Tony Marquette says he grew up listening to Tom Martino on Denver radio. So when it came time to choose a contractor to install new flooring and tile in his Centennial house last year, he selected one from Martino's website, www. roubleshooter.com, which charges businesses sizable sums to be on its coveted referral list -- something Marquette says he didn't know. But when the contractor's work failed to satisfy him and Troubleshooter Network staffers didn't set things right by his standards, Marquette's admiration for the radio host began to deteriorate. He's now threatening to sue the contractor, as well as Martino, who "needs to be knocked off his soapbox and told, 'You talk a lot of crap.'"
The notoriously pugnacious Martino, who also leads an investigative team on Channel 31, doesn't react to this statement by meekly turning the other cheek. He's spoken with Marquette just once, during a January 5 exchange heard on KHOW locally and more than 220 stations nationwide, via a syndication deal with Westwood One. Yet he doesn't hesitate to brand him a "nut," a "liar" and a "shakedown artist" with a big payday on his mind. "He thinks he's found a gold mine in Tom Martino and that I'm afraid of what publicity he can bring to bear," he declares. "And I say, 'Bring it on!' I have nothing to hide."
Maybe not, but digging into the Marquette affair unearths plenty of information that doesn't look very pretty in the bright sunshine. Accusations fly back and forth between Martino, Marquette and Steve Nickels, owner and operator of American Hardwood & Tile, who was hired to make the improvements in question. The situation has been marked by personality conflicts, threats of violence, even subterfuge -- and instead of improving things, Martino's Troubleshooter Network has further complicated them.
The saga began in December 2003, when a new refrigerator the Marquettes purchased at Sears sprang a leak that damaged their kitchen flooring. After Sears offered a settlement to repair the damage, Tony, who runs his own mortgage company as well as a sports-memorabilia business, and his wife, Debbie, a medical-firm employee, decided that on top of fixing the kitchen, they'd spruce up other portions of the aging home they share with their nine-year-old son. In the end, they earmarked an entryway and three bathrooms for retiling and general upgrading. The couple initially planned to have Debbie's brother, a longtime contractor, tackle these chores, but before he could get under way, he was jailed on drug-related charges. That's when they visited Troubleshooter.com and discovered American Hardwood & Tile.
Renovation took place on and off from January until June 2004. Nickels chalks up the length of this span to a deal he made with Marquette to discount the total if he could be paid in cash and work on a sporadic basis between other jobs. During the delay, several pieces of furniture moved onto the Marquettes' porch were ruined by the winter weather; in Nickels's version, the couple told him the stuff was junk they'd been planning to discard, but they say otherwise. The Marquettes also gripe that folks from the American Hardwood team scheduled visits on four or five occasions and then didn't show up. Nickels sees this accusation as exaggerated, but he confirms that it led to a shouting match in which Marquette said he'd better watch his step or he might wind up "at the bottom of a river." Marquette claims he made this remark after Nickels yelled at his son.
The bill for the work (not including materials, which the Marquettes bought) came to about $8,000. Predictably, the two parties vary about whether total payment was made; Nickels feels he's still owed about a grand, while Marquette says he fulfilled his obligation by giving the contractor an expensive sander previously owned by Debbie's imprisoned brother. Even so, the Marquettes were at least moderately happy with the outcome -- until, that is, they began noticing what they consider to be flaws in Nickels's workmanship. They've found dozens of glitches by now, and they portray many of them as potentially dangerous. To the average observer, a lot of their claims, like ones about tiny cracks between tiles that can barely be spotted from an inch or two away, seem significantly overstated; others, such as those involving a shower base that gaps when pressure is applied to its corner and grout that rubs off appear to be more substantial.
For Marquette, though, the biggest issue is one that's out of sight: the installation of a subfloor beneath the tile, as mentioned in his contract with American Hardwood. Nickels used a product called Hardibacker, but the installation guide put out by Hardibacker's manufacturer says the backerboard should be used with a subfloor, not in lieu of it. As a result, Marquette believes he's been ripped off, and he wants Nickels to tear up the entire floor and start from scratch.
Nickels contends that replacing typical subfloor is completely unnecessary. Martino agrees, saying that contractors with whom he's spoken often use the words "Hardibacker" and "subfloor" interchangeably, turning the entire matter into an argument over semantics.
In August, Marquette formally complained to Troubleshooter.com, and after a series of back-and-forths with network staffers, Nickels returned to the house in early November. But Marquette felt his attempts to address their grumbles were merely cosmetic, and he demanded that American Hardwood be removed from the website's referral list. To determine if this move was justified, network staffers requested the opinion of an "independent expert": Mark Carstairs of Carstairs Tile Company, who's worked on Martino's own home.
Nickels was frosted by this move, since Carstairs is also on the referral list; he believes the two-page report Carstairs produced was unduly harsh because it was put together by a "competitor." In any event, Carstairs, who declined to comment for this column, pointed out sixteen imperfections at the Marquette home, most of them relatively minor. American Hardwood was removed from the referral list anyway, when Nickels was out of town for Christmas vacation, but the business was reinstated upon his return in advance of his appearance on Martino's January 5 show. Martino says Marquette demanded to face off against Nickels on the air. Marquette counters that network employees said they'd stop helping him if he refused.
After the program, during which Martino snapped at both combatants, American Hardwood was kicked out once more, and Nickels was told that the only way he might return to the site is if he could produce video proving his work wasn't as bad as Marquette asserted.
When Marquette wouldn't offer Nickels access to his place for this purpose ("Why would I do that for someone who I was thinking about suing?" he asks), the contractor came up with an alternative plan. He had a buddy visit the Marquettes and say he was there "to videotape for Tom Martino's Troubleshooter Network." This phrasing, which Nickels settled on after talking to a lawyer, was vague enough to fool Marquette, who let the man in, toured him through the house, and even watched a movie with him. Marquette says the man maintained that he was using Martino's own camera to take the shots. Martino says the camera most certainly wasn't his, and Nickels denies any knowledge of such a remark. Nickels also dismisses the idea that he did anything unethical by having an associate use trickery to get through Marquette's door. "If Tony took it as him being an employee of Tom Martino's, that's his problem," he says.
This act alone would seem enough to get American Hardwood banished from Troubleshooter.com forever, as it's hardly in keeping with the network's code of ethics. However, Martino didn't pull the trigger, offering the toweringly lame rationale that he "wasn't there" to see what actually happened and hadn't been told by Nickels precisely what went down, either. Instead, Nickels presented an edited version of the videotape to Troubleshooter personnel and, Martino says, "cried and complained" until his staff looked at it. After viewing the footage, checking Nickels's file for past complaints (he had two, for not returning calls), and weighing his willingness to fix the work if only Marquette would let him, the networkers decided to put him back on the list again.
Ginger Asher, a network associate, was given the assignment of breaking this news to the Marquettes. She did so in a conversation with Debbie, not realizing that her husband was recording the call; he says he learned from listening to Martino how important it is to document everything. Asher explained that Nickels had been reinstated after "screaming about how much he was losing being off the list"; Nickels guesses that he gets 75 percent of his business from Troubleshooter.com, and says the losses he sustained upon being bounced from the website caused him to lose custody of his daughter. Next, Asher contended that restoring American Hardwood's status would be good for the Marquettes if they chose to sue, as she advised. Otherwise, Asher said, "he'll go bankrupt, and I don't want that to happen, because then you'll never get anything, and I'd rather you get some money."
Such cash-driven logic may seem dubious from the perspective of protecting customers, but it makes sense when it comes to Troubleshooter.com, which is every bit as much a for-profit enterprise as Liberty Bell Telecom, a Martino-formed phone company that he repeatedly pimps in radio spots. Troubleshooter.com won't put its imprimatur on any business unwilling to pay for the privilege, and although fees differ according to a venture's size, they can be considerable. Nickels, who's been on the network for four years, says he pays $1,400 either every six or every twelve months -- he can't remember which. Other sources mention charges of as much as $4,000 per annum.
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This fact surprises many of Martino's listeners, but it's acknowledged in the website's introduction. There, Martino insists that "sponsorship is necessary to support this endeavor," because "it takes many thousands of dollars to develop and maintain this website, to screen clients, arbitrate problems and answer inquiries." But just how much policing the network does is debatable. Troubleshooter.com has referral lists in nineteen states, including Colorado, where recommended businesses are sorted by seven cities or regions. The Denver section separates sponsors into more than 300 different professional categories, with most offering links to between one and ten firms or individuals. If each of these members paid $1,000 to stay in the network's good graces, the total could easily top one million dollars annually from the Denver area alone. Even so, Martino says his Denver office has only two full-time staffers to handle complaints. It's unlikely, then, that the average applicant is given more than a cursory run through criminal databases and the like.
For his part, Martino sees nothing hinky about a TV reporter and consumer advocate touting businesses that pass his quality test only if the price is right. Indeed, he thinks the rest of the media should be criticized for not doing things his way, because he views accepting any advertisement as a de facto endorsement of a product or company -- a position that's either hugely cynical or incredibly convenient. "If you pay to advertise with Channel 9, you can't call Roger Ogden and get someone kicked off the air," he says. "But you can call me and get someone kicked off my website."
Not if you're Tony Marquette. Nickels says he was told he'd be removed from Troubleshooter.com if his clash with Marquette was made public, but Martino personally vows that won't happen because of this episode. The host feels that Nickels has been more than reasonable, offering to go through arbitration with the Better Business Bureau (Marquette said no at the time, because he thought Martino's people were handling things) and even promising that he would refund half the couple's money and pay someone else to do the repairs. Marquette insists that he never received this last proposal, but he says he would accept it if the work was done to his specifications. Until then, he continues to believe that Martino is "willfully and knowingly perpetrating fraud over the airwaves."
Martino scoffs at this accusation. "Here's what I have," he says. "I have 25 years in Denver without ever having a problem with my credibility, ever. I've had plenty of articles written about me, pro and con, and there's never been anything of substance -- but people keep trying. When I retire, I wonder what they'll say."