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The Message

Ethan Wenberg

Consumer advocate Tom Martino's been a busy boy. Since the March 3 publication of "Target: Tom," a column about former fan Tony Marquette's unhappiness with a home-improvement business he found on the for-profit Troubleshooter Network, Martino testified in a trial that pits a company for which he's a paid spokesman against another disgruntled customer, back-burnered his online war against junk faxes, and was briefly suspended from his syndicated radio program for cursing. Additionally, at least one Network employee began contacting Westword advertisers shortly after Martino learned a followup was in the works -- a move that might be interpreted as a heavy-handed attempt to bully and intimidate this newspaper.

Martino also sent an e-mail complaining that yours truly is biased against him to editor Patricia Calhoun; the legal counsel and CEO of New Times Media, Westword's owner; and his own attorney. In it, he wrote that I believe it's wrong for him "to offer a 'Referral List' of paid sponsors" on his website, Troubleshooter.com, because he's "known as a Consumer Advocate." (Firms on Troubleshooter.com pay yearly fees as high as $4,000 to receive Martino's de facto endorsement.) In that e-mail, he also asked, "Could your advertisers stand up to the scrutiny my sponsors are now undergoing? Would it be fair for me to go hunting? I doubt it."

Nevertheless, a Network staffer was on the prowl within days of this message. If these calls weren't spurred by specific complaints, and instead constitute retaliation for past and/or prospective coverage, they could make anyone behind the dialing eligible for membership in the "Sleaze Brigade," Martino's roster of businesses that conduct themselves in questionable ways. Rather than tackle this subject, though, Martino says via e-mail that "if I was investigating someone or something for use in a future story, I would not talk about it."

In the meantime, Martino has withdrawn his support from American Hardwood & Tile, the outfit with which Marquette was dissatisfied. The conflict between Marquette and American Hardwood owner Steve Nickels has been nasty, too, with each leveling criminal complaints in March about 2004 incidents described in the original column. (Arapahoe County authorities investigated the reports, but neither met requirements for formal charges.) Because Marquette had said uncomplimentary things about Martino in the earlier piece, the Troubleshooter had basically washed his hands of the situation until he heard from Steve Forgy, a Marquette acquaintance who produced a lengthy analysis of American Hardwood's work. Impressed by Forgy's thoroughness, Martino arranged for Henry Armas, another Network member, to re-examine Marquette's house. Armas concluded that while Hardwood's tile work was "acceptable," Nickels went "beyond his abilities as a flooring contractor by trying to be a plumber, electrician, and a cabinet installer." Because Nickels did the plumbing and electrical work without obtaining permits, Martino de-listed Hardwood -- the third time he has done so, but the first that seems likely to stick.

Marquette, who received an estimate of $57,000 to mend what was originally an $8,000 job, filed a report against American Hardwood with the Better Business Bureau, but dropped out when Nickels wouldn't waive a $2,500 limit on liability beyond the amount paid. (In late April, Marquette consented to the limit and asked the BBB to reinstate the case; an edict is pending.) The homeowner has had numerous dealings with the bureau before, including one in 2004 involving a shoe store, and according to BBB spokeswoman Susan Liehe, his track record "could say he's a hobbyist complainer, or it could say he's just been extraordinarily unlucky." Marquette thinks the latter description fits. "Maybe I'm a perfectionist, but I expect quality work," he allows. Although he's in discussions with a lawyer over the Nickels affair, he thinks Martino could make everyone happy by personally funding repairs. "It would be a great publicity thing for him," Marquette says.

Riding to the rescue might expose Martino to demands from other folks who've had unpleasant experiences with Troubleshooter-backed businesses. Take Eric Beteille, who oversees marketing for Starz FilmCenter. In 2003, he picked K&H Windows, a Network staple that uses Martino in advertising, to install eight new windows in his condo. But after three installations or repairs over several months, two wouldn't shut and one wouldn't open -- and that remains true to this day. Along the way, Beteille tendered $2,000 of the $6,400 cost of the windows, but he refused to submit the balance until they worked. K&H reps countered that they would do the repairs only after getting his $4,400, creating a deadlock that mediation by Troubleshooter and BBB employees couldn't break. In 2004, K&H sued for the unpaid amount, and Beteille, who pours his frustration into two blogs (http://tommartino.blogspot.com/ and http://www.khwindows.blogspot.com/), agreed to arbitration. Unfortunately, it went nowhere.

The first two days of the Beteille/K&H trial took place on April 8 and 9, before Judge Melvin Okamoto in Denver County Court (additional testimony is scheduled for May 26 and 27), and Martino was called as a witness. On the stand, he said that in return for advertising and consulting assistance, K&H has paid him $70,000.

He won't reveal if that's an annual stipend, and he's just as guarded about other monetary queries. He feels that the effort his people put into checking businesses applying to the Network was given short shrift in "Target: Tom," and he willingly describes how staffers and private investigators on retainer use databases and other tools to ferret out dubious behavior. Yet when he's asked about charges and profits, he applies the brakes. "I don't want to be a prick about it," he says, "but I don't think any good can come of it for me."

Martino's equally vague about his stake in Consumer Crusade, a local company that sues senders of unsolicited, or junk, faxes. On a Martino-owned website called Faxwars.com , which he linked to Troubleshooter.com, he invited those who received junk faxes to assign them to Consumer Crusade for $25; the company would then go after the sender and keep any judgment. But earlier this year, Faxwars.com vanished, and Martino challenged a Denver Business Journal article that referred to him as Consumer Crusade's founder. Last week, via e-mail, he said Crusade owner Francis Salazar called after hearing him rant on the radio about junk faxes and offered to pay his non-profit Tom Martino Help Center Foundation "a nominal fee (I even forget what it was) for each fax they collect on" in exchange for his verbal and Internet backing. Still, the confusion continues. An April 29 Rocky Mountain News article stated that Martino "led" and "launched" Consumer Crusade.

Articles in the Journal and ColoradoBiz have suggested that anti-junk-fax firms sometimes victimize innocent companies in their quest to turn junk faxes into bucks. Furthermore, a March 28 verdict by U.S. District Court Judge Lewis Babcock holds that businesses like Colorado Crusade have no standing to sue over junk faxes they purchased but didn't receive. (As reported in the Rocky, the American Bankers Association cited this ruling in seeking dismissal of a Crusade suit.) Martino thinks Babcock's decision is flawed and says neither it nor bad press had a bearing on the disappearance of Faxwars.com. The site will return when Consumer Crusade can better "handle the traffic."

Until then, Martino is watching his on-air language. After hearing noises from the control room during a March radio program, he concedes, "I got pissed off, shut off the mike and said, ŒI'm doing an f-ing show here.'" Another mike was open, however, and the word "fucking" was heard on more than 220 stations nationwide, including KHOW. This wasn't a first offense (the same expletive, uttered by a caller, was accidentally broadcast some time ago), so his syndicator, Westwood One, gave him a two-day suspension. "On my daily rate," he says, "it was an expensive mistake."

The subject of cash came up in the bias-alleging e-mail, as well. Martino argued that he'd "incurred financial losses as a result of the recent coverage" in Westword, without supplying evidence of this claim, and wondered, "Would it be unreasonable to ask Westword to cover the hundreds of success stories I have had in resolving complaints with sponsors?"

Indeed, Martino has aided a great many consumers, including Marquette and Beteille, who had positive experiences with the Troubleshooter before everything went sour -- and he's made some nice coin for his labors. In another e-mail, he points out that he is "a multi-millionaire. I am currently shopping for my first jet."

Poor guy.


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