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.

dave-lieber-shameATT-att-complaints

 

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.”

 

Part 1: For 2011, protect yourself by following these do’s and don’ts

Read Part 2 of this series here

Together, we learned a lot in 2010 that can make 2011 easier. As we close out a year that has been difficult for many, here are lessons from Watchdog stories past.

As readers of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Dave Lieber column first learned, The Watchdog learned in 2010 that consumers should ask why a particular store or company sells a product or service at a price far below what others are asking. Watches, electronics and other items sold at lower prices are sometimes import models that cost less because they don’t come with a U.S. warranty. “Too good to be true” applies more than ever.

Similarly, if an investment adviser is hawking a financial product that offers much higher returns than other investments, investigate why. Every state has a government-run website where you can check the background of financial advisers. In my home state of Texas, check out Texas financial advisers and their records at www.ssb.state.tx.us. The U.S. government site is www.adviserinfo.sec.gov.

If a website showcases a TV reporter touting a product, do an Internet search to see whether the reporter and TV station are real. Creating fake media is a new tactic. Also, beware of websites that display logos of the major TV networks or Oprah Winfrey’s show and claim “as seen on TV.” Anyone can slap a logo on their Web page.

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

Adult children should consider keeping a closer eye on elderly parents, who can fall prey to swindlers. Stress that they shouldn’t make investments without consulting others. Tell them not to buy anything from salesmen who knock on their door or call or send come-ons by mail or e-mail.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

More Watchdog Nation News:

Watchdog Nation Partners with Mike Holmes

America meets Watchdog Nation/Listen to Fun Radio Interview

Watchdog Nation Debuts New e-Book and Multi-CD Audio Book

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Beware of door-to-door salesmen selling alarm systems or trying to get you to switch electric companies and that evergreen scam, concrete guys who “just finished a job down the street.”

Skip reading the “terms and conditions” of any transaction at your peril. Donald Hufstedler thought he was getting a free book for only a $1.95 shipping charge. After he got a bill for $90, he called and complained. He was told that he had unknowingly agreed to the purchase. The ad stated, “You’ll get a free* trial.” Don’t ignore the asterisk. Fine print is never fine for you.

Watch for sales words and phrases that should scare you (not entice you): deep discount, pennies on the dollar, greatly reduced prices, promotional gift, prize, incentive, complimentary gift and, of course, that four-letter word, free.

For Texas readers: Instead of worrying about your smart meter, get smart about your electricity contract. Do you know the rate you pay per kilowatt-hour? Most people don’t. Do you know when your contract expires? If you are paying more than 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, you may be overpaying.

For Texas readers: Go to Google’s search page and type in “Dave Lieber Electricity Guide” to find my suggestions about how to shop for a better deal. Or for a hard copy, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to: Dave Lieber, Star-Telegram Watchdog, P.O. Box 1870, Fort Worth, TX 76101. Hundreds of Texans have saved using my guide.

Get your free annual credit report, as is allowed under federal law, at the government-approved website www.annualcreditreport.com. But once on that site, beware of links that offer other services for sale. No need to buy them. (And don’t get confused with freecreditreport.com, which sells a lot of information and isn’t government-approved.)

In financial disputes, explore small-claims court as an option. You don’t need a lawyer. And if you win, the other side usually has to pay your filing fees.

Don’t put outgoing mail in outdoor blue collection boxes. Go inside the post office to drop off your letters. It’s too easy to steal from the outdoor boxes. Even the post office advises this.

If a friend sends you an e-mail, especially from a foreign country, claiming that he or she is in trouble, don’t believe it. Check with relatives and friends. Usually it’s a con artist assuming your pal’s identity.

Once every six months or so, audit your monthly bills. Contact your credit card companies and ask for a lower interest rate. Ask for better deals from companies that provide your TV, land-line and cellphone service, electricity and Internet connections. Ask for specials. Tell them the competition is offering a lower rate. If you don’t get your price lowered, try again in a few weeks. Plans change constantly, and unless you ask, they won’t tell you.

Use your cellphone to take photos and videos of car accidents you are involved in, unruly salespeople, people you sign contracts with, anything to back your story later.

If someone pressures you to buy now before a “deal” goes away, run for the exit door.

If you have a problem with a collection agency, read the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and learn your rights.

No, sorry, but you didn’t win that foreign lottery. How do I know? Well, you should never be asked to send money to get legitimate contest winnings.

In Part 2, here, I’ll share a few simple principles that should help you avoid problems in 2011.

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Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is available in hardcover, as a CD audio book, ebook and hey, what else do you need. Visit our store. Now 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.

Watchdog Nation thanks Fort Worth Weekly readers for naming us Best Watchdog!

A big thank you to readers of Fort Worth Weekly for picking Dave Lieber, the Star-Telegram‘s Watchdog columnist as BEST WATCHDOG.

See the listing here.

Plus, a big congratulations to community activist Don Young, who was “Critic’s Choice.”

The weekly wrote:

The old phrase “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog” applies perfectly to community activist Don Young, a small guy with a lot of fight in him.

Fort Worth Weekly's Best of for 2009

Young has been looking over the shoulder of the gas drillers in Tarrant County since they first arrived, constantly letting news media and the public know what’s going on. He’s tireless in his efforts to protect Fort Worth from the negative impacts of urban drilling. The town could use more like him.

Way to go, Don. We can always use more watchdogs.

Fort Worth Weekly’s Best of for 2009

America loses Watchdog columnist

One of my comrades on the journalism battlefield has fallen, and anyone who cares about fighting the bad guys should take note.


George Gombossy of ctwatchdog.com

George Gombossy of ctwatchdog.com


George Gombossy, the hard-charging Watchdog columnist for the Hartford Courant, was fired last week because, he says, of a dispute with his editors about covering negative stories about top advertisers. His career at the paper had lasted 40 years.

“We’re on the precipice of real danger in society here,” Gombossy told me Sunday night. “This is not about me. I’m fine. I’m going to be 62 in less than a month. I can retire. That’s why I’m in a position to raise this issue.

“We’re in a very dangerous situation where most media companies including the Hartford Courant are run by marketing people now instead of journalists, and they do not understand why we have the ethics that we do.”

Gombossy’s former paper is owned by the Tribune Co., led by Sam Zell. The company is now in bankruptcy reorganization.

Gombossy and I do – or, in his case, did – the same job, although at different newspapers. There’s less than a half dozen real consumer investigative columnists left in America. Yet these kinds of columns are widely popular with readers, especially these days.

The column that got him fired was about Sleepy’s, the largest mattress chain in the United States. Gombossy caught the company selling used beds as new. State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal told him he was investigating.

But The Courant killed the column. You can still read it here on Gombossy’s new Web site.

After he was fired last week, Gombossy wasted no time. By midnight of his last day at work, Aug. 14, Gombossy had quickly launched an online version of his life’s work at ctwatchdog.com – now only a few days old. He says he will soldier on for the cause.

Gombossy informed readers of his departure in his final column that appeared on Sunday, Aug. 16. The real reason is not mentioned. Some may learn of it by reading this post.

There are two versions of that final column: Read the one the paper ran that didn’t mention his firing here. Read the unedited version on his Web site here.

Gombossy says he has hired one of his state’s top employment lawyers and “we’re committed to going all the way.”

Executives who made the decision to end his career at the paper are not bad people, he says. “They are very creative and trying to save newspapers from extinction, but they don’t understand the basic foundation of journalism which means that you don’t protect anybody.”

At his paper, he says, any stories about any of the top 100 advertisers have to be approved by top editors before publication. This extends to the public’s blog postings, too.

But Gombossy discards the argument that advertisers will cancel if they get angry and that could cost the paper money – and jobs. In his four decades at the paper, he says, advertisers may go away for a little bit in anger but they come back. “They advertise at the paper because they need to,” he says.

Gombossy’s Watchdog column was one of the paper’s most popular features. He estimates the newspaper and its sister TV station spent close to half a million dollars in the past two years promoting his place in the paper and his Friday TV piece on Fox61‘s Friday morning news. Gombossy lost his TV gig, too.

“My picture was on every bus in Hartford over the last two years,” he says. “TV ads of me and a dog that looked like me with my glasses were running until last week.”

Yet he says he doesn’t even feel like he was fired personally.

“It wasn’t the George Gombossy column. It was led by readers. It was readers that pointed out every single major column I ever wrote.

“It was the people’s Watchdog column. It wasn’t George Gombossy that got fired. It was the readers that got fired.”

Gombossy was told the paper will replace his feature with a milder, less investigative, help-you kind of column.

Now Connecticut consumers will have to develop a new news habit – Gombossy’s ctwatchdog.com.

Our ranks are growing thinner. I tip my soldier’s cap to you, George. Guys like us don’t give up the fight so easily.

Final note: Sunday night, as I prepared to post Gombossy’s side, I called the newspaper, but couldn’t get through its crummy voice mail system. If an editor or spokesman reads this and wishes to tell the other side, please contact me here.

Dave Lieber is The Watchdog investigative columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, a century-old newspaper which still believes strongly in watchdog journalism.

UPDATE: Thanks to journalist Gary Weiss for alerting me that The Courant has released a statement. Gary first posted it on his gary-weiss.com site here.

MORE: Here is the statement in full from Courant spokeswoman Andrea Savastra:

“The overriding consideration on stories reported by the Hartford Courant is making sure the facts are thoroughly checked out and correct. Our advertisers have no influence on what we report, including stories that may include them. This is a long time Courant policy.

“Our readers and advertisers do and should expect us to report stories we know are accurate and fully reported.  George Gombossys story needs and is receiving additional checking and verification. This is a common practice required by our editors with all Courant news stories, including columns by Mr. Gombossy, and while employed with the Courant, he was well aware of this and accepted and followed this policy over the years.

“While Mr. Gombossy’s position was eliminated, he was made aware of the newly-defined consumer reporter position that will be combined with our newspaper, television station and Web site.  He did not express interest.”