in late February] because they suddenly started charging 40 cents a month, which I had to pay to them, not to the pharmacy here. Would you want to write a 40-cent check?

So I got a bill for three months for $1.20. I was trying to be nice. I was going to pay them for a year, $4.80.

I gathered up my three or four bills and wrote them out. They were all for around $100. When I got to this one, I was going to pay them for a year, $4.80; and so I wrote it for $480. I’m a crippled old woman. I was embarrassed to tell anybody. I pride myself on being careful, you know? My daughter could have made the same mistake.

I could have called the bank and stopped the check, but I thought they were honest. I called and got a supervisor, and he told me he would mail that check back. That was a month ago. I didn’t write his name down. Next time, I will.

This is what I got after that — a bill that shows I have a credit of $478. It says, “NO PREMIUM DUE! PLEASE DO NOT REMIT PAYMENT!”

I’m prepaid for a hundred years, and I may not live three days. Now does that make sense for your good customer?

See, they take advantage. They say, “That old woman is senile. She won’t remember.”

I called them two or three times, and they said, “It’s being processed.” But that’s my money, and I want it. Yeah, I got bills right here that I need to pay. My Social Security income is all the income I have. I’ve just got to be real careful. I’ve just got a limited amount that comes in. Wouldn’t you think a month would be long enough to process something?

I talked to my letter carrier and he told me that at the Star-Telegram, they got somebody down there that helps old ladies. Dogpatch or something. I found the directory and found the Star-Telegram number. I told the man on the phone that I want to talk to the people that help old ladies, the dogpatch guy.

Is that what you call our place?. Oh, Watchdog. See, you caught me in another mistake. Let me write that down. That wasn’t but too far off. This sure takes a knot out of my stomach.

 

Cigna response:

Now we hear from Lindsay Shearer of Cigna HealthCare:

The sum was wired to Mrs. Wingfield’s account. Everything has been resolved. Thank you for helping us get to her so we could take care of it quickly.

We will always look into a situation like this and remedy the process to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

As you know, we’re not able to speak about any individual’s specific situation because of both Cigna and federal privacy laws. What I can tell you is that refund requests are researched for verification and processed on a weekly basis. While we usually tell people they can expect a refund within 30 days, the refund checks typically arrive within 7-10 days. This is all within [federal] guidelines.

Member service representatives go through ongoing process and customer service training to understand the unique needs of seniors. While extremely rare, if the process breaks down for any reason, we take it very seriously and conduct a thorough review of the situation and then take the necessary steps, such as additional training, to make sure it does not happen again.

 

Not the way it used to be

Final words from Wingfield:

 

They just break my heart. It hurts to know the world has gone this way. And you know, I’m old-fashioned. I take it that everybody can be honest. But I guess it doesn’t work that way anymore.

 

You may be part of a medical experiment whether you know it or not

Bracelet you would need to wear to keep you from being a guinea pig

The federal government shut down part of a medical experiment in which everyone in North Texas is a potential subject even though they probably don’t know about it.

Trauma victims who were unwittingly used to test a blood substitute died quicker than patients not involved in the experiment, according to a brief statement released last week by the federal government.

Paramedics taking patients to emergency trauma centers in Fort Worth and Dallas last year, as well as nine other metro areas, gave an experimental “hypertonic” saline solution to some severe shock victims in the field. Other patients received standard saline. The hypertonic solution is more highly concentrated.

The test was suspended in August after monitors found no difference between the two groups during a 28-day period after the solutions were given.

“However, more of the patients receiving hypertonic saline died before reaching the hospital or in the emergency room, while more of the patients receiving normal saline died during the remainder of the 28-day follow-up period,” the government noted in a statement.

Another portion of the experiment continues: Anyone with a traumatic brain injury remains a possible — and unknowing — candidate for the hypertonic solution treatment.

The only way to get out of the experiment is to request a wrist bracelet that says, “Do Not Enroll ROC.” ROC stands for Resuscitation Outcomes Consortium Project, the experiment’s official name.

Paramedics are supposed to see it and know to give only standard fluid. Only 150 North Texas residents have requested the bracelets, which are free and available to the public by phone or e-mail. (Call 214-648-6726 or send an e-mail to roc@utsouthwestern.edu.)

The idea of a bracelet keeping people out of a medical experiment they don’t know about is both preposterous and wrong, a bioethicist says.

“Who’s going to wear a bracelet? That’s the silliest darn thing I ever saw,” says George J. Annas of Boston University.

These results show, he says, that “people have less of a chance getting to the hospital alive if they take this stuff. So who is going to take it then if people know about that? I think, in the end, nobody.”

But most don’t know about the experiment.

After The Watchdog showed readers a year ago how to opt out of the experiment, the number of North Texans who requested bracelets climbed from under 30 to 150, says Dr. Ahamed Idris, professor of surgery at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas and a principal investigator.

When people ask for a bracelet, he tells them about the experiment. Often, he convinces them to change their mind and be a willing participant if they fall victim to a terrible injury, he says.

Last year, Idris told me he believed the test solution would help improve blood pressure and save lives.

Now with half the experiment halted, he says: “I’m still enthusiastic because we’re still treating people with traumatic brain injury, and I will be ecstatic if it shows that we’re saving people’s lives.”

Scientists are measuring whether the hypertonic saline, already used in Europe, does save lives.

Paramedics don’t know which fluid they are giving patients. And the patients, severely injured and requiring immediate treatment, are unable to give consent.

One thousand patients, all of them unaware, were involved in the largest known nonconsent experiment in U.S. history, a five-year, $50 million federally funded program. It began in Dallas in October 2006.

Because the experiment is nonconsent, the burden for positive results is higher than for patients receiving standard care, says Dr. George Sopko of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the program’s government sponsor. “The treatment has to be better. That’s the key principle.”

The experiment should be heavily publicized, especially since a portion failed, Annas says.

“They’ve got to figure out a way to tell people now that a related study didn’t work and it killed people,” Annas says. “According to their data, they died sooner.”

Program officials say they are always looking for ways to publicize the program. Look, for example, for a promotional booth touting the project at Fort Worth’s Main Street Arts Festival and also at MayFest 2009.

“We have talked personally to literally thousands of people, and none of them have told us that they think what we’re doing is wrong,” UT Southwestern’s Idris says.

Scientists say the only way to get enough trauma patients to make the study valid is through nonconsent.

The bioethicist says that not fair to victims.

“When you’re in accident, do you want the best treatment?” Annas asks. “Or do you want them to flip a coin to decide what treatment to use?”

How to avoid the study

Get a bracelet by calling 214-648-6726 or send an e-mail to roc@utsouthwestern.edu. You’ll receive a wristband to alert paramedics you don’t want to participate.

Who is involved?

  • These North Texas emergency trauma centers are involved in the Resuscitation Outcomes Consortium Project.
  • John Peter Smith Hospital, Fort Worth
  • Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth
  • Parkland Hospital, Dallas
  • Baylor University Medical Center, Dallas

At Texas Legislature, clouds roll in during Sunshine Week

A Colleyville man didn’t have a great Sunshine Week, which was created to promote open government. Louis Womack recently read in the Star-Telegram about an internal investigation at the Colleyville Police Department, and he sent city officials written questions.

Is the investigation complete? What was the outcome? How much did it cost?

Good questions from a taxpayer watchdogging his city.

But the answer he received perplexed him: “Please be advised that the Public Information Act does not obligate the city to respond to questions,” Assistant City Manager Kelly Cooper wrote, adding that Womack could refine his open-records request to seek documents.

Only Womack didn’t file an open-records request; he just asked questions. He didn’t know that officials don’t have to provide answers, just documents.

City spokeswoman Mona Gandy explains: “Typically, we would have gone to some effort to explain how you make a public information request. That’s not what happened in this case. We’re going to consider this a lesson learned.”

This week, the city added language to its Web site to explain open-records procedures.

The Sunshine state?

When it comes to making public records available, Texans do have something to celebrate this Sunshine Week, which ends Saturday. A recent survey by several journalism organizations examined how good a job all 50 states do of making records available on the Internet. Texas received a perfect score, the only state to do so.

Cue The Watchdog’s applause!

But The Watchdog can’t celebrate after examining some bills filed at the Legislature.

“A lot of bills scale back the availability of public information,” says Fred Hartman, chairman of the Texas Daily Newspaper Association/Texas Press Association Legislative Advisory Committee.

Here’s one: House Bill 3641 by freshman Rep. Doug Miller, R-New Braunfels. It would allow a government entity to determine whether someone requesting open records is an “abusive requestor” who submits requests “to harass, abuse, or waste public funds and/or time of public officials or employees.”

The bill allows a government entity to sue to stop the requestor and halt the release of information for up to 90 days.

Miller did not return a call. But Comal County Judge Danny Scheel told The Watchdog that he asked Miller to file the bill to stop Central Texas newspaper publisher Doug Kirk from filing what Scheel considers harassing requests.

Some people, he said, “purposely clog up our systems with open-records requests to be able to get off our backs. These are the kind of people we want.”

Scheel said 90 percent of the requests to the county come from Kirk, who runs weeklies in Bulverde and Canyon Lake and who unsuccessfully ran against Scheel. Kirk doesn’t always pick up and pay for information he requests, Scheel said.

“We’ve been dealing with this monkey for years,” the judge added.

Kirk told me that the county stalls and so he gets what he needs elsewhere. “They dodge the questions I ask,” he said.

Hartman, a newspaper executive based outside Houston, said that the bill would punish a number of people for the actions of one.

Here are other open-government bills on The Watchdog worry list:

Senate Bill 280 (Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, and Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth) would make public employees’ home addresses, home telephone numbers, dates of birth and Social Security numbers confidential. Open-records advocates say they have no desire to know a Social Security number. A home address and date of birth, however, are important identifiers that allow watchdogs to search government databases and find, for example, whether a person is double dipping with two public jobs.

The public would face greater difficulty learning about government nepotism and the background of public employees, including any criminal records, too. “We strongly oppose this,” Hartman says.

House Bill 649 (Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas) would allow property owners to remove their names from appraisal district public records posted online.

“There’s no compelling reason to do this,” Hartman says. “There are no problems” with the information in the public domain.

If the bill passes, the public would not be able to find out, for example, if political cronies got sweetheart appraisals from crooked assessors.

Elected officials and others could disguise bribes through property transfers that nobody would ever know about.

Senate Bill 375 (John Carona, R-Dallas) would allow the Transportation Department to keep specific vehicle accident records confidential.

Texans could not learn about the most dangerous bridges, intersections and roadways, which was the intent of the original request for the data, says Brian Collister, a San Antonio TV reporter and board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

“This huge, great resource on motor-vehicle accidents would be sealed off from the public,” he says.

Hartman says the number of bills cutting off information is alarming because “the more people know what our government does, the more effective and responsive it can be.”

Other worrisome bills Here are other bills that could hinder public oversight:

  • Senate Bill 253 (Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls) would allow county and municipal governments to award contracts worth up to $50,000 without public bids. The limit is now $25,000.
  • Senate Bill 624 (Royce West, D-Dallas) would allow changes of $50,000 or less to school district contracts without school board approval — and public notice.
  • Senate Bill 460 (Mario Gallegos Jr., D-Galena Park) would keep secret some information pertaining to personnel hearings for police and firefighters.
  • Senate Bill 1127 (Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio) would keep secret some information about components used in creating customized drugs and medical devices at pharmacies.

Track bills Follow bills through the Texas Legislature by tracking them at www.legis.state.tx.us. Sign up for e-mail alerts.

Find out who your legislator is at votesmart.org.

Woman, 71, fights back against Medicare – and wins!

Anita Chapman did it all by herself. The self-described Wise County girl from Texas took on one of the biggest challenges of her life. She fought Medicare over a $1,400 bill for an ambulance ride from her Haltom City home to the hospital.

Ever since her husband died a few years ago, it has been hard being on her own. “I’m an old gal from Paradise who got married at age 16,” says Chapman, 71. “As my daddy said, I went from doing what my daddy told me to do to doing what my husband told me to do. And I’ve never had to go through anything like this.”

On the night of March 2, 2008, Chapman couldn’t stand. Her doctor later described her symptoms as nausea, vomiting, a headache with severe weakness and spasms. A friend came by to help but couldn’t get her up. The friend called 911.

Paramedics took her out on a stretcher and gave her an IV solution for dehydration. She spent the night in the hospital.

A few days after coming home, she was notified that Medicare wouldn’t pay the $1,400 ambulance bill. She made a few calls and was told the bill was rejected because she didn’t need an ambulance. Unless she could prove otherwise, she had to pay the bill.

“It made me feel that I had to fight back and do something on my own,” she says.

So Chapman stepped into a bureaucratic maze of Medicare appeals, a multilevel system with strange terms such as redetermination specialist, adjudicator and administrative law judge. She worked long hours to complete Forms CMS-20027, CMS-20033 and CMS-20034B. She used a fax machine for the first time. In doing so, she set herself apart from most, Medicare specialists say.

“She’s one of the very few who continues to push Medicare,” says Pam Roach, the Medicare billing supervisor at MedStar Emergency Medical Services, which supplied the ride. “I know it’s hard for her, but a lot of the elderly don’t make the effort. They don’t have what it takes to fight the system like that.”

An advocate agrees with the sentiment. “Good for her, because there’s not a lot of help out there for these appeals,” says Judith Stein of the Center for Medicare Advocacy.

Chapman’s journey has lasted a year. It started with her request for a redetermination, which was denied by the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

The second appeal went to an outside company hired by the government. It denied the claim, explaining, “There was not an immediate threat to the patient’s life, limb or functioning of a body part, and the service does not meet the coverage requirements.”

After that, she received a warning: “IF PAYMENT IS NOT RECEIVED WITHIN 15 DAYS, YOUR ACCOUNT WILL BE REFERRED TO COLLECTION AGENCIES AND CREDIT BUREAUS.”

“Now that scared me,” she says. “Because I thought they were going to come to my door and take me to jail. I’ve never had a collection agency in my life. My husband paid every bill when we got it. We never bought anything on credit. The car, the house, everything we bought, we paid cash for.”

Of course, she appealed. An administrative law judge read a letter from Chapman’s doctor and another letter from Chapman’s friend that she was unable to get Chapman to stand. The judge also read the other side’s argument: The patient could have traveled “by any means other than ambulance service without endangering his or her health.” He never held a hearing.

The judge’s ruling arrived this month. When Chapman opened the letter, she first had to read through four pages of information about how to appeal. For sure, she thought she had lost again. Finally, on Page 5, she saw the words “FULLY FAVORABLE.” She read it again. And again. She won!

“You could have heard me shouting clear over Fort Worth,” she says, laughing. “If I hadn’t sent all that stuff in, I would have had to pay $1,400!”

The judge’s documents-only ruling shows the case never should have gone that far, Medicare advocate Stein says.

“Going from home to hospital in an ambulance should be covered in most circumstances,” she says.

There are two more steps.

Medicare can appeal to the Medicare Appeals Council by May 2. If Chapman loses that, she can ask for a judicial review in U.S. District Court.

So she waits. “Oh my gosh, are they going to make me do it again?”

“Come on,” MedStar’s Roach says. “Somebody have a heart.”

The Medicare site about appeals is www.cms.hhs.gov/orgmedffsappeals. An advocate’s site is www.medicareadvocacy.org.

A man fights for his right to have a garden

Mark D'Amico's garden before picture

Mark D’Amico doesn’t keep a conventional front lawn resembling the manicured look favored by his neighbors in Fort Worth’s Handley neighborhood. D’Amico created his own cottage garden.

He was so serious about the 150 different plants and flowers in his garden that he registered it as a “Certified Wildlife Habitat” with the National Wildlife Federation.

“It saves on water,” the artist says. “It’s big, bright and colorful. Flowers and hummingbirds and butterflies just swarm it — or used to.”

After a neighbor complained, D’Amico got into a scrape with Fort Worth’s code compliance department. He received a violation notice in 2006.

D’Amico says he told code compliance officer Robert Chambers that his plants and flowers were hard-to-find examples of exotic varieties. He had purchased seeds and traded for them for a decade to assemble the collection.

Several of the species are extinct in the wild, D’Amico says he told the code officer. Cultivating them and spreading the seeds helps keep the species alive.

The code officer said he understood and asked D’Amico to send him a list of all the plants, D’Amico says. Because he never heard from anyone in the city again, D’Amico says he believed the matter was settled.

But one day while he was home, D’Amico says he heard heavy equipment outside.

“I came out into the front yard and everything was gone,” he says.

“Not just mowed. They scraped it to the bare dirt with a big riding lawnmower. I was horrified.”

D’Amico’s home is not part of a neighborhood association where deed restrictions can enforce a neatly mowed lawn. Fort Worth code only states that grass and weeds cannot grow taller than 12 inches. No mention is made of shrubs and flowers.

“We called and sent letters and e-mail to both the mayor’s office and the city councilman who represents Mark’s neighborhood,” says Tom D’Amico, Mark’s father and the listed property owner. “Both offices ignored our calls, letters and e-mail. That’s pretty sad.”

Mark D’Amico says, “They can destroy anyone’s garden at any time for any reason, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”

Or is there?

Father and son answered that question step by step. First, they filed an $8,000 claim against the city. But that was rejected because the city said it had immunity when it came to actions of its employees, Tom D’Amico says.

They next filed a small-claims court lawsuit for $4,500. In a hearing, Mark D’Amico testified that he had no idea the city would destroy his cottage garden because neither Chambers nor anyone else informed him that the garden was in jeopardy.

In turn, a city lawyer argued that Chambers was carrying out his duty as a city employee and was immune from any legal vulnerability.

The justice of the peace decided in favor of the city, based on the city’s invocation of the doctrine of governmental immunity.

Father and son appealed to Tarrant County Court. Once again, the city pleaded its case for government immunity, court papers show. But in that courtroom, it didn’t work.

Tarrant County Court at Law No. 2 Judge Jennifer Rymell ordered both sides into mediation.

I left a message for Chambers at work, but he didn’t return the call.

He now works as a field operations supervisor in the water department.

A city spokeswoman said that because the case is in court, the city cannot comment.

Mediation was held last week, but no settlement was reached.

Meanwhile, another hearing is scheduled in Rymell’s court Monday because the city is contesting that court’s right to hear the case.

Tom D’Amico offers this advice to avid flower gardeners and collectors:

Anyone targeted by code compliance should “aggressively act and defend your rights as a property owner.”

He says, “Document all contacts [e-mails, notes, letters] with code enforcement and send any correspondence to them by certified mail requiring signature confirmation.

“Don’t be afraid to question their authority and take them to court if you feel your rights were violated. We cannot let governments automatically invoke governmental immunity and assert domain. They need to be held accountable.”

Final note: Mark D’Amico is growing back the garden.

Behind the scenes at a troubled Texas electric company

How rare to see what goes on behind the scenes at a Texas electric company.

Watchdog Nation Staff is pleased to see that a smart blogger recognized this fact: On the behind-the-scenes nastiness, as alleged in a lawsuit, involving troubled Amigo Energy, the blogger notes that “the Star Telegram was the only media source” to report this.

Because the live link to Lieber’s column won’t last forever, here is what the founder of Watchdog Nation had to report:

There was the chief executive officer of Merrill Lynch who bought the $35,000 toilet for his office. Then we learned about the peanut butter company CEO who the Food and Drug Administration says knowingly shipped products tainted with salmonella.

The latest? The CEO at a Texas electricity provider who is accused of ignoring state regulators and trying to overcharge customers to save the company.

And who makes these allegations? None other than the company’s previous CEO, who says he was fired when he tried to blow the whistle.

Javier Vega, the former CEO and founder of Amigo Energy of Houston, filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit against Amigo’s current owner, Fulcrum Power, in Harris County district court in November.

His lawsuit is more than an employment dispute.

It says, “The case also involves the greed and corruption of certain individuals and legal entities that led to blatant and knowingly illegal efforts to collect improper rates from Texas retail electricity consumers.”

In a brief interview, Amigo’s current CEO said the allegations are false.

“We vehemently deny all of Mr. Vega’s claims,” Gerardo “G.P.” Manalac told me. “We intend to let the litigation go its course.”

He added: “Amigo, like any other retail electric provider, had a very difficult year. But we turned the corner on that and are back on track.”

He said his company is cooperating with an investigation by the Texas Public Utility Commission into allegations of overcharging.

The lawsuit offers a peek at the turmoil behind the scenes at Amigo last year, when hundreds of customers complained that they were overcharged. Many said the company refused to answer their complaints and sent a collection agency after them, sometimes within days of the first bill’s arrival.

The PUC reprimanded the company for violating state rules, but it has yet to levy fines or other penalties.

According to Vega’s lawsuit, the problems stemmed from his decision in 2007 to sell his company to Fulcrum Power of Houston, which was a wholesale electricity provider for Amigo. Vega stayed on as CEO.

The first year went smoothly, the lawsuit says. But last June, Manalac, Fulcrum’s co-founder, took day-to-day operations away from Vega, who kept the CEO title in name only.

Manalac, though, did not buy electricity at lower prices for future use to hedge against price jumps, the lawsuit contends, something that Vega handled when he ran the company. Vega claims that he repeatedly warned Manalac to stop selling fixed-rate contracts to customers because the company hadn’t bought enough electricity at lower prices to make a profit. If prices jumped, he warned, the company could find itself in severe trouble.

Prices did jump, and the company lost $15 million by “gross mismanagement in a mere five months” last year, Vega contends in the suit.

To make up for the loss, the suit says, the company turned to “aggressive price increase methods” aimed at former customers of National Power, which closed in May. Amigo bought National Power’s variable-rate customers, who suddenly found themselves paying higher prices with a new provider.

According to state rules, an electricity provider may not raise rates by more than 10 percent in one month unless a customer is properly notified. Rates for former National Power customers in Dallas went up to 16 cents per kilowatt-hour, and Houston-area customers were stunned to see their rates jump to 20 cents. That increase was handled with proper notification, the suit alleges.

A few weeks later, Amigo again raised the rates for former National Power customers, this time as high as the 24- to 25-cent range. There was no proper notice, and the increase was more than the allowed 10 percent, according to the suit.

Customers were also wrongly billed at the higher rate for a period before the rate took effect, the suit charges. When some customers received several months’ worth of bills at once, they were stunned by the higher rates and called to complain. But they couldn’t reach anyone at Amigo. More than 700 customers complained to the PUC, which launched an investigation. In September, the PUC ordered the company to “rerate” hundreds of customers – lower their bills to the proper amount.

The PUC also cited Amigo for numerous violations – not sending bills to customers, refusing to offer payment arrangements to shellshocked customers, not giving proper notice before an increase and not responding to customer complaints.

The suit contends that Fulcrum cut Amigo’s customer service staff, leaving angry customers with phone waits “in excess of one hour for tens of thousands of Amigo Energy customers.” There was also a backlog of 10,000 unanswered customer e-mails.

PUC staffers were coming down hard on Amigo because of the many complaints. One PUC official, the lawsuit says, asked an Amigo executive whether the company wanted “to continue to be in this business.”

Manalac insisted on a get-tough strategy aimed at customers who owed money, even if the charges were incorrect, the suit says.

He ordered that collection letters be sent to customers only days after their first bills arrived. And he refused the PUC’s directive that Amigo go back and rerate the bills, court papers say.

Manalac sent an e-mail, papers say, urging bill collectors to “to pester these people” to pay. In another e-mail, he wrote, “Allow them no negotiation the first or second round (and then we can go from there).”

Vega talked about quitting, but before he could, the suit says, Fulcrum executives told him he was fired for spreading harmful information about the company.

Vega’s lawyer did not return phone calls. Fulcrum’s lawyer declined to comment.

It may not be a good time for some chief executives, but it can be an even worse time for customers.

Sounds of gunfire stir woman’s sad memory

Although her street is called Paradise Court, Marion Blackburn was a nervous wreck. New neighbors built a shooting range on the other side of her property line in unincorporated Johnson County. Their shooting was loud, and she feared a stray bullet would ricochet toward her house. Even in gun-loving Texas, Blackburn could be forgiven for her worries. Twenty-six years ago, her oldest son was killed in a shooting accident nearby. She knows what it’s like to lose a loved one to a stray bullet.

In recent weeks, Blackburn called and wrote letters to about a dozen federal, state and county elected officials, anybody she thought could help. But she neglected to make the one contact that mattered most.

She started with a call to the Johnson County sheriff. Deputies came by and looked at the boundary lines and the shooting range. They pronounced it legal.

“Can’t be,” Blackburn remembers thinking. But it’s true. Texas laws are lenient, compared with city rules, when it comes to shooting in unincorporated areas of a county.

A person can use a gun in unincorporated areas, in most cases, as long as a bullet doesn’t cross a property line or the shooter isn’t behaving in an irresponsible manner. It’s a Texas tradition, for sure.

The shooting range is built with logs and tin and has a dirt berm behind it. Sheriff’s deputies pronounced it solid, Blackburn recalled. The shooters’ position is less than 30 yards from the home.

It’s against the law to shoot across someone’s property line, but these neighbors shot along their own side of the fence.

Lt. Tim Jones, a spokesman for the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department, says that deputies tell shooters to stop when they violate laws, and that some are charged with disorderly conduct.

The bottom line is responsibility, says Alice Tripp, legislative director for the Texas State Rifle Association.

“No matter where you are, you’re responsible and accountable under the law for the discharge of a firearm or bow and arrow, just like you are with your car,” she said.

“If you damage someone’s property or injure someone, it doesn’t matter where you are. Nobody could say that you could shoot into someone’s house and that would be OK.”

Still, from Blackburn’s perspective, that’s almost what happened to her 19-year-old son, Glenn, in 1983.

Glenn died from a gunshot wound to the back of his head — from a rifle. The three friends with him later told investigators they were outside when it happened. At first, it was ruled a suicide.

During a grand jury inquiry, the friends admitted they had lied about the circumstances. Glenn had died when one of the boys accidentally pulled the trigger, according to Blackburn’s recollection.

No charges were ever filed.

“There are too many things that can happen with weapons that are unexpected,” she said.

After few elected officials bothered to reply to her letter-writing campaign, Blackburn contacted The Watchdog.

I reviewed state law and found one exception. County commissioners can enact a shooting ban in unincorporated areas in platted subdivisions where properties are 10 acres or less.

Blackburn’s neighborhood is legally called Paradise Estates. She lives on Lot 70.

When I told her, Blackburn talked about circulating a petition among her neighbors.

Before doing that, though, I asked her why she never tried to talk to the neighbor with the shooting range. She said she felt intimidated.

So I left her home, went around the block and knocked on the neighbor’s door.

Roland Buie greeted me. I told him why I was there.

Buie is a minister who moved into the neighborhood to start a church. His pastoral manner quickly emerged when I told him about Blackburn and her family history. He shoots with his two sons for enjoyment, he said, but he wanted to help her.

“As a pastor, I deal with people’s problems all the time,” he said.

“I don’t want to make her feel uncomfortable in her own home. We’ll quit shooting out there. Tell her I apologize. I really didn’t mean to upset her in any way.”

I asked if she could come over. He quickly said yes, and in a few minutes, I introduced neighbor to neighbor.

They each apologized to the other. “Really, I guess I should have walked over here, huh?” she said.

“I can’t even begin to know how it feels to lose a child,” he said.

He told her he intended to dismantle the shooting range. They talked about neighbors they both knew and their families.

When I left, they were becoming friends, neighbors.

Tell everyone you know about Dell’s legal action

Jacquelyn Wright usually gives advice and solves problems for others. But when it came to her Dell computer, the Tarrant County Precinct 4 justice of the peace struck out.

“I want Dell to either honor their warranty or refund what I paid for the warranty,” the judge told The Watchdog about her PC, which lost power.

A Dell phone technician wanted her to open the computer and fiddle with the insides, but she didn’t feel qualified. She was afraid that if she made a mistake, her warranty would be voided.

Sorry, Dell informed her, the warranty only applies after you have done what the phone tech asks you to do.

The Watchdog contacted Dell. The company didn’t respond for several weeks, so I relayed the problem again.

Dell later reported that it had tried to resolve her problem “several times.” A spokesman added, “Dell, however, is willing to reimburse the cost of her power supply.”

That was news to Wright, who told me she had received “no reply from Dell whatsoever” after The Watchdog intervened. The judge, who presides over a small-claims court, added: “They lied. No phone calls. No e-mails. No letters. None. Nada.”

This is not the only example I’ve found showing a disconnect between what Dell says and what its customers say.

Now customers such as Wright have a way to receive compensation for their problems from Dell and its subsidiary, Dell Financial Services.

Last month, Dell agreed to settle a case joined by 47 state attorneys general. Dell will reimburse eligible customers for past business practices. The company also agreed to change some of its practices and procedures involving warranty service, interest charges, marketing, rebates and other customer service issues.

If you did business with Dell between April 1, 2005, and April 12, 2009, you have until April 13 to file a claim with the Texas attorney general’s office for a piece of the $162,000 Dell has set aside for reimbursements.

Dell admits no wrongdoing. “The issues represented only a very small percentage of the tens of millions of Dell customer transactions in the states during the 4-year period,” spokesman David Frink said in statement. “Dell’s goal is to provide the best customer service experience possible.”

Tell that to Gene Morgan, who went to the Dell Web site to find out what kind of memory stick his mother-in-law’s laptop needed. He copied the part number and then purchased it from another company. But the wrong part was listed. The laptop crashed and died.

He complained to Dell about the inaccuracy. He tried for weeks to get the company to acknowledge its mistake. The incorrect part is still listed on the site, he says.

Here’s the disconnect: The Dell spokesman says that a staffer contacted Morgan and explained the situation and that Morgan was “good to go.”

“He told our rep he was calling you that day to let you know his questions had been answered to his satisfaction,” Frink said. “He told our rep that he was then leaving on a two-week trip.”

Says Morgan, “I have not been out of town.” He added: “I never got any response from Dell at all. As for the laptop, we had to buy a new one. It was not a Dell. We would not do business with them after the treatment we got.”

Joseph Johnson of Keller was victimized once by an identity thief and then, he says, a second time by Dell Financial Services, which refused to help him clear up fraud on an account.

The thief opened a Dell account using Johnson’s name, and the transactions were hurting his credit score. Johnson tried for months to get Dell’s help, but no one would return his calls, he says.

After The Watchdog intervened, Johnson said, a Dell staffer called and “told me she was aware that you knew and preferred to keep this out of the papers.”

The account was closed. Dell contacted the credit bureaus. Total time of problem resolution: four months.

Ronald Goldman of Fort Worth did somewhat better. When his computer froze, he knew it was under warranty. But when he sought help, he couldn’t understand the phone techs because of their accent, and he says they couldn’t understand him. He asked to speak to someone in Round Rock, home of Dell headquarters. He says he was told he had to pay $149 for a North American tech.

Bottom line: “She answered many questions. I am on my way to resolve my problems.”

All Dell customers who feel they were wronged by the company should take advantage of the settlement and file a claim. But hurry, the deadline is in 52 days.

Filing a claim Learn about the Dell settlement at www.TexasAttorneyGeneral.gov or call 800-252-8011.

The attorney general’s Web site has Frequently Asked Questions and a claims form.

Dell customers who did business with Dell Financial Services or Dell between April 1, 2005, and April 12, 2009, are eligible.