Joe Sugarman BioNovel™ excerpt
Chapter 8 “Joe vs. the FTC”
Washington, D.C. – 1981
A THUNDERING crash from a battle-hardened gavel ripped through the ruckus of the unruly crowd. “Order, I say. Order!” shouted a stout, bald man sitting behind a placard that read Chairman Congressman Dingell. “This is a congressional oversight hearing, not some Hollywood courtroom drama!”
Room 2123 of the Rayburn House Office Building was packed like a sardine can. Broadcast news cameras, bloodthirsty journalists, hopeful business owners and loyal admirers aimed their sites directly on one man – Joe Sugarman.
Most men would cower under the intensity of this hearing, but not Joe. He had the truth on his side. Joe had spent two exhaustive years gathering evidence to prove how the Federal Trade Commission had unjustly attacked his catalog company, JS&A. Besides, the subcommittee was so focused on assaulting Joe that they failed to realize the irony projected on the screen behind them. On display was a humorous, hand-drawn image of a big, hairy monster named ‘Bureaucracy’ squeezing the life out a silly depiction of Joe.
“Mr. Sugarman, do you feel this comic book, ‘The Monster that Eats Business’ created and distributed by you, accurately portrays the FTC’s treatment towards you?” demanded Dingell with his guttural voice.
“No, sir,” replied Joe. “I feel they have treated me much worse.”
Laughter and ruckus erupted again. After hours of the committee pounding him like a meat tenderizer, Joe felt a sense of relief. He had almost forgotten what that even felt like.
However, Dingell was not amused; nor were his fellow congressmen sitting on the three-tiered benches. They looked like a bunch of street thugs wearing three-piece suits out for blood. Yet there was one committee member, Congressman Al Gore, who clearly stood apart from the pack.
Dingell leaned into the microphone, “Mr. Sugarman are you taking any of this seriously?”
Astonished by the accusation, Joe quickly responded, “Sir, I take this very seriously. I’m a small businessman who has worked tirelessly to be honest, respectful and to do no harm to our customers. I’ve gone above and beyond to follow the FTC rules and ensure the products my customers ordered were delivered in a timely matter. And yet, despite all my efforts, the FTC hit me harder than the blizzards that hammered Chicago.”
“You are referring to a little snowstorm in Chicago two years ago?” sneered Mike Synar, the thirty-year-old congressman from Oklahoma.
“Little? Mr. Synar, I would hardly call three of the worst blizzards in Chicago history, which shut down the entire city, a little snowstorm.”
Joe wasn’t exaggerating. The snow and ice reached such high levels that children were seen sledding from their second floor bedroom windows. It would take a week before any employees could even reach the office. To make matters worse, the main computer that processed all the mail orders had a total meltdown. The double whammy made it impossible to ship any customers’ orders out in time. However, against all odds, he did manage to send out delay notices, with one minor mistake. A few words were placed in the wrong section of the letters as laid out in a brand new FTC rule. And for that, he got slapped with a $275,000 fine! In 1981, that was ludicrous. In fact, it was ludicrous for any year!
Back in the hearing room, the committee members hastily shuffled through their stacks of papers. Joe felt the tension rising again. He looked over to his legal counsel, Jere Glover, and wondered why he seemed so quiet. Jere was a prominent, outspoken attorney known for standing tall against tyrannical big government. Yet, he simply sat there rubbing his chin. Joe leaned in to say something, when Jere spoke up, “Relax, Joe. No matter what they throw at us next, just remember who’s got our back.”
Joe then looked towards the congressional benches and noticed Al Gore giving them both a knowing nod. Just yesterday, Jere and Joe sat in Gore’s office. During their visit, Gore couldn’t have been nicer and more sympathetic to Joe’s cause. Every word, every gesture from Gore helped Joe feel more and more optimistic. Gore promised Joe that the committee would be ‘fair and just’.
A SCREECH from the speakers broke the silent tension as Dingell grabbed the microphone. He was ready to pounce again when Gore suddenly intercepted him and asked, “Would the Chairman kindly yield?”
Frustrated, Dingell replied, “The floor recognizes Congressman Gore.”
“Thank you, Chairman,” replied Gore as he turned his attention to Joe. “Mr. Sugarman, I appreciated the opportunity to meet with you in my office yesterday. I enjoyed reading your comic book. It is really quite an entertaining piece of work. You have a real talent for writing advertisement copy.”
“Thank you, Congressman Gore,” replied Joe. Finally, the game was afoot.
“Mr. Sugarman, last night I took home a large stack of evidence in preparation for this hearing. I must confess that I am was bit puzzled. However, I have evidence here that I feel might clear up this matter. Mr. Sugarman, you have a seminar that you hold on your philosophy of success. If I may read the following that you wrote in an advertisement: ‘There are two types of successful people. Those that are successful and those that are super successful. To be successful you must learn the rules, know them cold, and follow them. To be super successful, you must learn the rules, know them cold, and break them. My seminar is designed to not only teach you how to break the rules, but how to develop new rules – my rules.’ Does that reflect an attitude that you have towards rules that are inconvenient for you or your business to follow?”
Wait, what? Did Gore just use the copy from one of Joe’s advertisements as a testament to Joe’s character? This was not ‘fair and just’ – it was just not fair!
Gore hammered again, “Does this philosophy of breaking rules contribute to your overall attitude towards running a business? Or towards the government?”
Jere grabbed Joe, “I can’t believe this. He’s setting us up! Don’t answer that!”
Joe wiped away perspiration beading on his brow. He had to give an answer to the wolf in sheep’s skin. There was no turning back now. Joe meekly responded, “Congressman Gore, you have taken that out of context. The rules I was talking about were the philosophies of marketing -”
“You seem to think that the FTC’s rules were in violation of the standards. You said that you have done no harm to the customer, but we have a letter here from a mother stating that her little boy in a wheelchair didn’t receive his present in time for Christmas – ”
“That was during the blizzards –”
“You said that you run an honest business and return payments when products are not delivered. Yet we have records that appear otherwise. Not only do you break rules within your code of conduct, you seem to break the most important rule of all… being honest.”
Joe almost fell out of his chair. This couldn’t be any further from the truth and Gore knew it!
Two years of turmoil flashed through his mind. The public slander from government officials trying to destroy his good name. The threats on his livelihood from faceless FBI agents. The endless hours of battle preparation that took him away from his family and now crippled his business.
But now, more than ever, he was determined to make it all count for something. From coast-to-coast three thousand petitioners, comprised of citizens, senators and even business enemies, signed their names to give Joe his day in court. Joe was no longer fighting for just his business, he was now fighting for all the small businesses across the United States of America.
Joe slowly rose from his chair, “Congressman Gore. First of all, everything you mentioned has been taken out of context. I have never said that we were perfect even though we had one of the lowest complaint records in the country for the volume. However, I did say that the whole basis of why I am here, why I fought so hard to be here, is to determine what criteria the FTC used to select JS&A – something the FTC still refuses to tell me.
Second, why the excessive penalty? According to OSHA’s own guidelines, you could be killed in the workplace and the most your employer would be fined is $1,000. One thousand dollars for getting killed on the job! Giant drug manufacturers that harm its customers are fined at most $2000. And then there’s me. I typed a few words in the wrong section of a delay notice and I’m slammed with a $275,000 fine. Is this the new normal? Is this how every small businessman and woman will be treated from now on?”
“Mr. Sugarman, please sit down,” said Gore.
“No, sir. I’ve sat long enough…”