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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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 email@example.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.
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