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Exposed

On May 11, Channel 4 investigator Brian Maass introduced the first half of a two-part package about Day & Night Mechanical Solutions, a Denver heating and air-conditioning company. Seems that employee Jason Boone had been paying visits to private homes for Day & Night despite being a registered sex offender who admitted to Maass that his probation forbids making such calls. Maass also revealed that Day & Night employee Ed Dieterle is a convicted sex offender as well -- as is Day & Night owner John Boone, Jason's father, who in 1996 was found guilty of sexual assault on a child by a person in a position of trust.

These revelations weren't good news for Day & Night, whose representatives didn't respond to interview requests -- and they also caused a headache for Tom Martino, a nationally syndicated radio host and Channel 31 news personality. Martino oversees and relentlessly pimps ReferralList.com, an online affiliate of the Troubleshooter Network, which purports to be "a place to find reputable merchants, contractors and service providers." Like, for instance, Day & Night, which was on the list from 2000 until around the time of Maass's report.

Day & Night paid for this privilege. Indeed, the only businesses that receive Martino's de facto endorsement are those that pony up an annual fee in the range of $5,000 -- a practice that critics see as ethically indefensible despite his insistence that he's a "consumer advocate," not a practicing journalist selling his objectivity to the highest bidders. Never mind that Martino regularly plays a reporter on TV, as outgoing Channel 31 news director Bill Dallman acknowledged in an interview last year.

Martino, who responded to questions from Westword via e-mail, justifies charging businesses for recommendations by asserting that the funds help pay for what an FAQ page on ReferralList.com describes as "constant monitoring" and background checks of listees that include "Civil and Criminal Court Records, Credit Reports, Suppliers, References and proprietary search methods exclusive to us." Nevertheless, he concedes that his staffers didn't know about the black marks against Dieterle and the Boones until they received a phone call from someone he describes as an "ex-employee" of Day & Night. After that, an investigation was undertaken -- and Martino had a good idea where to begin. In another e-mail, he writes that "the removal came when a source of mine (at News-4) said they were pretty confident that the ex-employee was accurate." This comment suggests Martino had been informed that Maass was preparing to blow the whistle on Day & Night before the Troubleshooter Network excommunicated the company.

Did Martino's Channel 4 source tell him that the connection between Day & Night and the Troubleshooter would be part of the piece? It's hard to say for certain, but Maass, who received his initial tip about Day & Night way back in October, knew about it. "We did talk about putting that in," Maass notes. "However, after looking at the final copy, we took it out, mostly because the story was simply too long at that point, and it changed the focus." While Maass doesn't regret this decision, he reveals that after the report aired, he received several e-mails from viewers disclosing that Day & Night "was on Tom Martino's list."

That shouldn't have been the case, since Martino believes the elder Boone's record alone should have made Day & Night "ineligible" for ReferralList.com. "No system is perfect," he writes. "We missed it." According to Martino, Troubleshooter's investigatory methods have improved in the past five years, "and the new system is much better." For one thing, his staffers previously restricted themselves to scrutinizing a company's owner, but "we have since changed to investigate key employees and partners....With small companies, we have started looking at employees."

Given this broader focus, criminal records should have surfaced in relation to Dieterle and the younger Boone, who on May 19 was re-arrested for violating his parole by entering homes, as shown on Channel 4. Maass is puzzled about why these details weren't found if background checks of the type touted by ReferralList.com were conducted at any point during the past couple of years. "I can't see any way that you could miss them," he says. "They were available on the most basic databases, including the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, ColoradoCourts.com and the individual counties. The most rudimentary background checks yielded this information. It took me about five minutes at my computer at work to find them. Maybe ten."

Maass's comments call into question the thoroughness of Troubleshooter's investigations and the purportedly "constant" nature of its monitoring. Without these elements, Martino's sites are little different from the ones maintained by the Better Business Bureau, which limits its investigations to civil offenses specifically linked to companies -- although Susan Liehe, the vice president of public affairs for the BBB's Denver branch, says that could change. Day & Night still gets a thumbs-up on the BBB site, but Liehe confirms that a grievance-and-standards committee will meet in mid-June to consider punitive action. Also in the works are possible procedural changes that could spur routine criminal-background checks. "We don't currently report if someone's a sex offender," Liehe says, "but the truth is, perhaps we should, and we're looking at that."

Meanwhile, Martino's already taken preemptive measures designed to puncture the prospect of negative publicity. On May 22, when Westword first contacted him about Day & Night, the business no longer showed up in a search of ReferralList.com, but there was no explanation for its absence. Less than 24 hours later, the company was listed in the site's small "Removed for Cause" section, and Martino had posted a column that essentially blames the Day & Night oversight on employees he dismissed last year. Martino goes on to call ReferralList.com a "bold step in consumer advocacy marketing" and adds, "We believe our efforts make our list far and above safer [sic] than random shopping from other media outlets whose only requirements are cash, check or credit card."

On top of that, Martino altered the "Terms of Use" disclaimer to which people must agree before searching on ReferralList.com -- a tack he's taken in the past to lessen his liability. In March 2005, prior to a series of articles in Westword about Tony Marquette, a disgruntled customer who threatened to sue Martino over his dissatisfaction with a contractor he found on ReferralList.com, one passage read, "I therefore shall not hold Tom Martino and/or his staff responsible for any unsettled disputes, problems or damages arising from my use of Members' products and services." Today the section sports beefier legalese that provides even more protection against potential lawsuits: "I agree, as a condition of using this site, that I will not hold Tom Martino and/or his staff responsible for any loss, damage or financial problems arising from use of this site or my dealings with Members, their affiliates, subcontractors or representatives."

While Martino maintains that these adjuncts weren't made as a "resuilt [sic] of the Marquette deal," he verifies that new material appended after Westword's May 22 inquiry was inspired by the Day & Night matter. The key sentences: "I understand that Troubleshooter Tom Martino and/or his staff cannot check each and every employee in every company on the Referral List. Therefore, before I invite individuals into my home, I shall take sensible steps to assure my safety and security." The new terms also refer to a "Practical Safety Guide for In-Home Transactions" accessible on the site, and require that each user "agree to read it to gain more knowledge regarding my safety and security."

Not to mention the safety and security of Martino's bank account, which he attempts to feed with a wide range of entrepreneurial ventures -- among them Troubleshooter.com magazine, a direct-mail quarterly that recently debuted. Martino grants that "the first issue was mostly ads" -- purchased, unsurprisingly, by loads o' ReferralList.com businesses seeking to exploit their association with Martino. (Eleven photos of him are included.) He hopes to include more articles in future issues, but sees the current approach as "simply a prelude. The hard copy format will evolve into a 'Yellow Pages' type directory...but published more frequently. That will allow advertisers to 'tweak' content and chose [sic] geographic areas more often than current 'Yellow Pages' type directories."

Clearly, Martino is devoted to expanding his empire -- and he's not about to let a few sex offenders get in his way.


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