Dear Watchdog Nation: A look back at the trouble we caused in 2016

Dear Citizens of Watchdog Nation,

You know those annoying holiday letters people send bragging about exotic vacations, their children’s middle school exploits and the sad death of their cat?

My partner Marina Trahan Martinez and I can’t resist. Welcome to The Watchdog family holiday letter, in which we lovingly look back and reflect on one of our life missions: Who’d we tick off in 2016?

Steep price to pay

Start with our definition of happy news. Remember that Denton auto mechanic, Jeff Fleming, who accepted $3,700 from a single mom but for 19 months didn’t fix her car? After our report, an anonymous donor sold the mom a car for $1. Then Denton attorney Curtis M. Loveless volunteered to take the mother’s case to court. Fleming was a no-show. A judge ordered Fleming to pay — sit down for this — $92,000.

Jeff Fleming looks at Toni Brown's Ford Focus, which he kept for a year and a half even though she paid him thousands of dollars. The Denton auto shop owner ended up losing a $92,000 judgment in the case when he failed to show up for court.
Jeff Fleming looks at Toni Brown’s Ford Focus, which he kept for a year and a half even though she paid him thousands of dollars. The Denton auto shop owner ended up losing a $92,000 judgment in the case when he failed to show up for court.

Obvious flop

We don’t celebrate anyone’s marriage breakup, but we weren’t surprised when it was announced that Tarek and Christina El Moussa of HGTV’s Flip or Flop had split. Months back, we showed how the couple had already split from an ethical life when they lent their name to second-rate, get-rich-quick seminars taking advantage of their TV fans. They responded with a YouTube video to me that was as flat as their show.

After we revealed that local investment radio show host James E. Poe was stripped of his financial adviser registration by state regulators yet still hosting a business radio show, he finally was pulled off the air.

Texas Farm Bureau tried to strip their insurance customers of their rights to sue in return for a crummy discount. We shared. The company withdrew its proposal.

Denton County Courthouse leaders are trying to pull a fast one by refusing to order an investigation of the worst Election Day voting mayhem in memory. After we organized a letter-writing protest by taxpayers to county officials, County Judge Mary Horn changed her mind and asked the Texas secretary of state to investigate. Only that office doesn’t do investigations.

We keep warning about Carrollton-based Garage Door Services, a  garage door repair company that goes by so many names it’s hard to avoid them when searching by internet. They keep popping up.

One clue: If their office sounds like a call center, it’s probably them. Prepare to overpay or, even better, find an ethical mom-and-pop company.

School business

We shined light into darker corners of the Texas public school system. How? Showing how Frisco ISD’s lavish spending on administrators’ quarters was an ugly contrast with its plea for voter approval to raise taxes. The measure lost.

Frisco ISD's Administration Building on Ohio Drive. Voters shut down a tax increase in 2016.(Kye R. Lee/The Dallas Morning News)
Frisco ISD’s Administration Building on Ohio Drive. Voters shut down a tax increase in 2016.
(Kye R. Lee/The Dallas Morning News)

Sidney ISD in Central Texas didn’t hold an election for an entire decade. Board members just stayed on. The district was caught and punished by state regulators. But the matter was never covered for Sidney residents in their local press until we brought it to light.

Keeping on it, we showed how a state senator accused the Texas Association of School Boards of brainwashing school board members to put their own adult interests ahead of the children’s, how a former FBI agent found examples of corruption in the state’s worst districts, and how superintendents use marketing and advertising techniques to crush criticsof their political machines.

Don B. Southerland Jr. is a retired FBI agent and current forensics accounting investigator. After spending the last four years investigating Texas public school districts, he comes out and tells The Watchdog about the incompetence and corruption he has uncovered in several districts.<p>(Rex C. Curry/Special Contributor)</p>
Don B. Southerland Jr. is a retired FBI agent and current forensics accounting investigator. After spending the last four years investigating Texas public school districts, he comes out and tells The Watchdog about the incompetence and corruption he has uncovered in several districts.

(Rex C. Curry/Special Contributor)

Dogged determination

The most fascinating person we met in 2016 was Malia Litman of Dallas. She spent $100,000 in legal fees to expose a culture of corruption in the U.S. Secret Service. She filed 89 Freedom of Information Acts and discovered all manner of cover-ups and shenanigans. A judge ruled she had to pay the legal fees even though the government caused delays. After we told her story, the judge changed his mind and the feds paid up.

Malia Litman in her North Dallas home in July. She waged a lonely and expensive battle for public records kept by the U.S. Secret Service. She won in the end.
Malia Litman in her North Dallas home in July. She waged a lonely and expensive battle for public records kept by the U.S. Secret Service. She won in the end.

Runner-up for most fascinating: the Great Man himself, Randall Stephenson, AT&T’s chairman/CEO/president/grand poobah. He invited The Watchdog to our “Chicken Salad Summit” luncheon. He wanted to show me how wrong I was when I wrote — in launching my #shameATT campaign— that he didn’t care about customer service.

In his office, I asked him, “How does it feel to fail?” I presented him with a red binder filled with a torrent of AT&T complaints, typical of what I’ve received for a decade.

“Make it stop,” I pleaded to the man now trying to buy Time Warner and rule the world. (I intend to revisit this on the anniversary of our summit next March.)

Watchdog Dave Lieber and AT&amp;T president and CEO Randall Stephenson in Stephenson's office talking about AT&amp;T's customer service. Stephenson is now trying to buy Time Warner.
Watchdog Dave Lieber and AT&T president and CEO Randall Stephenson in Stephenson’s office talking about AT&T’s customer service. Stephenson is now trying to buy Time Warner.

Marina and I were also quite stunned when Texas Public Utility Commission Chairwoman Donna Nelson followed up within days of our suggestion to clear out scammy (and false) 1-cent per kilowatt hour rate electricity promos. The deceptive prices showed on the front page of search results on the state’s all-important electricity shopping site, powertochoose.org. At least that was fixed. More to come on other problems.

Fail

A previous newspaper publisher of mine, Richard L. Connor, always said we needed to fail at something big at least once every year. Otherwise if you don’t try, you won’t ever succeed.

Those words came true with my satirical #WatchdogForPresident campaignwhich tried to highlight governments’ weak law enforcement against the hordes of scammers operating worldwide. I abandoned the campaign in June. I’m left with a box of unused campaign buttons. What I learned: Nobody was in the mood to laugh about the 2016 presidential race. #fail.

Our campaign to get Texans to protest their property taxes attracted new followers. Even more so, our other campaigns — now gearing up to push for pro-consumer laws in the 2017 Legislature — attracted members who email their support to watchdog@dallasnews.com.

We’re looking for a roofers/contractors license, insurance protections, privacy laws, electricity shopping reforms and property tax relief. Stay tuned in the weeks ahead. We’ll need you.

Best day of the year: our Tornado Town Hall in mid-January at the Plaza Theatre in Garland. We showed area residents how to hire legitimate contractors and not get fooled. I love the cheat sheet to hire the right people we shared.

Oh, and by the way, Dave’s cat died this year, but Marina’s family got a new cat, so we’re kinda even.

Happy New Year from The Watchdog Desk.

Staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to everything in this report. Our editor is Mede Nix.

Check out The Watchdog Mondays on NBC5 at 11:20 a.m. talking about matters important to you.

The Watchdog Desk at DallasNews.com consists of Dave Lieber and Marina Trahan Martinez. Our editor is Mede Nix.
The Watchdog Desk at DallasNews.com consists of Dave Lieber and Marina Trahan Martinez. Our editor is Mede Nix.

TOP 10 WATCHDOG HEADLINES

These Watchdog columns were read the most in 2016.

1.      Watchdog gets duped when HGTV’s Flip or Flop stars Tarek and Christina disappoint

2.      HGTV’s Flip or Flop hosts risk popularity with high-pressure investment seminars

3.      Watchdog: Dallas woman discovers new Secret Service sex scandals through public information requests

4.      Watchdog: How to stop annoying robocalls, scammers and Do Not Call violators

5.      What happened when our watchdog gave AT&T’s CEO a binder full of customer complaints

6.      Watchdog: Crying poverty from inside Frisco ISD’s Grand Palace

7.      How a Denton auto mechanic took a single mom’s money and held her car hostage for 19 months

8.       How to protest your property taxes in Texas

9.      Watchdog: When will AT&T get the picture?

10.  Watchdog: Think car inspections are stupid? Changes may be coming

Source: Parse.ly

Dave Lieber's manifesto for WatchdogNation.com

You can’t afford to miss The Watchdog. Follow our latest reporting always at The Watchdog page.

Watchdog Dave Lieber of The Dallas Morning News is leader of Watchdog Nation, which shows Americans how to stand up for themselves and become super consumers.

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

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In a symbolic campaign, our guy runs for – whaa? – president!

Watchdog Nation founder Dave Lieber is taking a stand on behalf of his readers’ number one pet peeve.

His stand is a symbolic run for the U.S. presidency, which he announced Sunday, Jan. 10, 2016 in his Watchdog column in The Dallas Morning News. See it here.

The pet peeve? His readers — citizens of Watchdog Nation, he calls them — are quite surprised when they have phone numbers, email addresses, sometimes even bank account numbers for scammers who try to hurt them. Yet the authorities don’t seem to care.

Dave proposes creating a “junior FBI squad” that would work both here and overseas to take out the thousands of illegal operations that call, mail and email Americans every day with duplicitous schemes.

How can you help? Enjoy the debut campaign video here. And share the link – https://youtu.be/8iKqghi1nzg – with you friends. Let’s have fun.

Read our original story about leaks on Twitter before the official campaign announcement here.

Dave-Lieber-watchdog-for-president-campaign-materials

 

Read Dave Lieber’s Watchdog for President announcement speech here.

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

How to fight terrible companies

On TV: Fighting back the Watchdog Nation way

Thanks to Kristi Nelson and NBC5 for letting me share Watchdog Nation’s ways to fight back every Monday around 11:20 am.

Become a citizen of Watchdog Nation:

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Five Bills Designed to Make Texas Consumer-Friendly

Make shopping for electricity fairer for Texans. Force roofers to get a state license. Stop charging extra for people who pay with debit and credit cards. Verify that fingerprinting all Texans for driver’s licenses is legal. Protect auto insurance customers who ask questions about their policies.

These are the five dream bills offered up by Dallas Morning News Watchdog Dave Lieber in his recent two-part series. Read Part One and Part Two.

By far, his Retail Electricity Reform Act of 2015 is his top-priority. “I get more complaints from Texans about their electricity contracts than any other subject,” Lieber says. “I have placed the top ones into my dream bill. I’m seeking one or more lawmakers willing to take on the big powerful interests and clean up all the loopholes. So far, no legislator has taken the big step. But I’m hoping for it.”

Lieber wants to ban minimum usage fees, regulate unregulated fees and make comparison shopping easier by forcing all companies to advertise the full price including the delivery charge.

electricity screen shot

Watchdog Nation founder Dave Lieber discusses his legislative proposal on NBC5. Watch here:

Read about the four minor bills here.

Read about the major electricity bill here.

Follow The Watchdog at www.dallasnews.com/watchdog and see the progress of this year’s campaign.

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Top 10 Consumer Tips for 2015

This video shows the best tips for 2015 from Dallas Morning News Watchdogs Dave Lieber and Marina Trahan Martinez.

How did we figure this out?

Based on our mail and the most common problems we see. If you hit most of these correctly, you’ll lessen your chances for a hassle-free ’15.

Happy New Year from The Watchdog Desk at The Dallas Morning News.

Watch Dave live on NBC5.

Read the full column this is based on here.

For desktop and laptop viewers, here’s the information in a cartoon we made.

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The Watchdog: JFK launched the U.S. consumer-rights movement

In the billion words written about President John F. Kennedy in these last days, almost everyone has missed one of the most important contributions of his presidency.

JFK is the founder of the American consumer rights movement.

I bet you didn’t know that. Here’s how it happened.

jfk big

The year before he died, Kennedy stood before cameras in the Roosevelt Room in the White House and announced his support for changes in law that we take for granted today: truth in lending, pesticide regulations, meat inspections, government approval of pharmaceuticals, product safety and, my favorite, more TV channels.

Kennedy said, “Consumers, by definition, include us all. If consumers are offered inferior products, if prices are exorbitant, if drugs are unsafe or worthless, if the consumer is unable to choose on an informed basis, then his dollar is wasted, his health and safety may be threatened, and the national interest suffers.”

No president had ever talked like that.

Kennedy went further, announcing his consumer bill of rights:

The right to safety. Products should not be hazardous to health or life.

The right to be informed. Consumers should be protected from fraudulent, deceitful or grossly misleading information in advertising and on labels.

The right to choose. Give people a variety of products at competitive prices.

The right to be heard. Consumer interests should be heeded by legislators and policymakers.

Kennedy’s wishes are now enshrined in law.

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More Watchdog Nation News:

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The Watchdog: Open government in Texas is getting more open thanks to new state laws

Don’t fall off your chair when you hear this, but the Texas Legislature has enacted major changes in how Texans can monitor their local, county and state governments. These changes are for the better for both officials and the public.

Texas is the first state in the nation to create a new way to monitor the work and deliberations of government officials. Each government, whether it be city council, school district, county commissioners court or a state agency, is now allowed to create an Internet message board where officials, both elected and appointed, can publicly discuss government business away from officially called meetings.

But there’s one caveat. The public now has a right to listen in, or rather read, what’s being said.

 

open government

In the past, it was illegal for government officials to discuss either in person, by phone or electronically the people’s business outside of a posted public meeting. Not to say that they didn’t do it, but they weren’t supposed to.

The new law that takes effect Sept. 1 states that governments can create a message board and place it prominently on their website. Officials can write back and forth, even deliberate with one another.

In another change that has already taken effect, any official who can’t be present for a public meeting can now video conference in and be considered part of a quorum — as long as the public can watch, too.

Picture this: Councilwoman A is away on business during the night of a council meeting. So she sets up her iPad in her hotel room and still participates. The government shows her image on a big screen in the meeting room. Councilwoman A is there, virtually.

A third big change coming Sept. 1 is that text messages, emails and other electronic messaging from either public or private accounts between elected officials will officially be part of the public record.

If two school board members text each other during a meeting about how they intend to vote, anyone has the right to request access to those messages. If they’re not handed over, that’s a violation of the state public information act.

As part of this new law, when governments outsource government services to outside vendors, communications with those vendors are now public, too.

“This was a really good session for transparency,” says Donnis Baggett of the Texas Press Association. “Transparency was a buzzword for the session. For the most part, it was a breath of fresh air compared to past sessions.”

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The idea for the first-in-the-nation message board came from Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott and Democratic state Sen. Kirk Watson of Austin.

How public officials use the message board, if they create one, remains to be seen. Will they actually engage in frank discussions electronically in front of the public, or will they use the message board for propaganda purposes?

These new laws take the state’s open records and open meetings requirements into the 21st century, says Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

“The clear understanding is, if you’re performing governmental functions, no matter the device, it’s subject to the Texas Public Information Act,” says Laura Lee Prather, an Austin attorney who specializes in First Amendment issues and worked closely with lawmakers and open government advocates to get these bills passed.

Remember that to get this information, all you have to do is write a letter to a government body requesting it. There are a few exceptions for what’s available, but most government documents are yours for the asking. Sometimes you have to pay, depending on the request and the governmental body, and sometimes you don’t.

The state’s public information act is clear about who owns these records: you do. The preamble to the Texas Public Information Act states that public servants do not have “the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”

It’s our job to remind them of that. Now it’s a whole lot easier.

 The new laws

Read the new open government laws at the Texas Legislature Online website, www.capitol.state.tx.us/. Search “Legislation” by bill number and use 83R, for the 83rd regular session.

SB 1368: Declares that electronic messages on public or private accounts are available through open records requests. Takes effect Sept. 1.

SB 1297: Allows governments to create an Internet message board for public officials to deliberate away from public meetings. Takes effect Sept. 1.

HB 2414: Permits video conferencing by officials unable to be physically present at a publicly called meeting. Has become law.

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Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.\

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The Watchdog: How much do you know about protecting seniors?

Think about Grandma or Grandpa. Or your elderly dad or mom. Or maybe even you, getting older. Do you know the rights of older Texans? Do you know ways to protect them?

Let’s take The Watchdog’s Elder Care Knowledge Quiz.

The late Jack Cook of Southlake, TX.

The late Jack Cook of Southlake, TX. Dave’s favorite senior.

1. When a senior has a problem, a quick and reliable way to find professionals who can provide help is to:

a) dial the Texas 211 help line, which helps Texans connect with services they need.

b) check for pros on

Craigslist.

c) stand on a street corner with a sign.

2. State agencies that help seniors include all of these except:

a) Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services.

b) Texas Adult Protective Services.

c) Texas attorney general.

d) Texas Department of Scam Protection.

3. The Department of Aging and Disability Services is responsible for catching violations of state and federal laws in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and home health care agencies.

True or false?

4. Which of these is a violation in a nursing home?

a) a resident not kept dressed, well groomed and clean at all times

b) treatments or care given in public, not private

c) treating a resident with disrespect

d) all of these

5. Which of these acts is considered abuse of an older person?

a) placing them in seclusion

b) humiliating and embarrassing them

c) using disparaging or derogatory terms

d) all of these

6. A door-to-door salesman comes to your door to sell a product. What is the chance that he’s telling the truth when he offers a great product for a low price that easily can’t be beat elsewhere?

a) He’s telling the truth.

b) He’s telling a lie as big as the hole in his conscience.

7. Seniors are favorite targets for scammers. Which of these are not vulnerabilities to be on the lookout for?

a) someone who wants to pave a homeowner’s driveway

b) garage door repair companies that don’t have a physical address in the area

c) financial advisers who guarantee double-digit rates of return

d) sellers of Girl Scout cookies

8. When an older adult has been scammed, the correct response is:

a) overcome initial embarrassment.

b) call the police.

c) tell relatives.

d) all of these.

9. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services does not take complaints about seniors who have been:

a) abused.

b) neglected.

c) financially exploited.

d) overcharged on electricity bills.

10. One easy way a senior can save money is to assume that most car repair diagnoses that are high-dollar recommendations deserve a second opinion elsewhere.

True or false?

11. Someone who calls and says he is from Microsoft and wants to fix a virus in your computer is:

a) correct, so give him your credit card.

b) a lying thief because Microsoft never makes calls such as this.

12. A grandchild calls on the phone and says he is in a foreign country and needs money wired immediately to him but he doesn’t want his parents to know. The correct action is to:

a) wire the money immediately because grandkids are the best.

b) call the parents and check on their child’s whereabouts.

c) make travel reservations to that foreign country.

13. A relative who gains access to an older person’s checkbook without his or her permission and spends money is:

a) a relative who will probably pay it back if someone finds out.

b) breaking the law, and the police could be called and charges filed.

14. It’s smart to be suspicious of investment opportunities offered by family members, friends and friends of friends no matter how good they sound.

True or false?

15. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott states on his website that investing in annuities “may be inappropriate for seniors because of the lengthy horizon before they begin to pay off. Sale of annuities to seniors may be unethical.”

True or false?

16. If a family member makes an official complaint about a nursing home and nursing home administrators retaliate against the resident or the family, the family should:

a) file a complaint with state regulators because that’s a violation of law.

b) accept things as they are and keep quiet.

17. When unexpected phone calls arrive from salespeople, the best defense is:

a) tape the call.

b) hang up.

c) talk to them as long as possible to learn who they are.

d) pretend you’re nuts.

18. The way to cancel a door-to-door sale is to:

a) make a phone call within 30 days of the sale to say you have changed your mind.

b) write “notice of cancellation” on a receipt and mail it back to the seller within three days (and keep a copy).

19. A senior facing a problem involving federal benefits such as Social Security or Medicare should get help by:

a) creating a petition on change.org.

b) making a funny YouTube video.

c) contacting his or her Congress member’s constituent services office.

20. When going to a seminar about a financial investment, it’s smart to make a decision going in that no matter what happens, an on-the-spot purchase won’t be made that day.

True or false?

Answers: 1-a; 2-d; 3-True; 4-d; 5-d; 6-b; 7-d; 8-d; 9-d; 10-True; 11-b; 12-b; 13-b; 14-True; 15-True; 16-a; 17-b; 18-b; 19-c; 20-True.

If you scored higher than 75 percent (15 of 20 correct) you know your stuff. Spread the word.

Staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.

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More Watchdog Nation News:

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Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.\

Still here? Visit Dave Lieber’s other fun websites:

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Hipster site: DaveLieber.org

Watchdog: (Video) “Free” is a Four-Letter Word

Watchdog Dave Lieber researches for Sunday’s column whether TXU’s “free” nights and weekends program is really a good deal.

Video edited by: Marina Trahan Martinez.

READ THE COLUMN ABOUT THIS HERE.

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More Watchdog Nation News:

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Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.\

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Watchdog Tip of the Day: Complain about a rental car company

What happens when something goes wrong with a rental car agency? The Dallas Morning News Watchdog columnist Dave Lieber shows consumers how to “flood the zone.” In our Watchdog Video Tip of the Day, we try to solve problems in under a minute.

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More Watchdog Nation News:

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Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.\

Still here? Visit Dave Lieber’s other fun websites:

Personal: YankeeCowboy.com

Hipster site: DaveLieber.org