Saturday, July 16, 2016

Tobaccoland tipped off local Annapolis paper about Wayne Simmons/Ehrlich story

Last Sunday, I was reviewing online court records on Pacer.gov for new information about the Wayne Simmons case when I found an extraordinary letter from former Maryland governor, Bob Ehrlich, that heralded the conman's alleged virtues, especially his patriotism. I wrote about this in my blog post titled "Former Maryland Governor Bob Ehrlich helps convicted conman". I pointed out that the Federal prosecutors in the case were "baffled" by Ehrlich's letter and his "uninformed commentary."

Jeff Quinton, a fellow blogger, wrote a post on his site titled "Bob Ehrlich called out by federal prosecutors". Quinton linked back to my original article in his post.

Given the significance of the story, I emailed a local paper here in Annapolis that many often refer to as "The Crapital" given the fact that it is prone to both sensationalism and factual inaccuracies. The local paper published an article titled "Former Gov. Ehrlich vouches for Fox News guest from Annapolis who admitted to defrauding the government". The article made no mention of me or this blog. Giving credit is typically called "hat tipping". Also, the article made no mention of the fact that the federal prosecutors called out the former governor.

Jeff Quinton took issue with this and followed up with another post titled "Paper ignores DOJ criticism of Bob Ehrlich". Quinton has had issues in the past with this local paper not giving him credit for articles.

The local paper does deserve credit for interviewing Ehrlich, who essentially said that he didn't know Wayne Simmons that well. The story was picked up by The Baltimore Sun and caught the attention of the federal prosecutors who followed up with a motion the day before sentencing, that stated, in part:
The United States of America, by and through undersigned counsel, hereby responds to the defendant’s filing of letters for consideration by the Court (Dkt. Nos. 112, 115, 117, 122) to raise the concern that the letters of support for the defendant may, in some respects, be unreliable and incomplete.

For example, former Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich submitted a letter stating that he has “had occasion to get to know [the defendant] on a personal and professional basis” and has found him to be “above all patriotic,” and that “one would be hard pressed to find a person more dedicated to the security of the U.S.A.” Dkt. No. 117-1. The Baltimore Sun newspaper interviewed Governor Ehrlich with respect to this letter, and in a story published earlier this week (attached hereto as Exhibit A), reported that Governor Ehrlich stated he had met the defendant through his neighbors and had only had brief interactions with him. According to the Baltimore Sun, “[w]hen asked about any specific anecdotes [the Governor] had about Simmons where he exhibited the qualities he wrote about in the letter, he said ‘I couldn't provide (any) . . . I don’t have that kind of relationship (with Simmons).”
At his sentencing on July 15, 2016, Simmons received 33 months, which was close to what the Federal government recommended. The local paper followed up with an article where the writer finally made mention of the remarks from the federal prosecutors.

I sent an email to the writer for the local paper to ask him why credit was not given to this blog. He responded, in part, "I appreciate the tip, but you must realize that we must treat blogs as we do regular tips we receive over the phone or through email. In that we must independently verify the validity of the claim and then report on it as we would any other story. We only cite sources when aggregating information from other news sites and organizations, not when acting on tips."

I took the time to follow this case and to write about interesting aspects of it. No one else reported on the Ehrlich letter before me. I spotted it and sent them a decent story. I don't know what their problem is with giving credit to blogs, others do it, including The Wall Street Journal. It's not that big of a deal to me, because this blog is an occasional hobby. But others are out there trying to make names for themselves and they want and deserve credit for finding stories first.

Related:

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Former Maryland Governor Bob Ehrlich helps convicted conman

As many of you know, I have been following and writing about the case of Wayne Simmons, a convicted conman and career criminal, who has been masquerading around for over a decade as a former CIA operative.

Wayne recently pleaded guilty in Federal Court to defrauding the US Government and one of his personal friends. He is currently on house arrest (in a house that is under foreclosure) pending sentencing on July 15. Many of his friends and family members have been writing letters to the judge to ask for leniency. I was shocked today to see that on last Thursday, the former governor of Maryland, Bob Ehrlich, wrote this letter in support of Wayne:

   
The Federal government in its sentencing memorandum commented on this letter by writing, "In light of the actual and potential harm the defendant’s crimes imposed on national security, the government is baffled by the uninformed commentary provided by the defendant’s prominent supporters. See, e.g., Dkt. No. 117-1 (letter of former Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich describing the defendant as 'patriotic' and noting that 'one would be hard pressed to find a person more dedicated to the security of the U.S.A.')."  

This unfortunately comes on the heels of Mr. Ehrlich's endorsement of Don Quinn, in the 2014 Maryland State Senate Republican Primary. Mr. Quinn ran a bizarre campaign and was exposed as having lied about his educational background. He later switched to the Democrat Party. It is a shame that the former governor doesn't better vet those who he supports.
  
See related:


Frederick Douglass's Birthplace Sign

If you have ever driven from Ocean City, Maryland, you have likely seen on Route 50 a sign near Easton telling you that Frederick Douglass's birthplace is 9 miles away to your right. If you are like me, you wondered what you would see if you took that turn, but never made it. A few weeks ago, I decided to see what was down that road and nine miles later, I found this sign:


I'm guessing from the language ("Negro Patriot") that the sign was put up more than a few years ago. There is nothing else of note to see there and according to The Eastern Shore Guide website, it isn't even at the right location.

I've saved you the trouble in case the next time you are on Rt 50 and are tempted to take that detour.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Never Do Business with Power Home Remodeling Group (and other advice)



Home improvement scams
By 160 Over 90 (Power home Remodeling) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

First, if a person from Power Home Remodeling Group shows up at your door and offers you a free estimate on home repair work, tell him to leave and shut the door. If he doesn't leave, call the police or take other appropriate action. If you already have a free estimate scheduled, cancel it and tell them to never contact you again. If they approach you in BJ'S Wholesale Club (which has some sort of relationship with the company) ignore them. Run, do not walk, away.

Why? That's a longer story. A few weeks ago, I was at my house when someone knocked on the door. He was working for Power Home, said they were in the area doing home improvement work for a neighbor, and that they were offering free estimates. I bought my house from a bank after the bank foreclosed on the last owner and while it wasn't in horrible condition, I have done work on it over the years. I have two friends who have helped me with various projects, but they are often busy with other jobs. So, I thought, sure give me a free estimate. I do need to replace the front bay window. I didn't know the age or condition of the roof and the siding is very old. I asked for an estimate on those things. We scheduled a later appointment, he took my name and contact information, and left. He seemed like a nice enough guy, so I thought, there was no harm in hearing what they had to say.

On the day of the appointment, I waited and waited, but no one showed up. It was annoying. But I wrote it off as not a big deal. I would get someone else to do the work. Later they called me on my phone at work and scheduled another appointment. This time, they called me back on my work number to confirm the appointment. (I have since found out that they don't show unless they get a confirmation and I never got their call before because I use Google Voice on my cell phone and Google actually blocked their number as spam.)

Last Friday afternoon, a young guy showed up at my house to do the estimate. At first he was very nice and professional, but he kept asking me a lot of personal questions, like he was or wanted to be my friend. He asked me at least twice what I was doing this weekend and I mentioned maybe going downtown to the bars and/or to the yearly Greek Festival to drink some Greek beer. We chatted a bit and I assumed it was all harmless. He then went into his sales pitch where he showed me on his Ipad a Powerpoint like presentation about how great his company was. I rushed him through this, or at least tried. I wasn't really interested in how great they were. I wanted a quote and then I would do research and get another estimate. This is what every homeowner should do.

So then he started looking at my window, siding, and roof. Long story short, everything was a complete disaster. My roof was, according to him, only one storm away from failing. He said to me something like “I don't care if you hire us or not, but someone needs to repair that roof.” That statement shortly then turned out to be a complete lie.

I was able to eventually get this guy to talk about pricing and he was running all sorts of numbers on his Ipad and Iphone and quickly showing me what he said would be industry pricing to do the work. (Oddly, he asked to use my Wifi at this time, because he said he wasn't getting good reception. I am going to have to change my password now it and update all my devices, which is going to be a pain.) He never left me a copy of what he wrote down on that paper, but did write, at my request, the cost for the roof and window on his business card. I guess this is what passes for as an estimate. $15,500 for the roof, $8,100 for the bow window, and about $22,000 for the siding. And it was urgent that they do the work, really really urgent.

Power Home Remodeling Scam
The most unprofessional estimate I have ever received.

Needless to say, I was not happy about the prospect of having to pay over $40,000 for repairs on my home. At this point, I have to admit that I was believing him. But I just don't have $40,000 sitting around and I am not the type of person to spend that much money without doing my homework. Think of me what you will, but I am not a complete idiot! There was no way that I was going to agree to that without doing more research.

I told the guy that I would have to talk to my bank about a refi. I would get the benefit of a lower rate and could take out extra cash. “Well, how soon can you talk to them?” He asked. You could hear the worry in his voice. It was after 5pm on a Friday, so the bank was closed, I pointed out. It would have to wait until at least Monday, I said.

For a moment, he looked dejected, but then quickly turned to his “today only” deal. He also gave me how much it would cost per month (although I don't think he listed the number of months), if I used their financing. In addition, I didn't have to come up with any money that day and would have time (I don't remember the exact amount), to go to my bank and come up with the money. The prices were much less, about $30,000 total, so a “savings” of over $10,000, but only if I signed that day. I asked him to break down each project. I don't remember the exact prices, but it was about $10,000 for the roof.

He really turned up the pressure on me. But what he didn't know is that while we were talking, I was researching it on my phone and found out that to the average price to replace a roof my size (less than 1200 sqft) is between $4100 and $6000. (A neighbor informed me yesterday he had his replaced last year, it was about the same size as mine, and paid $5500). I was also texting my friend who works on my house who was texting me back telling me to sign nothing and to get this guy out of my house.

This whole thing went on for a while, well over 2 hours. He was playing mind games, or at least trying. He would say things like, “Sure, I want to make a sale, but I am also a human being. I can't leave your house like this.” He would not take no for an answer. And when it got to the point that it was obvious that I was not going to sign, he turned into a complete dick. I had to ask him to leave, at least twice, and thought I was going to have to call 911 or even, if necessary, get my gun. Thankfully, it didn't come to that. At the front porch, you could see the anger in his face, and he yelled to me something like, “You don't care about your house. You just care about going out and drinking beer tonight.” See how he used what I told him earlier about going to the Greek Festival against me? He was also trying to shame me in front of the neighbors. Didn't work. It did make me wonder if he was also lying when he said he was a human being.

Later my friend, who also happens to have a degree in engineering and who also builds houses, came over and looked at my roof. He said it had a few years left in it and then we went out drinking. My neighbor also told me that the last owners replaced the roof in 1999 and they typically last 20 years.

Regarding my experience with the company, I assumed that I just had a bad salesman. But then I started to research the company. Now I know why he was so desperate to get me to sign that day and got upset when I said I wanted to do research online first.

The Power Home Remodeling Group claims an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau and I'm sure that convinces many people that they are okay. But what many, especially older, people don't understand is that the BBB grade isn't worth much. It is an increasingly irrelevant organization. The best source for information about a company is probably Yelp.com, where they do a good job weeding out fake reviews.

The Power Home Remodeling is based in Chester, PA, but according to their website they operate in Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia, Washington D.C. and Wisconsin. There are Yelp pages for many of these offices.

The Maryland office of Power Home has a Yelp Score of 1 Star, the lowest possible. What they did to me was not an isolated incident. Here are some of the highlights from the Review page:

We have about. 2500 sqft roof, the estimator was suggesting a $30k to $40k job.... Absolutely insane.... I guess they work on commission, but with a full removal, materials (architectural shingles) and install, and accounting for the markup in Arlington, a very high end estimate shouldn't be over $15k.

These guys use high pressure scare tactics to bully people into paying wayyy toooo much. Buyer beware please and do your homework!

Another person wrote:

I like how they have the gall to get on here and refute my review. For anyone who's further interested in their lies, I've posted a pic of the contracted amount with personal info blanked out. You can find this on my profile. They also want to refute hole size. They don't seem to understand, he showed me pictures of significant damage with large holes, I don't need a ruler to measure them, because THERE ARE NO HOLES IN MY ROOF. He fraudulently showed us pictures of someone else's roof and said he just took them. You can call them whatever size you want swindler, it's irrelevant considering there are no holes in my attic at all. That's what your company is about. The HIGH cost of replacing a roof is considered $13,000. They're crooks, protect your friends and family from these depraved sleazy salesmen.

You probably have the point by now, but I just want to post one more review from the Maryland site:

This company tried to swindle my 74 year old father. I came home at the end of the salesman's 4 hour speech. He convinced my dad that our roof has severe damage and could break through if you walked on it. He explained how it has severe water damage and showed us pictures of huge wet patches and holes in the plywood from the attic. After hearing the $28,000 price tag I told my dad to rethink and get some other quotes even though he had already signed up. I checked the attic for myself and guess what, no holes and almost no water damage in sight. He correctly assumed my dad was too feeble to climb up there himself. Too bad I wasn't. He had showed us someone else's pictures to convince us. They're liars and cheaters. After my dad canceled they called and came back to offer a better deal, $8000 for almost the same service. Really? Wow, all of sudden they can do the work for so much less. They also tried to sell gutters for $4000. Were they made out of gold? Nope, aluminum. Maybe they personally make them out of soda cans or something, because $4000 is laughable. They're crooks and I see plenty of poor reviews for their actual work. Best look elsewhere before you get ripped off.

And the reviews on the other Yelp pages are just as bad. For example,in their hometown of Chester, PA, they somehow managed to set an average 2.5 out of 5 star Yelp rating.

One person wrote:
Simply one of the worst companies I have come across when dealing with remodeling companies. They use basic pressure tactics, employ people who have either no experience or very little in actual trades/remodeling who aren't qualified to give legit estimates let alone act as a building inspector, and then are very aggressive the entire process once you engage with them including during the sales quote.

The most hilarious part was when one of their sales reps tried to tell my uncle (who has done general residential contracting for more than 35 years) and one of his partners who is a licensed building inspector they had no idea what they were talking about including questioning their price estimates for the materials and time quoted for a basic roof repair. Their interest rates for financing were also lousy when compared to standard line of credits from a bank or credit union too.  

A general building contractor should NEVER pressure anyone during the sales or estimate process, stick to only what the client wants done or expressed a wish to get an estimate on, and give them things they request including other customer references without a hassle.

It wasn't just me. These people are up to no good. I suspect that their main prey is the elderly. They might be sitting at home all day and bored. A nice young man who is well groomed, well spoken, and who seems like a real go-getter, shows up and gives them a great sales pitch. And then he scares the hell out of them and gets them thinking their house is falling apart. This is really sleazy. They are convincing and pressuring people to pay for things they don't need and are charging them ridiculous prices.

Please be careful when dealing with anyone offering an estimate for home repair. While most people in the field are honest, there are plenty of frauds. Make sure your friends and family, especially elderly friends and relatives, are aware of this company and these types of tactics. Never agree to anything on the spot. Always get a second estimate, at least. AND NEVER NEVER NEVER DO BUSINESS WITH POWER HOME REMODLING GROUP!!!

Also, please share this post with your friends and family. They will appreciate it. I don't want to see anyone lose their money to these people.

Also, to the guy who stopped by my house, you left one of your gloves on my back porch. I don't know if it was a mistake or part of an elaborate plan to get back into my house under the guise of getting your glove to continue a sales pitch. Either way, it is sitting on my front lawn under my mailbox. You can get it, but get one inch closer to my house and we are going to have a problem. You better get it before it blows away.

Related external links:
Hackettstown Life forum posts on Power Home
Complaints Board
Scam Book
RipoffReport

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Wayne Simmons Update #2


Many people around the Annapolis area know Wayne Simmons. He is a local legend, or at least a minor celebrity. Like everyone else who knew him, I was stunned to hear the claim that he had made up his entire 27 year CIA career. Recently, Wayne entered into a plea agreement with Federal prosecutors and is pending sentencing on house arrest. Wayne still asserts that he is innocent. The fact that he plead guilty indicates that he does not believe he would be successful at trial. He claims the CIA disowned him.

I have been investigating Wayne's case to determine just what was going on. A simple answer could be that the guy is just a fraud. Conmen aren't unusual. Although Wayne's alleged con seemed unusually detailed and over the top. Alex French, writing for the New York Times Magazine, interviewed the former CIA officer who first exposed Wayne, Kent Clizbe. Clizbe's theory was that Wayne got busted by the police on drug charges and was working as a criminal informant to avoid prosecution. This makes some sense. Criminal informants are often referred to as CIs. Is it possible that Wayne exaggerated this in his mind to equal CIA? Perhaps he was also working as a CI for federal agencies, such as the DEA, and perhaps they just told him he was doing work for the CIA? I don't know, but that does seem not just possible, but probable.

In court filings, before he plead guilty, Wayne's attorney outlined some very specific things that Wayne allegedly did for the CIA. I would have no way to check most of his claims, but he does list two safe houses that he allegedly used and the years that he used them. Wayne said he used a safe house on Pierson Road in Queen Anne's County to store and distribute narcotics and guns between 1990 and 1994. I was able to track down, through property records, that the property in question was owned by a company called "Wolverine Associates". A company by the same name appears to still be in business in Potomac, MD. Do they know anything about this? Wayne also said that he used another safehouse at 1501 Overlook Drive in Silver Spring, MD, from 1979 to 1984. The owner of the property during those years was an Estonian Lutheran minister by the name of Rudolf Troost. Reverend Troost has long since passed away, so we can't ask him what, if anything, he knew about this. It is possible that Wayne just picked these addresses by random, but that strikes me as unlikely. I would really love to know what was going on at those locations.

Young Wayne, from his FB account
Wayne's story is an interesting one. His father was a war hero. Just about everyone in his family has served in the military and/or government. I talked with Alex French about this case as he was writing his article. One of the interesting things I learned was that Wayne had joined the Navy, but received an honorable medicine discharge after 27 days for post concussion syndrome. Of course, most people would think that there was nothing wrong with receiving this type of discharge. But could it be that Wayne viewed this as a personal failing and a disgrace to his family? Was he obsessed with the number 27 and then turned that, in his Walter Mitty mind, to a 27 year career with the CIA to redeem himself in they eyes of his family, if not in his own eyes? I don't know if we will ever know the full truth about just what Wayne was doing or why he was doing it. Wayne will be sentenced on July 15, 2016, in Federal Court in Alexandria, Virginia. Perhaps we will find out more then.

Airport Specials? Enough to set Wayne into action.
Side notes: I happened to meet the taxi driver who Wayne beat up in 2007. He was driving for Uber. Alex French emailed me the police report (email me, btw if you want a copy - bill at williamcooke dot com) so I knew the victim's name. I asked the driver about the incident. He remembered it and we both talked about the incident and Wayne's recent arrest. He found the whole situation very strange, but also humorous. Just to make sure I really had the right guy, I asked him for his business card. The number on it matched the cell phone number he gave in the police report. Call him if you need a ride around Anne Arundel County. He would appreciate it if you didn't assault him.

A few months prior, I was on another Uber ride and was talking to the driver who said he had worked as a private contractor in Afghanistan. I asked him if he knew Wayne. He smiled and said he did. He ran into him in Afghanistan on a helicopter. According to the driver, everyone called Wayne "the celebrity" because he had appeared on Fox News so many times. Wayne loved when people knew he was.

Recently, I ran across someone else who knew Wayne who still had his business card. Lots of people have seen my blog posts about this topic and have been happy to volunteer information that they have regarding Wayne. One person who knew Wayne in the 1980s said he was a "big coke dealer" in Prince George's County back then. He also ran, according to this person, halfway houses for men with AIDS, not out of any humanitarian concern, but because "it paid good money." Another person at a bar told me that he punched her then boyfriend in the face for no reason, other than he wanted to talk to her.

My investigation will continue.

Related:

Wayne Simmons Update
Wayne's World, the Strange Case of the Superpatriot