North Texas Tollway Authority unhappy with our report about woman thrown in jail

The North Texas Tollway Authority has responded in full to the previous Dave Lieber column about the single mom who went to jail for 27 hours because of a problem stemming from unpaid tollway fines. She says she never received any notices. The NTTA says she did. But did she?

Read that full report here.

Fortunately, we can take advantage of the unlimited space offered on the Internet to post, in full, NTTA spokeswoman Susan Slupecki’s response and my response to her, also in full.

You decide.

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

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From: Slupecki, Susan

Sent: Wednesday, October 06, 2010 2:57 PM
Subject: Your article: “Unpaid Tollway Authority bills can land you in jail”

Mr. Lieber,

This letter is in response to your story that appeared in Sunday’s Star-Telegram, “Unpaid Tollway Authority bills can land you in jail” (dated Oct. 3, 2010).

Not only did you miss several salient points, but as a reporter you have an obligation to present all the facts, which clearly did not happen in this case.

So in the interest of accuracy and removing any negative light you have shed on the NTTA as a result of this article, I, again, offer the following facts.

Ms. Butler received three invoices from the NTTA in 2005 (two in May, one in November), as well as several additional notices in 2005 and 2006 requesting maintenance on her TollTag account.  None of the invoices or notices were returned to us (indicating a bad or incorrect address).  Had they been, the invoicing action could have been stopped and wouldn’t even have gotten to the DPS/citation stage.  However, a DPS citation was issued in September 2006 for the first invoice.

You state in your article that Ms. Butler contends she was “never notified of any unpaid bills or court appearances and that her address is correctly listed with the state and the NTTA, where she keeps a current TollTag account.” However, you failed to support this contention with any documentation that would validate her claim.  You then contradict this very statement further in your article when you say that Ms. Butler did, in fact, “hear” about a notice: “She remembered hearing about one notice that went to her now-deceased grandfather in Austin in 2006.” But again, you failed to state whether or not Ms. Butler contacted the NTTA prior to the citation being issued.  The fact is, she did not.  Despite our many attempts to reach her, at no time during the invoicing/notice/citation period in question did Ms. Butler contact us to address any maintenance, problems or concerns with her account.

Furthermore…you state in your article: “Officials said last year that they had improved their use of databases to get more-accurate information.” But you failed to demonstrate how we did this by excluding relevant information I provided to you last week outlining safeguards the NTTA has in place to ensure accuracy in our databases:

–          We receive weekly record updates from the Texas DMV.

–          We also run all our invoices through the National Change of Address (NCOA) database through the United States Postal Service to ensure accuracy of the address during invoicing.

–          The Department of Public Safety issues a citation only after a vehicle title record MATCHES the driver license record address, name, etc.

Based on that last bullet alone, you also failed to question how it could be possible that DPS – the very agency that presides over driver license information – did not have Ms. Butler’s current address at the time the citation was issued in 2006.  Seemingly, nor did the Collin County Justice of the Peace Court when a citation to appear in court was issued, OR the Collin County Sheriff’s Department when a warrant was later issued for her arrest for failure to appear in court.

The fact is, Texas law requires individuals to update the address on their driver license within 30 days of moving to a new residence.  If it is true that Ms. Butler moved during the period in question, then she had an obligation to notify the Texas Department of Transportation.

Furthermore, address information is to be corrected during re-registration of vehicles, which occurs annually.  Did Ms. Butler ever correct her registration information with TxDOT during the time in question?  Had she done so, the violation notices sent to Ms. Butler notifying her of unpaid tolls would have been directed to the new address.  Ms. Butler’s toll violations occurred in early 2005, and the criminal case against her was not filed until September 2006.  She had ample time to comply with state law regarding updating her driver license and vehicle registration information before her unpaid tolls resulted in the filing of a criminal citation, yet she apparently failed to do so.

Then there is the question of how Ms. Butler could have even accrued toll violations if her TollTag account was current during the time in question.  The fact is, TollTag accounts must be in good standing in order to work properly.  We must not only have current address and vehicle information, but also current payment information.  As I explained to you last week, having a TollTag account is similar to having a checking account—it is merely a method to pay for transactions and does not guarantee payment without a positive balance.  Was Ms. Butler’s address, vehicle and payment information current and her TollTag account in good standing in 2005 and 2006?  The fact is, the most common reason a TollTag customer receives a violation invoice is because the credit or debit card the customer has on file for their account has expired or is no longer valid and, therefore, the account can no longer keep a positive balance.

Clearly, there were several factors that made up Ms. Butler’s case.  But as I mentioned to you before, there is information I was not able to provide to you as disclosure of certain customer account information is prohibited by Section 366.179 of the Transportation Code.  Still, given all the information I have provided you, I wonder how you can use your article to question the accuracy of the NTTA, the Department of Public Safety and the Collin County court system – yet, never question Ms. Butler for her role in her situation.  I think the obvious speaks for itself in this case – Ms. Butler was not being completely straightforward with you, and the unfair story that resulted is just another example of many generated by the media that perpetuates the misconception that the NTTA is solely responsible for some situations customers like Ms. Butler find themselves in.

Because it is very important to the NTTA that members of the media portray these types of situations legitimately and accurately, we would be happy to go over Ms. Butler’s account with you provided she sign a waiver allowing us to discuss her account freely while both of you are present.  If you are open to this idea, please let me know and I will be happy to facilitate a dialogue among all the parties involved.

Thank you,

Susan Slupecki

Asst. Public Information Officer

North Texas Tollway Authority

www.ntta.org

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From: Dave Lieber
Sent: Wednesday, October 06, 2010 3:18 PM
To: Slupecki, Susan
Subject: RE: Your article: “Unpaid Tollway Authority bills can land you in jail”

Susan,

Thank you for your comments. Of course, I would be happy to meet.

With your permission, I’d like to print your letter in response on my blog so everyone can see your points when they come across it in the future.

I believe the story was quite clear that it was her word, not her documentation against the NTTA’s position. I made no bones about it.

In most, if not all cases, I quoted her as saying it, rather than presenting her statement as fact. You accurately used the word “contends.”

I would submit that you would contend to your position, too. You say you sent letters to her. They did not come back to you. You accept that as fact that they must have landed at their proper destination. I find that to be a stretch. Why wouldn’t you use return receipt requested mail to insure this? Several readers have indicated to me in the past few days that they would hope that any government or authority would use something more sophisticated to ensure that letters are going to their proper places, rather than “we sent it and it was never returned.” Especially when the end result could be jail time.

By your chairman’s own comment in the story, there have been numerous address errors in the past. Plus, even without his forthright comment, I, and many other members of the media have in the past reported about a stream of address problems. My point is that, considering NTTA’s track record, this incident is in the realm of the possible, not the impossible.

That’s why I was willing to let Butler have her say. Your paperwork that you showed me, and your letter her, contending that she did, in fact, receive the notice, is based on a supposition as weak or as strong as her own contention.

I would like to print your note in its entirety on my personal blog so others who find the story in the future can read it and make up their own minds. But I won’t do that without your permission.

Dave Lieber

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Read previous posts by Dave Lieber on this subject

Watchdog Nation says: Give ’em hell, Victor!

Here’s how to take back some of the authority from the North Texas Tollway Authority

Woman goes to jail for unpaid toll bill she says she never received

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Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new 2010 edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is out. Revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

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

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Comments

  1. I find it no stretch to believe that the letters were not delivered. My husband and I received a notice a year back about a toll fee from 2006. The letter stated we had received several letters but we had not gotten ANY! When I called to ask why, they gave me the address they had been delivered to…one that was 5 years out of date, and yes, he had updated his address with the DMV. None of these letters had ever been returned either, which just means that the current person living in the house threw them away. The NTTA is very porrly run in my opinion.

  2. Penny, I have a file drawer filled with letters from people who say the NTTA sent bills to the WRONG address. Afnd you know what? NTTA has rooms filled with the same!

  3. Where is the attorney general when you need him? I believe that it is prudent for the NTTA to have transparency, as well as a system of checks and balances, not merely from their own internal investigations, but from a 3rd party.

    A 25.00 fee for a .85cent toll seems a bit steep, and, in fact, I find it to be an act of lunacy.

    This NTTA organization is no better or righteous, justified OR LEGAL, than an organized mafia. Consider their methods and compare them to the similar shakedowns that organized crime families use to get their money.
    1. charge a fee for every person that drives on a particular public highway.
    2. Use primitive, yet effective fear tactics, and bullying in order to substantiate alleged debts and effectively draw ungodly sums of money from working class humans who supposedly owe these debts.
    3. Use a completely flawed and ignorant form of logic. Logic that would seem to confirm that if the mail sent from NTTA is not returned back to NTTA, it MUST have gone to the proper recipient intended.
    4. Threaten an arrest warrant for those who choose non-compliance.
    6. Detain those who choose non-compliance as a method of intimidating the masses to bend to their omnipotent will and power.

    THIS IS DESPOTISM. straight and simple. Germany did these kinds of things, as far as big brother bullying and fear tactics, back in the 30's when they arose from the ashes of the Versailles treaty, and turned themselves into a fascist juggurnaut that was almost unstoppable. We all know what happened after that. I'm not saying that we're turning into the 4th reich, but I am saying that the power of the people has been taken away and given to the investment class of Americans, and big business. Even more alarming is that these atrocities are occurring are at such an alarmingly slow rate that it is almost impossible for the typical Texan/American to realize we are methodically losing our civil liberties while we steadily let these NTTA banksters sell us a more and more elaborate con job.
    Texas legislature and Texas LEO's need to worry more about illegal immigration, inner city murders and rapes, amber alerts, and the illegal drug wars and quit chasing after people who didn't pay a damn .85cent toll.
    AND, with that, I am out.

  4. I just received a notice from Southwest Credit Systems. They also claimed they have sent me 'several notices'. Let me state that I have been at the same address for 11 years. I have renewed my license multiple times in that 11 years, and the address is correct, as it has been for years. I received no notices from these people. I then get this notice stating it had been turned over to collections without me even knowing this existed. I drove on the toll road about 2 years ago after they went to that new system where they just take a picture of your license plate (the booths were all closed). There is no way to 'check' your balance under this system unless you have a toll tag. I know, because I tried at the time. I know have received a $209 dollar bill for a single use of a toll road that I could find no billing information for.

    This is a total scam. They have setup this system so that people without a toll tag are completely at their mercy and have to trust that they did indeed notify them. I'm furious that this is allowed. I find it curious that they get the address right for this notice but failed to notify me for any toll tags. Why aren't these notices being sent as certified mail?!?

  5. Ron, please contact State Sen. Jane Nelson and let her know.

  6. blah blah says:

    My biggest beef with NTTA is that we already pay transportation taxes used to build and maintain roads. But, every nice, new, multi-lane road that shows up to help alleviate congestion in areas that desperately need it are toll roads. They say they're just going to charge tolls until the construction contracts are paid off. Then they keep charging them saying it's for the cost of maintaining the road. Then they keep charging them saying it's to install a new road along some much-needed area…which also turns into a toll road. I feel like this is double-taxation. I pay transportation fees, now I pay tolls. And these tolls are not cheap. Folks living in NY or other places will say we have some of the cheapest toll costs around, but they never factor in the cost of living here. Our cost of living is lower, thus even though they're low toll costs they still hit us proportionately. With food and gas prices on the rise, it's ridiculous deciding to either take a toll road and get charged $5 each way to commute, or sit in traffic and waste hours and gas for "free" transportation. Their great experiment with HOV lanes was also just a way to setup toll roads later on on major highways. They knew folks wouldn't use the HOV lanes. Now they want to turn them into toll lanes, so the privilaged can pay to drive while others sit in rush hour traffic. This is turning into an elitist system, and just widens the gap between the haves and have nots.

  7. Boy, do I agree with this on how toll roads have invaded and are going to invade our lives!

  8. I have a good one for you. About 2 years ago, we received bills for using this toll road. O.K., we will pay when we use it. Then all of a sudden, they say our Explorer has been in Plano, but noone drove it to Plano. My son drives it and he works in Odessa. We have check stubs and all of that stuff that will prove he wasn't there. I try to call them and tell them it is a mistake. I wait on hold and 7Pm came before I got to talk to anyone, so they just disonnect you. They are wasting my cell phone minutes, so I'm really ticked off. Again I wait on the line, and finally I get to talk to a clerk. Guess What? It isn't even our vehicle, but it is a Louisiana State Tag, that has the same license plate number. The picture on the statement that you at one time could see, is clearly not our Ford Explorer, but a Honda. They will admitt it isn't our vehicle, and they say they will flag it. We still get several bills, with dates ranging from 2009 to 2012. I have sent a certified letter stating that I do not want to receive any more of these false bills. I sent all of this on the internet one time, and they said that they will take care of it. Two weeks later, another bill. With all of the fees, that particular statement was $250, more or less. I refuse to pay this. I feel for all of you that have been plagued with this farce.

  9. In March of 2011, we received our first notices from the NTTA. The first arrived and we thought it was just for something that recently happened. No, it was from 2 years earlier. I lived at my address for 5 years, updated driver's liscense, and the whole 9. I had lived at the same apartment complex for 19 total years. Moved in May of 2010, but didn't get any notices until March 2011. I . . . I didn't incur the charges. A family member used the car to go to work, had to use the tollways based on our living situation, and incurred the charges. But guess who's gonna' get dinged for the bill? But I'm cool with that. What I don't like is them sitting on the bills for 2 years and then springing 'em on me without my knowledge. The family member in question kept seeing the signs on the tollway, "keep going, we'll bill you." But no bill came for 2 years. I now owe in excess of 44K to agency.Now, I'll admit that we did use the tollroad. I'm not trying to get out of paying the bill. I just want the time to pay it(2 years) that they sat on the bills claiming that my address didn't show up in their database. REally? Shame on you NTTA and you State of Texas. How can you not find me if I've had the same DL # for 30 years? What about my SS #? How about my credit report. I know who made the mistake, but they didn't own up to it. I purchased a car in May of '08 and the dealer failed to denote my correct apartment #. It put me behind a car payment and now had caused this problem with the NTTA.
    Again, I'll pay the bills, but give me the 2 years and knock off the fees. In the day of modern technology, where you can extract road tolls from driver's without them stopping at a MANNED tollbooth, how can you not find a resident of the STate who has a valid DL#, SSN#, credit reports and lived at current address for at least 5 years?

  10. First – I'm an infrequent NTTA user and live west of DFW Airport.

    In Oct 2011, I received an NTTA envelope that contained 4 ZipCash invoices. They contained transactions from 5 months to <b>2 YEARS old – dating from Oct 2009 thru May 2011.</b> I contacted them and stated that I wasn't able to pay the full amount. They said I could pay what I could when I could. I NEVER received additional notices from them (I was working 60-80 weeks thru Dec 2011) and forgot to pay that first notice – I admit that.
    Then a collections letter arrived early May 2012. I immediately contact NTTA to find my bill now exceeded $720 – they had added $6.60 PER TRANSACTION. They stated that the subsequent notices were sent USPS Track-n-Trace (which does not provide delivery guarantee BTW) and were not returned, so I "seemingly ignored" them. I'm still trying to determine how one can "seemingly ignore" something one NEVER RECEIVED. They also stated that there was "conflicting ownership information" on my vehicle.. took them 2 years to fix I guess? DMV had no issues sending me registration renewal notices during that same timeframe, why did NTTA?

    After some research and finding out that this has happened to MANY people, I posted my complaint on a DFW site. I was contacted by the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram Watchdog who went to NTTA with my case. NTTA used "sound bites" from my calls, inferring I refused to pay tolls (again, NOT TRUE) that I was in violation for non-payment, that I said I would pay and didn't (that was true, I forgot – it DOES happen) and inferred again that I ignored the notices – all to justify their position.
    During call with their Reps, it was implied that the late fees MIGHT be waved (but no GUARANTEES) if I purchased a Toll Tag. In good faith and believing what I was told, I purchased a TollTag – June 1st, 2012. A subsequent email (via Watchdog) with the NTTA spokesperson/Media Relations person (Susan Slupecki) stated that since I did not purchase a TollTag until after my ZipCash invoices when to collections, WAIVING FEES WOULD NOT HAVE APPLIED TO ME!! Does that sound like deliberate misinformation?

    ALL NTTA communications were slanted in their favor, and at no point was I given the benefit of the doubt regarding receipt of other notices.

    ** How DOES one prove that one did NOT receive something via USPS? ***

    NTTA has not provided tracking numbers (so I can take this up with USPS) NOR have they provided copies of the late/Violation notices – ONLY the original invoices – which they have said that I can "clearly be heard" in a recorded call refusing to pay. NOT! I have never refused to pay TWO YEAR OLD tolls. I refused to pay the LATE FEES as I disputed them.

    This is still not resolved, but they have the average customer over a barrel. This will be going to my State Representatives as soon as I can make that happen. This highway robbery shouldn't happen to anyone !!

  11. This is just too funny and no one has even mentioned the simple fact that a citation was issued without proper jurisdiction and service!!! If it is true and fact that Ms. Butler never received letters from both NTTA and THE COURT! Then she was by no means PROPERLY SERVED!
    She could have easily stood in court and asked the judge to dismiss the case with prejudice due to the simple fact that the state not only failed to properly and legally serve her but lied about it (since they are required to certify that the person was served before obtaining judgment or in this case a bench warrant assuming that was the kind of warrant that was issued). Furthermore, this is something that should not be covered by local and state laws but by the FDCPA and FCRA, and there is precedence since the NTTA has and is currently COLLECTING and sells the debt to COLLECTORS. I only wish that some brave attorney could take this up as a pro-bono and make a class action lawsuit against the state of Texas for allowing the stupid idea of allowing the private sector to run (now that’s a stretch) and build our nation’s highways when that is clearly the government’s job, hell that is where my taxes are going aren’t they?

    If this Ms. Butler is really saying the truth, if I were her I would sue the hell out of the state and NTTA for that.