Charter Cable's checking account isn't choosy

Expanded from the Sunday, 2-22-2004, Daily Sparks, Nev., Tribune
2-26-2004 Comstock Chronicle
Updated 5-20-2007

As chair of the City of Reno cable TV advisory committee, I field a lot of complaints. The following is a contender for the worst Charter Cable story I've ever seen.

Bonnie Puccinelli, who works in Sparks, told me that on Dec. 17, she "wrote a check to Charter Communications for $114.99, which paid my bill in full through the Scolari's pay center on Disc Drive in Sparks. On the same date, I wrote a check to Centex Design Center for $2,340.00. The Charter office and Centex are located (very near each other in south Reno).

"On Jan. 9, I was notified by Centex that they had not received my check. I contacted my credit union and they informed me that the check had been cashed. I discovered that the check was cashed by Charter Communications. I contacted Charter on Jan. 12 and notified them that they had cashed a check that was not made out to Charter Communications. I was told someone would call me. They did not. On Jan. 13, I contacted Charter again and was told no one would contact me and that they would give me credit for a balance of approximately $2,200.00 to go toward my future bills," Ms. Puccinelli stated.

"I told them that that was not right. It was not their check and I wanted my money. They accused me of making the mistake. They told me that it must have been my problem because I put checks in different envelopes. I informed them that this could not have happened because I paid my bill directly through Scolari's. This must have been a delivery problem of the postal service. I was then told I would be refunded the money in seven payments. They also told me that they would be taking a January payment out of the Centex check and that I would have to pay $120.00 for a franchise fee for processing the check.

"I am a single parent trying to buy a home and Charter Communications cashed a check that does not belong to them. My efforts to resolve this are not working. I wonder why they cashed a check that was not made out to them. If I were to do this, I am sure it would be illegal. Is there any help you can give me? Isn't this considered fraud?"

To put it mildly, Charter's customer service lacks uniform policies. Those answering the phone often wing it. Ratepayers often get widely diverging answers depending on who's answering and whether or not they're having a bad day.

Ms. Puccinelli found out some harsh Charter truths the hard way. First and foremost, asking for a supervisor never works because they never call you back. Never. Been there. Done that. She also found out that the customer service reps she has been dealing with work in southern California. She asked for a local number and they gave her the same Reno number she had dialed which automatically forwarded her to the Schwarzeneggerland.

Ms. Puccinelli told me that one service rep termed the $120 both a franchise fee and a service charge. A franchise fee, set at a federal maximum of five percent of a ratepayer's bill, is a sort of sales tax paid to local government to allow laying of lines in public rights-of-way. Charter stockholders should pay the cost, but thanks to clever lawyering, judges have concluded that not allowing them to pass along a franchise fee is an unconstitutional taking of private property.

In effect, ratepayers tax themselves to have cable service. Go figure.

I hope that cable refunds cannot be treated in a manner similar to merchant bad debts. Retailers have long complained about being unable to charge back sales taxes they never receive when a charge account customer fails to pay. If a merchant sells $100 on credit, he owes the full sales tax of about $7.50 to the state. If the customer fails to pay, the merchant still pays the tax on a sale he never collected. If Charter is compelled to keep a franchise fee even in such an egregiously erroneous case as Ms. Puccinelli's, law and/or regulation are in serious need of revision.

If and when Ms. Puccinelli gets the seven checks promised her, she will not get the $120. Charter is sending along a protest form for her to fill out.


I think she should contact the Washoe County district attorney's office. Ms. Puccinelli lives in Washoe County, so my cable committee doesn't have jurisdiction, not that it matters. Charter and the City of Reno quickly became irritated when our members started kicking butt with complaints about a year ago. (Any home-based business in northern Nevada which got high-speed Internet service from Charter in the past year can thank our committee for pushing Charter into finally providing it.)

The city fathers quickly changed our bylaws to curtail our complaint work. Reno's consumer complaint process has at least been standardized with periodic review by our panel. Washoe County has a non-publicized advisory committee, Sparks has none, but at least the three governments are starting to coordinate.

Issues such as Ms. Puccinelli's need to be addressed in Reno's and Washoe's neverending franchise negotiations. They are asking Charter to expand from three to five access stations, which is a good sign. Reno's contract may be wrapped up soon, as will Carson City's. Reno shares info about its negotiations with just about everybody but our committee. City and county staffers consider me the enemy, which I take as the highest of compliments.

The Neverending Story

All's well that ends well —
IF you get tough

UPDATE 5-20-2007

Our committee would have gladly aired Ms. Puccinelli's story last month, but the city manager's office kicked our meeting out of the Reno council chambers in favor of some private entity.

Unless we get 86'ed by somebody's brother-in-law, we will meet this Thursday, Feb. 26, at 6:30 p.m., cablecast live on SNCAT-13. Truck on down or tune in.

Much more consumer skulduggery at

Be well. Raise hell.

Barbwire web edition extra



Fri, 20 Feb 2004 21:38:40 -0800
To: (Ralph Nader)
From: (Andrew Barbano)
Subject: Reply to your request for support and advice

Dear Mr. Nader:

I hope that one of the addresses to which I have sent this memo facilitates its reaching you. Last Feb. 4, you wrote "I am considering whether or not to run for President in 2004, and because of your past support, you are invited to keep up to date and provide input about any potential run this year."

I apologize for not responding until now, but the publicity about your appointment with Mr. Russert this Sunday has motivated me.

I voted for you in 2000 and had the pleasure of speaking with you at length after your speech at the University of Nevada-Reno in March of that year.

After that day, I devoted my Sunday newspaper column to you, entitled "Ralph Nader Y2K: Unsafe to the establishment at any speed." You will find it at

I wrote and commented about you on radio and television many times in 2000. Since 1997, your name has appeared on my website 17 times. ( is the only comprehensive union/worker site in the Silver State.)

For more than three years, I have defended you against the recurring echo of allegation that your ballot presence in Florida and other places "lost" the election for Big Al the Undertaker in 2000. (As I noted a couple of weeks ago, by that standard, John Kerry is the embalmer at Big Al's Funeral Home.)

I have consistently said that Mr. Gore proved to be the same poor candidate we all saw in 1988. He let Bush get close enough to steal it, as has happened more often than ever admitted by those who perpetuate the myth of honest and fair U.S. elections.

In likewise defending you, Michael Moore noted that the Communist got 500 votes in Florida in 2000, so why not blame him? I don't subscribe to the idea (promulgated by Nevada Sen. Reid, among many others) that your forays into the arena have their genesis in a Schwarzeneggerian need for constant public adulation.

In 1981, one of the most able public servants with whom I ever worked told me something about the Carter administration which applies to you right now. Maybe you know the gentleman.


David S. Schwartz, Ph.D., had been one of the top economists in the U.S. Dept. of Energy. (His brother was the subject of Mitch Albom's still-best-selling book, "Tuesdays with Morrie.") I worked with Dave (now retired to his organic farm in West Virginia) when I helped lead a statewide coalition which succeeded in establishing Nevada's first consumer advocate's office for utility ratepayers.

Dr. Schwartz told me that President Carter made a mistake by putting the activists in charge of many government functions. (His Accidency, Bush the Lesser has perhaps perpetrated the worst-case scenario by appointing the darkest of destructive cadres of zealots from the radical right.)

"Carter took a lot of people down with him when he lost," Schwartz told me all those years ago. The ouster of Pres. Carter constituted "evidence" of public rejection of everything the left has always stood for.

I never forgot that advice. Some people are better off influencing the government from the outside. As a utility economist, I heard Dr. Schwartz testify often about why a consumer advocate's office was needed. A public utilities commission has a dual role: regulation on the one hand; balancing the interests of ratepayers vs. stockholders on the other.

Without an independent advocate, consumers get shortchanged because of commission staff mindset and job description.

You likewise want to make an impact on behalf of the least of our brethren in this year's quadrennial popularity contest.

YOU ASKED FOR MY ADVICE AND HERE IT IS: This Sunday, rather than throw your usual high, hard fastball, hurl a powerful change-up. Consider making common cause with Howard Dean and like-minded outsiders to keep the left and its standard-bearer honest. Otherwise, I don't know if Kerry can stay strong enough to resist the pressure of his peers to run to the right like Clinton.

As Harry Truman so famously said, if you give people a choice between two conservatives, they'll always vote for the real thing.

Do what you are best at doing: organizing the abused and voiceless to bring political pressure on individuals and institutions. Don't play on their turf as an underfunded candidate. Make them play your game in your yard.

Gov. Dean might go for the idea.

Remember Damon Runyon's advice about why you should never play the other guy's game: If some sharp comes up to you and says he'll bet you that he can pour cider in your ear without you even knowing it, there's only one thing sure -- you're gonna end up with an earful of cider. (Paraphrased as told to me long ago by the late, great Reno activist Orland T. Outland.)

Don't bet the cider. Be an exciter instead.

Be well. Raise hell.

Your supporter,

Andrew Barbano

[[2-22-2004 UPDATE: Mr. Nader obviously did not scrutinize the above sage suggestions before he announced his third run for the White House, this time as an I. Oh well, I tried.

2-26-2004 — At Reno City Hall, a colleague asked me about Mr. Nader's motivations. I believe his actions proceed from unyielding and consistent principle.]]


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Copyright © 1982-2004 Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a 35-year Nevadan, a member Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of and Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune since 1988.


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