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

AT&T won an ethics award.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The final payment was made in January.

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

Hardly. Nice try.

The right track?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did the contest judges say about AT&T?

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

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

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

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

Too bad nobody asked The Watchdog.

Moving jobs overseas

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

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

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

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

In bad company

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

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

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

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

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

Is history repeating itself?

A slush fund?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now give it back. #shameATT.

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

A waitress who defeated an auto dealer in court gets the surprise of a lifetime, thanks to readers

When my wife and I picked up Christal Scott at her Dallas restaurant at the end of her waitress shift (her planned ride canceled because of bad weather), she was bitter about humanity.

With good reason.

She’d been without a car since July because of her duel with 1and2 Automotive in northwest Dallas. Her car was snatched back by 1and2 in what she called an illegal repossession. She lost her $5,100 cash down payment, too.

She sued the used car dealer in small claims court, and stood up to co-owner David A. Kost Jr., whom I call the King of Car Repossessions. The day of that trial, Kost told me many of the 200 cars he sells each month come back to him. (Note: This story first appeared in the Jan. 19, 2018 Dallas Morning News.)

It was quite a courtroom scene. No lawyers. Just the single mom, 43, still wearing her all-black work uniform and platinum blond hair tied back in a ponytail, going toe-to-toe with Kost, 39, shaved head, goatee, untucked shirt, jeans and boots with a silver chain around his neck.

“I was a mess that day,” she recalls. “I didn’t know what to ask him. It was really scary.”

She won. A jury awarded her $2,000. She hoped to use the money for a down payment on another car, but, as of Thursday, Kost has not paid.

1and2 Automotive sales tactics

We were driving to a car dealership in Plano, but Christal didn’t know exactly why. She’d find out soon. A surprise of a lifetime. For the moment, the Irving woman was sour on life.

“Everything you do nowadays is a ripoff,” she said. “You can’t trust anybody at all. Not businesses. Not anybody. Nobody is honest. Everybody is so greedy.”

She’s worked at the same restaurant for 11 years. She has no family other than her disabled son. She’s street-smart and savvy.

She’s also brave. By herself, she took on what The Watchdog calls one of the worst used car dealerships in Dallas.

The pattern, shown through my reporting, is that 1and2 Automotive customers often find their desired cars on Craigslist. But when they arrive at 1and2 at the corner of Reeder and Joe Field roads, they’re told sorry, that car sold 20 minutes ago.

A salesman points the buyer to a more expensive car and asks to see cash to make sure the customer is serious. The cash is dropped in an office safe. Salesman says he can’t get it out. You just bought a car.

Kost, who owns 1and2 with his father, David A. Kost Sr. (hence 1and2), told me customers can get the money back in a check, but it takes two weeks.

That scenario happened to Christal and also to Dalwan Washington, a single mom whose story I shared. She lost her car because she missed a $275 payment by a few days. She, like Christal, was confused because it turns out the contract language calls for biweekly, not monthly payments.

Christal thought she was making a monthly payment of $450 but it was actually supposed to be $900 a month on a Camaro, a car she felt forced to buy after they snatched her life savings of $5,100 and dropped it in the safe.

If you come back to the dealership to complain, staff puts you in what Kost calls “the manager’s room.” I call it “the scream room.”

Kost said, “If someone is in my showroom and they’re yelling and screaming, what do you do? You can do whatever you want to in this room. … The thing that upsets them about this room is their voice doesn’t go very far [even] if they yell and scream.”

Makes you want to buy a car, huh?

A surprise at Ewing Buick-GMC

We arrived at Ewing Buick-GMC on Dallas Parkway in Plano. General manager Jeff Gaden was waiting with a smile — and a surprise.

Four anonymous donors, after reading about Christal’s plight, stepped forward with more than $12,000 in contributions. It’s a bit overwhelming.

Gaden happily said that he would sell her a 2012 Honda Accord (one of the best cars ever made), black to match her waitress uniform, with 65,000 miles.

“Are you serious?” Christal asked, fighting back tears.

Gaden sold it at wholesale, so Christal has no payments.

The Buick GM told her why. “We appreciate you standing up in court.” Auto dealers, he said, “try to keep a good name. That’s important to us for someone like you to stand up.”

Asked what lesson she wants to share, she agreed.

“The lesson is to stand up and fight,” she said.

She sat in the driver’s seat. “I’m ready to drive. It’s been so long. … No more Uber or Lyft.”

“You told me people were kind of rough and mean. And that you couldn’t trust anybody,” I reminded her.

“Yeah.”

“You still think that way now?”

She answered quickly.

“Nope.”

 

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Watchdog Nation founder Dave Lieber gives TED talk on power of storytelling

Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation works to change the mindset of Americans about how easy it is to fight back and win.

The way to do this is with stories that show how others have achieved victory against corporate thugs and scammers.

Watch this funny TED talk video and learn how Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Dallas Morning News, tells stories that move people to action and change.

See how Dave Lieber’s “Magic V-Shaped Storytelling Formula” helps others in this testimonial.

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What happened when Watchdog Nation ate lunch with AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson

My #shameATT campaign on Twitter landed Watchdog Nation in the office of AT&T CEO/Chairman/President/Big Kahuna Randall Stephenson.

Hear what happened when we gave him a red binder full of complaints

Here’s the story that originally appeared in the Dave Lieber Watchdog column in The Dallas Morning News.

  • A mistake I made about AT&T led me into AT&T Chairman-CEO-President Randall Stephenson’s office last week. That’s right. The C-Suite. Suite 400 at AT&T world headquarters in downtown Dallas.

    Guys like me can’t get past a company’s PR gatekeepers. But here I am being escorted in the elevator by a building guard. I bring a message from you to him. I carry a large red binder with more than 100 complaints about his company.

    Previously, I had written that “the big kahuna at AT&T” doesn’t list improving customer service as one of his top three goals. I launched a #shameATT Twitter campaign.

    After that, the big kahuna himself calls on my AT&T cellphone to alert me of my error. He says making customers happy has always been and will always be his numero uno. He invites me to his office for a chicken salad lunch (for which, incidentally, I pay).

    After spending 90 minutes in his office last Wednesday, I attest that the big kahuna cares about customer service. Absolutely.

    The natural follow-up I ask is: How does it feel to fail?

    And I give a little speech: “The reason I’m here, though, is specifically — besides the honor of coming to meet you — to present to you my dilemma. I really have a dilemma. And the dilemma is this. I made this for you.”

    I pull out the large red binder. The cover title I created is “The Last 100 Days.” What’s inside? 119 emails from 119 customers and employees — more than one a day — from the last 100 days. I deleted the senders’ names and other personal information to protect their privacy. But these little stories are the saddest tales of corporate failure and customer frustration one can imagine.

    “This is what my life has been like for the past 10 years,” I say.

    I explain that since I became The Watchdog in 2005, not a day goes by, hardly, when I don’t receive a complaint about his company. Stephenson is tall. Dark hair and glasses. Friendly and courteous. When I talk negatively about his company, he listens intently and doesn’t get defensive.

    “Is this something I can keep?” he asks, pointing to the binder.

  • Dave-Lieber-and-ATT-CEO-RANDALL-STEPHENSON
  • “Yep.”

    “OK, good,” he says. “Did they ask to have the names stripped out?”

    “No,” I explain. “They wrote to me.”

    “So you don’t have their permission?”

    “Yeah. I want you to see what people say about this company.”

    “Good. I want to see it.”

    • “It’s shocking,” I warn. “Such a terrible reflection on this company. And I’ll be honest with you: When I give speeches, I will say that I think AT&T is the worst large-scale company in America. And nobody really ever argues with me.

      “This is just amazing — the level of ineptitude, of carelessness,” I continue. “And it’s shocking to me, and it’s been happening to me every day for 10 years. I’ve always forwarded these to your PR guys. But I’ve stopped.”

      “Why don’t you just start forwarding them to me?” he asks.

      “I would love to do that,” I say, “but here’s what I started sending to people.” I pull out a sheet that shows a keyboard shortcut I created to answer AT&T complaint emails. The shortcut is a link to the complaint website of AT&T’s regulator, the Federal Communications Commission.

      He says that’s an option for people. AT&T gets monthly reports to which it must respond.

      He taps on the red binder again: “I’ll be on an airplane tomorrow. And I’ll spend time going through it.”

      I say, “So that’s why I’m here, OK? I’m here on behalf of what I would call the ‘Make it stop’ campaign.”

      “What is that?” he asks.

      “Make this stop. For every 60 I get about AT&T, I get one about Verizon. For every 90 I get about AT&T, I get one about Time Warner Cable. So your ratio is so far off the charts.”

      His main point to make to me? “If you leave here with nothing else,” he says, “know that this is a priority of mine. This is my No. 1 priority. This is where we invest more capital than anyplace else.”

      He adds, “I would like to convey that we have a plan and a lot of investment” in improving customer service.

      OK.

      He points to the red binder again, screaming brightly in his modern wood-and-glass office. “I’ll find this very useful. … I want to study it. I want to see if I can put together a plan and address this on a broader scale.”

      He tells me that a column I wrote last month describing a customer service horror story was studied intensely by his team. He calls these studies of what went wrong a “root cause analysis.”

      During the next hour, I glimpse what it’s like to run a company with 150 million customers and 280,000 employees. I learn how he monitors performance using scores and metrics and data, some of it independent of the company and some internal.

      I learn that customer service at AT&T is changing. Much of it will go online. Call center reps are going to get more training and better technology to help them do their jobs, he says.

      He glances at the screaming red binder again. “I don’t know what I’m going to find. I’m dying to dive into it. It will actually be valuable intel I suspect.”

      Then he says something that changes my impression of him in a big way. He is removing the gatekeepers. When I ask him again where I should send the daily complaints about AT&T, he gives me his email address.

      Do these emails go to your phone? I ask.

      “Yes.”

      If our little meeting improves customer service for one person, I’ll be happy. But my goal is bigger. His is, too. Let’s improve AT&T’s customer service for millions.

      Staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.

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

      On Twitter:
      @DaveLieber

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Watchdog Nation takes hard look at Flip or Flop HGTV stars’ questionable side business

Man, I am so psyched to meet Tarek and Christina El Moussa of HGTV’s Flip or Flop reality TV show.

The couple’s photo is on the front of the invitation The Watchdog receives to a “Private Real Estate Event” at an area hotel. They sign their names inside.

Wow. I’m going.

As Tarek says on his popular TV show: “We buy the ugliest, nastiest, most rundown houses we can find, and we transform them into beautiful homes.”

hero

Handsome Tarek swings the sledge hammer. Beautiful Christina handles the redesign of the homes they buy.

When they argue on TV about which crappy house to buy, it’s like watching your next-door neighbors in a spat about whether to turn on the lawn sprinklers. So cute.

Their story is legendary. They were in real estate, and when that tanked, they started flipping houses. They made real money! They sent a video to HGTV and, bang! They got their own show! Legendary!

My favorite episode? Christina is about to have a baby. So Tarek is on his own. He must redesign the kitchen by himself. He’s so nervous. What if Christina doesn’t like it?

At episode’s end, Christina sees the finished house and … she approves. “You nailed it,” she tells Tarek. “So pretty.”

Then she has the baby — beautiful, like them. Oh, and they sell the house for a lot of money.

Yes, I have to meet them.

At the hotel

I go to the hotel. A hundred others are in a ballroom. I see a curtain up front. Bet Tarek and Christina are behind that curtain. Can’t wait.

But a guy named Joe comes out. Where are Tarek and Christina? What’s going on here?

Joe shows a video. In it, Tarek explains, “Due to our busy work and filming schedule, we can’t make all events. But we’ve done the next best thing. We’ve reached out to our network of top real estate trainers.”

Are you kidding me? The closest I’ll get to them are life-sized posters. I take a selfie with a poster.

I’m there for three hours listening to Joe, then Grant, promise to teach us all the secrets that Tarek and Christina use to make money.

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What are they selling? Three things. For $2,000 I can attend a three-day workshop. For $5,000 I can learn how to use tax liens to my advantage. If I do, I can tap the third point of sale: investor money loaned to me to help buy houses.

The words they use to sell are classic hotel ballroom sale-a-thons. From my notes:

This is not for everybody. It’s a ninja strategy. There’s a bonus session. This is done in your kitchen in your pajamas. Go to the back tables. Come on guys, get off your ass and do something. If you don’t do this, I’ll still love you, but we won’t talk anymore.

At the end, I’m worn out. But I don’t buy. I pick up my free gift. An MP3 player with one gigabyte of memory:

Later, I make a few calls.

I call Tarek and Christina’s office, but they don’t call back.

I call HGTV, which sends me a statement that says the network has nothing to do with these hotel seminars.

And I talk to Jim Carlson, the chief executive of Success Path, the company that partners with the couple to put on these seminars. (Coming next, Reno, Bozeman and Winnipeg.)

He explains that those who attend the three-day workshop get further opportunities to buy learning products that cost up to $40,000.

For that, I’d want Tarek and Christina to redo my kitchen.

crowd

I tell the CEO I got fooled by the invitation.

“Obviously, a lot of people there think that,” he says. “We’ve got our marketing reviewed. It’s not false, and doesn’t contain any inaccuracies. We’ve had people who were disappointed.”

Then he shows me what I missed. If I somehow had found their website (I didn’t know the company name before the event), I could have read the Frequently Asked Questions:

“Will Tarek and Christina be at the event?”

Answer: “Tarek, Christina, or one of their team members will attend each event. … Unfortunately, Tarek and Christina are unable to make it to every event.”

Darn. We see what we want to see.

Done in by those pesky, overlooked little details that ruin a good fantasy.

Staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.

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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 the leader of Watchdog Nation, which shows Americans how to stand up for themselves and become super consumers.

Read Watchdog Nation’s “origin” story here.

Everything you need to know about the Equifax data theft and protecting your identity.

“Watchdog, could you do a column on what steps to take to try to protect those affected by the massive Equifax breach? I want to move forward in trying to protect us, but am not sure what all I need to do.” — Cheryl DeJulius, Plano

Right on, Cheryl. Let’s do this.

Dave, how bad is the data theft?

Bad. Bad. Bad. Six out of every 10 American adults are affected. Thieves stole names, birth dates, addresses, Social Security numbers and some driver’s license numbers. Consumerist.com calls it “the identity theft jackpot.” Imagine how quickly any two-bit crook can do damage with that information. They can raid your bank account, file false tax returns with the IRS in your name, open accounts anywhere pretending to be you.

everything

Equifax handled the crisis correctly, right?

Are you kidding? This is a classic example of an American company screwup. Put aside, for now, the loss of highly personal data, Equifax failed to announce the theft for more than a month. The announcement was without details. The company’s offer for one year of free ID theft protection was insincere and designed for profit. The personal ID numbers assigned by Equifax to complaining customers were easy to crack because they were date and time stamped.

Read the rest of the story with lots of tips at DallasNews.com,  where this story first appeared, here.

Dave-Lieber-watchdog-nation

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 the leader of Watchdog Nation, which shows Americans how to stand up for themselves and become super consumers.

Read Watchdog Nation’s “origin” story here.

Part 1: Watchdog’s 2017 Legislative Agenda – Insurance, privacy, electricity shopping, property tax reform

I love the Texas Legislature.

You don’t hear those words very often. But ever since I visited for the first time, in 1995, and watched then-Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock work his magic over everyone, I see the lege for the good it does. Who says that these days?

#txlege — and that’s actually the official hashtag — is a vehicle for change, for improvement. The Watchdog receives several thousand emails and letters each year from Texans who gripe about their biggest problems. It’s easy for me to detect patterns and point out which areas of consumer life need fixing.

What I don’t like is how hard it is to get our points across. The problem is the lobbyists, who swarm like fire ants. They are everywhere, on their phones, standing in the back of hearings, earning their fat salaries — many times more than a legislator makes. They have steakhouse expense accounts and big budgets for campaign donations. As you can imagine, lobbyists are incredibly charming.

lobbyists March 31 2015

Lobbyists and other interested parties attend committee meetings for bills in Austin. But most people who have opinions on pending matters don’t attend. They’re at work.(Dave Lieber/Staff)

To counter that, I have a Watchdog Nation strategy. It’s old-fashioned people power. You and me. We get in there and dust it up. As I did two years ago, today I reveal the top five Watchdog laws I’d like to see passed in 2017. We even have a logo.

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We’ll follow their progress and show you how to lobby lawmakers to protect your interests.

The plan

This is how we did it together two years ago. Three of our five suggested consumer fixes actually became law. We created a Watchdog Hall of Fame for lawmakers who picked up the baton and crossed the finish line. Let’s do it again.

If you want to get involved in any of these battles, send an email to me at watchdog@dallasnews.com and I’ll make sure you’re in the loop. Which lawmakers should you write to? Where is a bill stuck? Who are the heroes and villains?

Electricity reform

Battle No. 1: Deceptive electricity shopping must stop.

Who is going to stand up to the marketing deceptions that some electricity companies use to sign up customers? Because of these, many Texans overpay for electricity and don’t even know it.

After I showed how companies used phony 1-cent rates to beat search engines and come out first in search results, the state took action to stop that. But it’s only a start.

Public Utility Commission Chairman Donna Nelson said last year that some electricity companies “always find a way” around the PUC’s best efforts to keep the marketplace honest and transparent.

She said, in words that confirm my reporting over the past decade, “Whatever practice we put in place to try and end the confusion, then they find a way around that.”

I have suggested four points of improvement. I’m proud that The Dallas Morning News editorial board supports these points, as does the leading electricity consumer group Texas ROSE. More important, I have email addresses of several hundred of you who want to help.

The four points of what I’d call the “Retail Electricity Reform Act of 2017” include:

1) Compare apples to apples. Force every company to list offered rates, with the distribution charge included. (Many hide that.)
2) Ban deceptive language. Don’t let confusing teaser rates and technical language disguise the real cost of service. Regulate those tricky and often-lying door-to-door salesmen.

3) End minimum-usage deals. Making people pay more if they use less power doesn’t encourage conservation.

4) Warn copycat sites. Demand that companies using “power to choose” language on their websites (that’s the name of the state’s shopping site) announce they are not the state website.
Some electricity companies use keywords “power to choose” because that’s also the name of the state-sponsored site.
Some electricity companies use keywords “power to choose” because that’s also the name of the state-sponsored site.

Property taxes

Battle No. 2: Make the property tax system fair.

I get that #txlege won’t pass an income tax. OK, but our biggest government money grab could at least be set up so it’s based on fairness, rather than whim. Because sale prices are kept secret, tax bills, I believe, are based on guesswork, more than science.

I showed last year how local governments pretend they aren’t raising taxes even if they are. I also showed what an unfair advantage I had in 2016 when I hired the state’s best known tax protest company and shaved my tax bill down. My neighbors didn’t. Sorry for them, but is that fair?

Insurance protection

Battle No. 3: Don’t let insurance companies strip us of our rights to protect our family.
Insurance companies are crying that they need help – even though they’ve been making huge profits. I call it an insurance war against consumers.

We must make sure #txlege doesn’t allow companies to block our right to sue. That’s the battlefield. Sometime this session, their attack bill on our legal rights will emerge. The Watchdog will need your help to call it out and knock it down.

Personal privacy

Battle No. 4: Taking all 10 fingerprints for a driver’s license is unnecessary.

The Watchdog fears that Texas Department of Public Safety will try to expand the one-thumbprint rule into 10 fingerprints required for a driver’s license. Otherwise, how will everyone’s full fingerprints make it to the federal fingerprint archives that homeland security buffs dream about at night?

Fortunately, we have our first bill of the year to support. State Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, already a charter member of The Watchdog Hall of Fame, has offered Senate Bill 281, which limits governments from collecting not only fingerprints but blood, skin and hair samples, DNA and body scans. This doesn’t affect police work. The bill bans giving up personal information in exchange for providing a government service, such as a driver’s license.

Watchdog Hall of Fame member and State Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, introduced a personal privacy bill for the 2017 session.

Taylor’s “Protect Personal Identifiers Act” has little to do with stopping crime, finding terrorists or border security. This is designed to protect the rest of us law-abiding Texans from 1984-style government.

I see that I’ve run out of room. I saved the most important one for last. In my next column, part two, I’ll show you why we need a license system for roofers and general contractors.

Don’t forget. If you want to get involved, send an email to watchdog@dallasnews.com.

Onward.

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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Part 2: Watchdog: Attention state lawmakers – the case for a roofers/contractors license

The other week, I went to small claims court to watch a DeSoto business owner exact revenge on a roofer who relieved him of a $7,700 deposit but provided no roof. The roofer, Lucas Ray Currier, took the deposit money and disappeared.

This story makes me sick. The victim is Bong Huynh, a Vietnamese-American who worked to buy his first American home. After a hail storm, roofers swarmed his neighborhood. He doesn’t speak English, so after the roofer disappeared, a friend of his contacted me on his behalf. I suggested small claims court to get a judgment.

Bong did that. He arrived with a translator whose English wasn’t much better. Roofer Currier no-showed. Bong won. He may never see the money again. But here’s what matters: Roofer Currier can continue to do business in Texas. Who’s going to stop him?

Want to stop him and the hundreds of other unreliable roofers and general contractors who take advantage of storm victims? I have a plan. Pull up a chair.

Bong Huynh is one of many North Texas homeowners who say they were ripped off by disappearing roofers. This photo was taken in small claims court when he won his case.(Dave Lieber/Staff)
Bong Huynh is one of many North Texas homeowners who say they were ripped off by disappearing roofers. This photo was taken in small claims court when he won his case.
(Dave Lieber/Staff)

Help me

In my previous Watchdog report, I unveiled four of the five topics on The Watchdog’s 2017 legislative plan. Recapping, they are: reforming retail electricity shopping; protecting insurance customers’ rights; stopping DPS from taking fingerprints and other biometric information from law-abiding Texans; and fixing the unfair state property tax system.

Here’s the fifth and final one: a required license for roofers and general contractors. Not continuing education, and not even enforcement of violators. I am a pragmatist and realize that’s too much to ask of this legislature. All I want is a list kept that we can check before hiring.

If roofer Currier disappears and gets a judgment against him, his name is taken off the list. You, as a consumer, would know to check the license list. If a roofer isn’t on it, you go another way. That’s my dream. (By the way, I tried to contact Currier, but he didn’t respond.)

The plan

To battle obstacles, I’m calling on your help for old-fashioned people power. If you want to get involved as a citizen of Watchdog Nation in any of these battles, send an email to me at watchdog@dallasnews.com. I’ll make sure you’re in the loop. Which lawmakers should you write to? Where is a bill stuck? Who are the heroes and villains?

This is how we did it together two years ago when three of five bills we pushed turned into law. I created a Watchdog Hall of Fame to honor legislators that did this great work. This year, we have our own logo.

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Why roofers?

After the Garland-Rowlett-Sunnyvale tornado attack in December 2015, my colleague Marina Trahan Martinez and I easily found roofers violating rules and state laws. They didn’t care. Then the letters from frustrated customers began piling up. A sampling:

A woman complains the roofer put in vents upside down so water comes into her house. The roofer won’t help.

Another woman tells me her contractor took a down payment, completed one-third of the work, shut down his cell phone and was never heard from again.

A man shows me evidence of 12 leaks in his roof since it was installed in 2014.

Another man lays out the story of how his roofer also refuses to honor the warranty and repair shoddy work.

Yet another man sends me proof of an incomplete roof job. He says he lost $10,000 to a disappearing roofer.

A married couple tells me that after a hailstorm they gave $5,000 for roof and window repairs. “They no longer answer their phone and have not contacted us in two months.”

A man lost $5,000. “They made up excuse after excuse about why they couldn’t deliver my roofing materials.”

Call center con men

How do these roofing outlaws get jobs? Through word of mouth, through door knocking and the latest annoyance, through call centers that violate Do Not Call lists.

I get these calls, too. They are liars. They tell me they represent a roofing company in the city in which I live. No such company exists. They tell me they are doing my neighbor’s roofs. They’re not. I previously showed how they use fake Caller ID numbers to make it appear they’re local, when they’re not.

Neighbors are tougher

All our surrounding states require licensing or registration for workers who do major work on homes and businesses. Not Texas.

The Watchdog is asking for a simple list, one that we can check before we go out and spend thousands of dollars in one of the most crooked businesses in the great state of Texas.

Enough is enough.

Join me. Write to me at watchdog@dallasnews.com

Read Part One and learn about The Watchdog’s other issues for the 2017 Legislature.

Staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.

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

What Texans are telling The Watchdog

“Your goal is a lofty one and may have challenges in this conservative state. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t give it a good try.” — Robert Curry

“During the time I was a general contractor, there were a number of companies that used the title ‘general contractor’ who were operating out of their pickup trucks, and most had no insurance.” — Bob Travis

“I am an insurance fraud investigator. When a catastrophic event happens, I hear lots of stories about the dishonesty of what I call migrant roofers/contractors.” — Chris Javier

“We should license them like we do plumbers and electrical contractors. It is not a perfect solution, but it is a step in a good direction.” — Bill Lynch

“Unfortunately, those phony contractors flood any market, rarely have an office even in their home state, have no insurance, no employees and no ethics.” — Nelson R. Braddy Jr.

It is absolutely crazy that homeowners have virtually no legal protection against unscrupulous roofers even though the roofers can get a lien placed against the property involved if the homeowner refuses to pay for poor work. — Stephen Lunsford

Meet the charter members of The Watchdog Hall of Fame

<p><span style="font-size: 1em; background-color: transparent;">Sen. Watson fought for insurance protections for Texas consumers.</span></p>

Sen. Watson fought for insurance protections for Texas consumers.

<p></p><p></p><p><span style="background-color: transparent; font-size: 1em;">Rep. Laubenberg proved herself to be one of the state's top privacy advocates</span></p><p></p><p></p>

Rep. Laubenberg proved herself to be one of the state’s top privacy advocates

<p><span style="font-size: 1em; background-color: transparent;">Rep. Capriglione submitted a bill two years ago to oversee roofers in Texas. It died. But he tried. He also paved a path for no-fingerprinting privacy protections.</span></p><p></p>

Rep. Capriglione submitted a bill two years ago to oversee roofers in Texas. It died. But he tried. He also paved a path for no-fingerprinting privacy protections.

<p><span style="font-size: 1em; background-color: transparent;">Rep. Turner was the number-one advocate for a fair and transparent electricity system. But he's gone from Austin. He's the new mayor of Houston. Who will take his place?</span></p><p></p>

Rep. Turner was the number-one advocate for a fair and transparent electricity system. But he’s gone from Austin. He’s the new mayor of Houston. Who will take his place?

<p><span style="font-size: 1em; background-color: transparent;">Sen. Schwertner led the fight against businesses that improperly added a surcharge when paying with a plastic card. He was also key in fighting fingerprints being taken of all state drivers.</span></p><p></p>

Sen. Schwertner led the fight against businesses that improperly added a surcharge when paying with a plastic card. He was also key in fighting fingerprints being taken of all state drivers.

<p><span style="font-size: 1em; background-color: transparent;">Sen. Taylor worked on stopping Texas DPS from collecting fingerprints of all Texas drivers.</span></p>

Sen. Taylor worked on stopping Texas DPS from collecting fingerprints of all Texas drivers.

More roofing coverage from The Watchdog

Lon Smith Roofing loses suit over contract’s legality

Catching a roofer who made promises he wouldn’t keep

An indictment for him, and a turning point for me

Use Watchdog’s tips to hire roofers and contractors who are on the level

Who’s behind illegal phone calls to storm victims?

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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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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Still here? Visit Dave Lieber’s other fun website: DaveLieber.org