Playing The Gong Show with Government

Today we’re going to play the Watchdog version of The Gong Show.

As we first shared with readers in the August 2, 2009 Fort Worth Star-Telegram, we’re going to see what Texans think of the fine being proposed by the Public Utility Commission against Amigo Energy of Houston. Last summer, Amigo failed thousands of Texas families by not sending bills to some customers and billing others incorrectly at substantially higher rates than they expected.

The proposed fine: $15,000.

Chuck Barris and friend

Chuck Barris and friend

“Merely a slap on the hand,” said former Amigo customer Pam Kinkema of Fort Worth.

But before we bring out the gong, let’s share some data:

As I reported last month in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram recently, the PUC received 1,035 complaints against Amigo in the past year. Of those, 452 were found to violate state rules. Many stemmed from when Amigo took over variable-rate customers from defunct National Power.

We shared the backstage antics of Amigo during their 2008 breakdown in this earlier stunning report which first appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Why such a meager fine? The PUC declined to comment, as the case is pending. But in its settlement agreement, PUC legal staffers wrote that Amigo “instituted corrective action,” acted in “good faith” to follow the rules and “worked aggressively” to solve billing problems.

The PUC has proposed fining another company that had similar failures — Direct Energy of Houston — $200,000.

Time for our game. Here’s what former Amigo customers say about the fine. If they don’t like it, you’ll see the gong.

Kinkema: “The PUC doesn’t take this situation seriously. To allow a company to mistreat and misrepresent services for citizens is a crime. I personally think the problem is with the PUC.”


Clifton Hobbs of Saginaw: “The fine is a joke, just like the PUC. I bet employees at Amigo are laughing out loud at the fine. Can we fine the PUC? Where are our representatives?

“The message sent is that it is OK to treat people needing power any way you want. Don’t take their phone calls and keep overcharging them as much as possible, while threatening to ruin their credit. Guess what I was being charged? 28 cents per kilowatt hour.”


Janice Strickland of Burleson: “I got a bill from Amigo for 25 cents per kwh. My old rate was 11 cents. Of course, I could not get through by phone to Amigo, and when I did, I got hung up on.

“I think the fine prevents other companies from doing the same thing. The PUC is on the consumer’s side, and they are there to help.

No gong

electric-meterAnthony Carrolla of Arlington: “The fine is over the line in terms of generosity — especially since Amigo knowingly engaged in deceptive pricing practices, sent out collection notices within just a few days of delayed billing and, at least in my case, would not acknowledge that I was being billed incorrectly and threatened with disconnection.

“Essentially, Amigo ‘played’ everybody in this matter and received only a slight slap on the wrist for their malfeasance.”


Gary Hines of Fort Worth: “A ridiculously low fine. How does a fine paid to the PUC really help the people that were overcharged, misbilled and so on? It is just typical. The consumer gets screwed and the government collects more ‘taxes.’

“The PUC acted in a liaison capacity for me and communicated directly with Amigo to resolve my final bill in a very fair manner.”


Byron McClintock of Fort Worth: “The message this fine sends to Texans is that the state of Texas and our ‘representatives’ do not and will not stand up for their voting public.  . . .  If the state is going to levy fines against businesses, make it hurt their pocketbook as that business would do to the consumer.”


Deanne Graham of Grand Prairie: “The commission needs to come out strong with these fines, not a little slap on the wrist. Honestly, $15,000 to them is like a penny to me. Last summer, they ripped me off good. I paid a thousand dollars for about 45 days of power use. It should have been less than half of that. I and other customers will pay that fine. They never will even feel it.”


Pat Carew of Colleyville: “I am happy the PUC has taken action, but the fine is a mere pittance of what it should be. If you multiplied the number of customers hurt by $300 to $500 each, the fine would be staggering.”


Margaret Bruce of Arlington: “My affiliation with Amigo Energy was the worst provider/customer service experience I ever had…. I couldn’t get out of the contract fast enough. In view of what I went through with them, I consider the PUC fine a little slap on the hand. The PUC should have acted much sooner to protect me and imposed a big fine to send a message to energy companies. Energy companies that mistreat their customers need to be shut down, required to refund money to their current and former customers and receive a hefty fine.”


And finally, here’s what Amigo says.

CEO Jesson Bradshaw: “The commission appropriately recognizes that we understand what happened and we’ve taken corrective action for that. And that weighs heavily into how that whole process came down.”



Dave Lieber gives wonderful tips about how to fight electricity companies and other utilities in his new book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong — the 2009 winner of The Next Generation Indie Book Award for Social Change.