The Watchdog: Company blames office janitor for Do Not Call lawsuit

Do you know what a Perry Mason moment is? In court proceedings, it’s when one side in a legal drama produces a piece of evidence or a confession that changes everything.

In modern talk, it’s a slam-dunk straight to the hoop, in your face, that leaves an audience gasping.

The Watchdog doesn’t witness many Perry Mason moments. Companies rarely litigate their customer lawsuits in a newspaper column. When a lawsuit is involved, a company spokesman usually says, “Because this is a pending legal matter, we cannot comment.”


Yet Universal AdCom, an Arlington printing company, is so eager to fight back in public against what it considers phony customer complaints that it violated the do-not-comment practice.

Universal AdCom is accused in a new federal lawsuit filed by an Arkansas business owner of violating the Do Not Call list.

Company officials deny any violation. They say the complainant was a former customer and they had a right to call him.

“If he doesn’t want us to call him again, we’re certainly not going to,” James Gildenblatt, Universal AdCom president, told me. “We thought he was a happy camper.”

I’m no prosecutor, jury member or judge, but I do know how to ask questions. Both sides agreed to talk to The Watchdog and argue their case. That’s what led to the Perry Mason moment.

Do Not Call violators are hard to catch. They hide behind false phone numbers shown on Caller ID machines and often route their calls through foreign countries where U.S. rules don’t apply. When nabbed, which is rare, violators get fined thousands of dollars.

Universal AdCom isn’t known as a Do Not Call violator. The company’s problems in years past stemmed from aggressive sales practices and allegations of false billing — which the company denied. Hundreds of complaints forced an F grade from the Better Business Bureau. Three states took legal action against the company.

Universal AdCom sells ad space to businesses and prints the ads on maps, magnets, tote bags, T-shirts, cups and other items. The company was the subject of complaints and government actions because its sales staffers were accused of claiming direct affiliation with governments, chambers of commerce and schools when they had no connection.

Former staffers told me two years ago that they claimed a closeness to the activities they were selling to. They dropped names of insiders and alluded to nonexistent partnerships.

Scores of chambers, governments and schools warned their community members about Universal AdCom and the other names it did business under (Premier Map, Premier Impressions, Totes 2 Go, Hometown Productions, Fanfare Sports, Scoreboard Marketing).

One sales staffer told me the company philosophy was “you have to do what you have to do” to make a sale. Another former employee told me, “We’re instructed to tell them we have an agreement with someone in the athletic department.”

The company’s reputation on the Internet was terrible. Comments from disgruntled customers and others who received aggressive sales pitches stacked up in message boards.

Two years ago, president Jim Gildenblatt ordered a turn-around. He fired a top saleswoman, which showed he was serious about cleansing the company’s reputation.

He purchased a recording system that captured customers’ verbal consents to make purchases. If a customer complained later that they were billed for something they hadn’t ordered, the company could play back a tape proving they had made the order.

The company defended itself. “It really has changed the culture,” Gildenblatt says. The BBB rating improved. “We got it up to a C,” he says.

The lawsuit from Arkansas is a new hurdle for the company’s march back to respectability. Tim Bunting, owner of Bug Pro, an Arkansas pest control business, bought map ads from Universal AdCom two years ago. Then he decided to stop doing business with them.

Sales staffers pursued Bunting, sending him bills and calling him at least a hundred times, according to his lawsuit, filed by attorney Matthew Vandiver of Little Rock.

In my interview, Gildenblatt said that Bug Pro’s owner never told his company to stop calling him.

“I don’t have a record of anything coming in,” the AdCom president said. “It’s news to me. … I do not have a record of him asking us to take him off the call list.”

Cue the Perry Mason moment.

The lawyer for the exterminator produced a letter written last year asking Universal AdCom to leave his client alone. No more sales. No more calls. No more bills.

Lawyer Vandiver also produced a green postal return-receipt card that shows someone at Universal AdCom accepted delivery of that letter. Slam-dunk. Gasp.

When Exhibit A is presented to the company president, he looks at the green slip and explains it was signed by Larry, the company “maintenance guy.”

“He got the mail for us,” the president says. “It’s not the first one I didn’t get from him. Obviously, it never got to me. It never got into our system. … If I had gotten it, I would have handled it immediately.”

But he didn’t, and the company making a comeback to respectability blames a janitor for not delivering a crucial piece of mail.

There’s an expression: Don’t make a federal lawsuit out of it. But someone did.

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