Confidence Man

A public figure who speaks his honest mind is certain to sooner or later find himself occupying one of two narrow niches in the human sociosystem: wise man or fool.

(Within the human ecosystem, on the other hand, he will more often find himself simply unemployed.)

A few months back, a call to Better Business Bureau spokesman Dan Parsons for the dirt, or at least a comment, on telemarket fund-raising for fraternal police organizations, elicited this response:

"They're scams," he said. "They're badge jobs. They're all bad."

Note the remarkable dearth of ifs, ands or buts.

The Texas Department of State, which "regulates" badge jobs, couldn't or wouldn't say that. The state troopers couldn't say it. The Houston Police Department couldn't say it. The Texas attorney general's office wouldn't say it, though it at least surely must know.

It is an age, public discourse-wise, of PR-speak, death by qualification, diplomatic double-talk, conditional capitulation, legal ass-covering and vagueness as platform.

William Jefferson Clinton could never muster such a plain statement of unambiguous conviction, not on the record, and neither can George W. Bush. Lee P. Brown probably never even realized it was something he could try. Certainly no mere spokesperson for a small nonprofit company can afford to get caught spouting at the mouth without the filter on.

Trying to get a straight quote from an informed source these days -- if you can even locate one behind the scrim of paid handlers -- is an endless repetition of the schoolhouse game wherein a sentence is repeated from one child to the next until it comes out the other end of the chain bearing no resemblance whatsoever to the sentence that started the rounds, the only difference being that the final rendering now spills from the mouth of a flack and all the kids in the middle are lawyers with speech impediments.

Dan Parsons, though, he'll tell you what he knows. He says so right up front. He says so so often it's almost a joke. He says what you see is what you get… He says open book… He says I'm gonna be real honest with you… He says I'm gonna tell you up front

He says he wants to run Anthony & Sylvan Pools, a BBB member, out of the bureau.

He says Houston's take on representative government -- he waves out the window of his fifth-floor office toward downtown -- makes him want to puke.

He says he wants his boss's job, and if, when she leaves, he doesn't get it, he's gone too.

He refers to Greenspoint Dodge -- not a BBB member -- as Gunpoint Dodge.

It comes down, at root, to fiduciary trust, he says. Consumer trust in business. A citizenry's trust in its leadership.

And even though Dan Parsons isn't a government employee of any sort, and even though we didn't elect him, and even though he doesn't really peddle a product in any traditional sense (and even though his views on integrity-challenged guardians of the local political trust fall outside his purview as an official BBB spokesman), Dan Parsons acts like he's got a responsibility, as a private citizen and public commentator -- he pens a weekly column in the Houston Chronicle and is a regular presence on some scam-busting local newscast or another -- to present himself as totally transparent.

"Here, you want to see this? This is my life. It's all in there."

He hands over his day planner. Little green Xs mark every seven days or so.

These are the days, Dan Parsons explains, when he can drink as much as he wants. Manhattans, red wine, cold beer. Between Xs, he has to rest his pancreas. It's a compromise. He is Irish Catholic and fancies himself a jazz musician, traditional hard-drinking categories both, but: "It's my favorite vice. It means a lot to me."

He started worrying about his health two years ago when he had surgery to excise prostate cancer, the main surgical risks of which, he volunteers, are incontinence and impotence, but without getting too graphic, he volunteers, everything seems to be working in the aftermath (though he does feel "emasculated" as a taxpayer).

Open-book enough for you?

"I'm gonna let you in on a secret," he says. "I'm gonna give you my dirt. At the end of the day, I truly believe I've made a difference." As dirt goes, this revelation falls somewhere between Lysol and bleach.

He says, "Do you know where the term con man comes from? I ask a lot of people, and a lot of them don't know. They think it has something to do with convict."

It's short for confidence man.  

"That's how they scam you: They get your confidence. And in a way that's what I'm doing with you right now."

What is this guy selling?

It is a Tuesday morning, and Dan Parsons is meeting with the management of Pool Town, a company that has never been a BBB member, but which has nonetheless requested this meeting to question the accuracy of the 52- complaint Pool Town report that the BBB offers to curious customers.

Pool Town owner Mark Morono arrives with his construction manager and female office worker in tow, the trio looking like a casting call for The Sopranos, Jr.

Parsons jumps down their throats, aggressive, telling Morono his company needs a reality check. "It's like Alcoholics Anonymous -- we don't want you guys to be in denial." Then he reprimands Morono for calling someone else in his office to inquire about becoming a BBB member. Perhaps Morono thinks his company can buy its way into the bureau's good graces.

"Please don't do that again," Parsons demands. "It's inappropriate."

They parse the recorded complaints one by one, tracing back three years. Some of the complaints sound valid, and Morono offers to submit to BBB arbitration. Others, he says, have been long handled and shouldn't be on the list, and Parsons says he'll follow up to check his accuracy. Some complaints just sound stupid, like the customer who called to complain to the BBB that her new pool was attracting unwanted wildlife. Another guy was pissed because he thought the LED readout on his spa control wasn't bright enough. Pool Town apparently hadn't responded "satisfactorily" to those complaints, so in the file they went.

"How are we supposed to respond to something like that?" Morono pleads.

Perhaps by being nicer to your customers, Parsons suggests, upbraiding him for the brusqueness of his filed responses to complaints. "Mark, you may be a great pool guy, but as a writer you can be kind of terse."

Another complaint is dismissed by Parsons as "editorial" and will be removed from the report. "I'll be honest," he says to Morono. "We get jaded when we see a complaint. We closed that incorrectly."

Another is in court, and dismissed as beyond BBB purview.

Parsons wants to know if the BBB might start calling Pool Town to check up on unresolved complaints. Morono balks, saying that last summer someone at the BBB called him to check up on a service call that was 30 minutes late. He wants no part of that kind of micromanagement.

At meeting's end, Morono asks again about the possibility of membership.

Parsons says he won't even consider it. Not without the resolution of all complaints. Not without a probationary waiting period. Not until Dan Parsons inspects Pool Town's facilities and runs a "deep legal" check. Not until the complaints stop coming in.

"Dan, I can't control people complaining."

"I think you can."

"You really want my real opinion?" Morono says later. "I'm not real happy with the way they conduct that. I don't think that it's a real good forum for businesses to settle disputes….He sets the rules and he's the judge and jury and he'll consider us for membership…." The BBB's board makes membership decisions, actually. "Dan for years has been telling me he wants to run Anthony Sylvan out of the BBB and rescind their membership. That's not going to improve the standards of quality in our industry….All the biggest [pool] companies in town are at the top of the BBB complaint list. Which is probably logical. But I think they sort of miss the point when they try to go after bigger companies to settle the smaller complaints when they really should be focusing on the fly-by-night guys who might sell one or two or three pools and never show up to build them and steal the down payment….I have concerns about the quality of their information and the way that it's maintained….I'm sure they're involved in lawsuits over the years from companies as a result of inaccurate information. Dan's pretty quick to say, 'We'll defend anything we ever say,' which sort of to me indicates he's had to do that."

He has. The BBB gets sued all the time, mostly by companies disputing their complaint reports, or pissed about being denied membership.

"The vast majority of commerce transactions that are occurring are good," Parsons admits. "Pool Town? They've got a lot of unhappy people. That bothers me.

"Bad businesses? Yes, I have seen them resurrect. I've gone back three years later and said, 'You know, I was wrong.' But yes, I do have a reputation among certain businesses for 'I'll do everything I can.' You bet. It's called eliminating the damage."  

If Dan Parsons, vice president of the BBB, likes to play the heavy, maybe that's because his personal bio is so freakishly mild-mannered.

His father's family in Ontario lost a chain of specialty stores during the Great Depression, and Bill Parsons came to Oklahoma to learn the oil business, where he met Shirley, a prairie girl and daughter of an Oklahoma oilman. They married, went back to Canada, had Dan (who retains dual citizenship), came back to the United States and followed assignments with Exxon around the East Coast, landing in Pittsburgh, where Dan went to Catholic schools and Allegheny High, where he won the Myrnes Award, as a third-chair trombonist, bestowed upon the person who contributed most to the music department. He also won awards for perfect attendance.

Yes, he was an altar boy too.

He was the oldest of four brothers, and no matter what, mom Shirley says, Dan was the boss, he told them what to do.

"I think the first time he ever startled us with anything," Mom recalls, "was he stayed alone in Pittsburgh and we were down visiting family in Oklahoma, and we got a phone call, and he was only 16, and he said he'd come across his first dead body. Well, he said, 'I was going down to work … and I walked over to catch the bus. On my way over there was this elderly woman lying in the road.' And he said surrounding her were three or four people, and they were all just standing there looking at her. And he said, 'What's going on?' And they said, 'Well, this lady's dead here.' And he said, 'Well, has anyone called for any help?' Well, no, no. So he says, 'I ran up to the door, the nearest house, and knocked on it.' He says the worst part of it was, it was their grandma that had gotten hit by the car in the road. So that's the first time I ever knew he was going to get himself involved in things."

He went to Duquesne University in Pittsburgh with the intention of becoming a professional musician, but after making the realistic assessment that even peers who were clearly more talented than he was were finding no work, he knocked on the door at the campus radio station, figuring to stay close to music anyhow. The campus station turned out to be WDUQ, an NPR affiliate. A station manager assigned him to the federal government beat as a volunteer. His first interview, he remembers, was Senator John Heinz, of the ketchup dynasty.

"I didn't know what I was doing, but I realized, 'Wow, he's more concerned about me than I am about him.' "

He followed his Exxon parents to Houston in December 1974 to finish out school at the University of Houston. He acquired a degree in communications and two jobs, managing the UH station and double-dipping as an easy-listening late-night announcer and public affairs director at KYND, based in Pasadena, where he says he learned "the inner workings of a city council and all that stuff."

In 1983 he won the Barbara Jordan Award for broadcast communication on behalf of the disabled. "It pleased him," Mom remembers.

He spent his final four years in radio at KODA, doing "what I call enterprise journalism, making the station look good, and my own little investigative pieces, which frustratingly were being run at ungodly hours on this station, because it's mainly a music station."

He left radio, but not Houston -- "I just adopted it, I love this place" -- and went to work for the Better Business Bureau. That was 18 years ago, and he has since done every job but run the place. The last time he took a vacation was two years ago: one week to recover from the prostate surgery.

In his off-time, he plays bass in a wedding band that he says keeps him sane.

His staff jokes that he's so anal that he does all of his grocery shopping every third Thursday, like clockwork (just check the day planner), and so transparent that they all know this about him.

He takes complaint files home to his condo on the south side of downtown and calls co-workers at one in the morning to consult.

"Is it a balanced life?" asks BBB CEO Jean Herman. "Probably not. I think the only thing that I have to constantly remind him of is, you know, not everybody's going to be like you. Not everybody's going to work 80 hours a week. I think the downside to that is, what's your expectation for other people? You're abnormal. They may be normal."  

It is a Thursday night, and Dan Parsons is playing his black Fender Jazz bass through a little Fender amp in the St. Jude chapel of St. Vincent de Paul. He's wearing tassled loafers and a short-sleeved knit shirt embroidered with "FBI Houston Citizens' Academy." He is providing rhythm for a keyboardist, flutist and vocalist who desperately need it -- "helping improve the product," he explains later -- accompanying a young adult mass.

After a wobbly rehearsal run-through, Parsons tells his bandmates the hymn needs "more drive."

Playing, he makes extraneous gestures with his hands, sliding his fingers up the neck between notes, adding flourishes with his plucking hand, banging his head.

"He's pretty good," claims Cathy Comeaux, the singer in Parsons's regular band. "You know what they say about bass players: They're just frustrated lead guitarists. I always have to tell him to turn down, because he always has his amp up way too high."

He is a secret rock star. He is Walter Mitty. He is Clark Kent in reverse: a mild-mannered dweeb by night who transforms, at his day job, into SuperDan.

At first glance, most consumers assume that the Better Business Bureau does little more than maintain a record of customer complaints against businesses for the benefit of consumers conscientious enough to check the records before making a purchase.

Not so. A joint venture with KHOU-TV provides a Defender's Hotline, staffed by Channel 11 volunteers and housed in the BBB offices, geared toward the kind of on-air problem solving that has made Marvin Zindler and his followers such inescapable regulars on the evening news. One division keeps tabs on the books of charity organizations, tracking actual charitable expenditures versus administration costs, and censuring nonprofits that spend too much on self-perpetuation. An advertising review component dogs companies hawking false going-out-of-business sales and deceptive claims. A full-time investigator goes under cover to bust scams. The BBB's Silver Sleuths are quasi-social workers, helping the elderly and susceptible navigate bureaucracies, and Youth Sleuths do the same for the not-yet-elderly (and help indoctrinate the next generation of BBB supporters at the same time). A full-time staffer coordinates arbitration and mediation negotiations between disgruntled consumers and BBB members and nonmembers alike. The BBB is the third-busiest call center, by volume, in Harris County, after HL&P and HPD.

Once a month, Parsons and company -- as the front line of consumer disgruntlement -- attend an informal meeting with the FBI, the DEA, the attorney general's office, area district attorneys, the Postal Inspection Service, the Secret Service and other governmental spooks to network, trade information and coordinate investigations.

You hear things. It's almost like being a spy. And of course Parsons feeds reporters, from this one on up to Dateline NBC.

If Dan Parsons actually has any dirt, it would seem to be the obvious pride he takes in the cloak-and-dagger aspect, the insider-ness of his job, his privileged position at the nexus of so much news gathering.

"I think you can tell they like me," he says, gesturing to a wallful of law enforcement memorabilia.

He knows which television station is sitting on what scoop until sweeps week. He knows which reporters used to work as public information officers, and for which corporations. He knows that Houston's construction business is filled with former East Coast mafiosos spirited into the witness relocation program.

As a reporter, he would not be given open access to so much information, and the first time he used it, he would be cut off. As an elected official, he would be beholden in silence to fickle constituencies. But as Dan Parsons, he is endlessly privy, and as the collection of FBI mugs and gimme caps in his office attests, he revels in the connectedness, in being the man in the know.

"I'm a source. That's what I am."

He feeds his journalism jones working with reporters. He satisfies his crime-fighter jones hobnobbing with law enforcement types: "I do get a rush out of it."

Technically speaking, Dan Parsons is vice president of the Better Business Bureau of Metropolitan Houston. For a man whose statements on scam and sketchily bearded and eye-glassed visage are so inextricably twined in the public eye with the organization for which he works, it is something of a shock to realize that Dan Parsons is not in charge. BBB president Jean R. Herman is, and has been for seven years since arriving here from Colorado Springs.

"People walk in here and they see Dan," she says. "They think they've got a celebrity. It's really strange."

"I do not like it at all," Parsons counters. He prefers "the fame of knowing I can pull it off," he says. "It's not the money, it's the robbery. It's the fact that I was able to do it. I was able to get my agency out there in a positive light and help people, and made the business members that support us feel good about us. It doesn't always happen that way."  

He's happy where he is, he says -- "But I won't work under another CEO" -- and that's odd, because the Better Business Bureau is by nature and charter a middleman, a centrist, a peacemaker. The files of consumer complaints that the BBB makes available are maintained with resources provided by businesses who pay membership fees to display the bureau's seal in their advertising. The entire enterprise rests upon the shakiest of foundations: a fragile and pretty much imaginary balance between "educated" consumers and "ethical" businessmen.

The bureau suffers further a reputation in certain circles for toothlessness on par with the AG's office when it comes to direct response. The BBB's automated consumer line can't even go so far as to recommend any particular business as worthy, and the number of complaints it provides is pretty well worthless out of context.

Marvin Zindler, no stranger to the consumer protection racket, once indicted the BBB's entire MO as a fox-guarding-the-henhouse scenario, and the dogged perception in skeptical quarters is that a membership fee purchases protection. The BBB counts over 6,500 member businesses, of which 14 had their memberships rescinded in the past year for various infractions.

Such a job would seem to require diplomacy and the careful treading of certain ethical tightropes of its own. It is a fine line, taking businesses' money in order to compile a public report of bad business practices. But Dan Parsons remains unbowed by his bureau's admitted imperfections, by inevitable compromises and unavoidable boundaries.

Yes, Anthony & Sylvan Pools is still a BBB member, even with 46 complaints on its record (out of thousands of contracts). Yes, the BBB once got busted (by Zindler, who didn't return Houston Press calls) for violating its own nonprofit status by running advertisements soliciting membership under the guide of public service announcements. Yes, Parsons is working on a situation in which a BBB record-keeping error resulted in a "totally incorrect, totally libelous" report on a company.

Yes, he works every day swamped in the worst and weakest sides of human nature, trapped between the rip-off artist and the rip-ee. Why?

Because, he says, "At the end of the day I know we've made a lot of accomplishments….At the end of the day, I want to see justice."

Who says that?

It is Friday afternoon, and Dan Parsons is slicing into his lunch, preparing to give his spiel to the Fort Bend Exchange Club in a small banquet room at the Sweetwater Country Club in First Colony.

It is a Kiwanis-type group, half-filling the room with earnest businesspersons in business lunch-wear, the type of group that adopts Never Shake a Baby as a cause, opens its meeting by ringing a brass bell, holds a drawing for a soaker hose as a door prize, and expresses its time-management efficiency by applauding, when appropriate, with single claps.

"These are good businesspeople," Parsons says. "They're not going to end up in your publication."

The nominal reason for the BBB's presence today is to promote its new Fort Bend County branch office (the Houston metro BBB covers seven counties), but Parsons leaves that dull announcement to marketing director Leila Perrin, who'll have to follow him today.

There are three things to which consumers fall prey, he tells the crowd, roaming around the lectern, sans microphone, in dark pinstriped suit and conservative tie: greed, desperation and vanity.

"I never met a crook at one of these business rotary meetings," he tells his audience. "They don't join."

Sometimes, he says, rapid-fire, businesses go bad when they get big and lazy and unresponsive. They lose their focus.

"Look at Montgomery Ward. Sears and JCPenney aren't far behind."

The BBB monitors businesses, frauds and charities: "No one else is watching these people."

Telephone solicitors: "They're scum of the earth. They're horrible people."

Scams run in cycles. From '70 to '75, it was used-car rackets as Houston's population boomed. The period from '75 to '80 saw the emergence of the time-share era as lakes Conroe and Livingston developed. The years '80 to '85 brought solar energy scams, '85 to '90 saw vacation package scams on the rise, and from '90 to '95, Houston was the headquarters of U.S. telemarketing scams, with over 200 active boiler rooms.

"If I don't get sued three times a year, I'm not doing my job."  

He calls himself politically incorrect, which is annoying no matter who says it, and throws the confidence-artist rhetoric into the ring again.

He hands it over to Perrin, who apologizes for having "the boring part of the job" and quickly proves it.

The exchange club president calls Parsons back to the podium, presents him with a ceremonial Exchange Club pen, and opens the floor to questions. Parsons makes a crack about lawyers lining up to have at him. In his mind, he is dangerous.

"You know, my most favorite commentator is Dennis Miller," Parsons says later. "I think he's wonderful. I believe just about everything he says. He's me. Just wealthier."

He isn't rich. He balks at naming his salary, even though he hasn't been asked, and then balks some more, and then later, apropos of nothing, blurts it out. He can't help himself. It is substantially less than extravagant.

He lives in a condominium, his "sanctuary," which he says is simple and reflects his personality as elsewhere on exhibit. He doesn't smoke cigarettes or dope. On Thursday mornings he reads at Taping for the Blind. He plays two Sunday masses at St. Vincent de Paul every week. His life, as he defines it, is a trinity of the bureau, his parents and his band, with a dutiful dose of church to try to keep himself out of hell.

He is not a "touchy-feely Catholic by any stretch of the imagination," and he knows that the young adult mass he played for was mostly a teen singles club, where he stood disinterested, one foot propped on an amp, elbow on knee, bass draped like a snake, while a novice priest laid wafers on young tongues.

He used to date plenty, but not so much lately. The women in his office try to set him up. He has conflicts of interest. He couldn't date anyone in the media, for instance. He once broke up with a girlfriend because she bought a car from a slimy dealership, and didn't even check BBB files first.

Regarding women: "Am I selfish? Yeah. Definitely. I'm very selfish. Because I give in enough other ways that when it comes to me as an individual, I think I've earned that right."

He drives a $36,000 Cadillac Catera that gives him an edge. He just sprang for the $1,500 manufacturer's extended warranty. The manufacturer's extended warranty, mind you. He had two Cimarrons before that, all bought from BBB members. Buying a car is the only time, he says, when he feels like he's being greased because of who he is, and he doesn't much fuss.

"But same thing: A complaint comes in on them, we get 'em. And if it's not resolved, they're gonna have to arbitrate. And if they don't arbitrate, I'll go out personally and get the stickers off their window. They will not be members."

His own band, the Houston Society Jazz Orchestra, is not a BBB member. Conflict of interest.

"I can't have that anywhere. We don't market. We work on referral. Frustrates the hell out of us. I cannot be using the forum here to solicit business. You know our database of charities that put galas on? I could have a field day. But it's not right. You just don't do it. You just say no."

Dan Parsons also says, "I'm the savior of the world." He does not mean it literally, of course, but in the sense of his role as the eldest of four siblings: one is a family man, one a successful architect, another a free spirit. And then there's Dan, big brother, who "didn't go out to make big money, didn't go after fame."

And like a big brother, or the savior of the world, he has recruited a disciple to carry on the mission.

Her name is Deana Wade. Dan thinks of himself as her big brother. He hired her three years ago out of a marketing background and "molded" her into the chief investigator she is today. She recently completed her first undercover assignment, gigging a deceptive modeling agency on hidden camera. She is in her late twenties and exceedingly camera-friendly.

"The first time I interviewed with Dan," she says, "he says, 'Here, why don't you hear a typical day in the life of Dan Parsons and what I get on my voice mail.' And the FBI was on there. And I was like, 'You're working with the FBI?' " The first thing he told her in that interview, she says, "was that he was training me to be him."

"The fame," Parsons says, "is teaching others to do it and keep this organization flowing."  

The secret to scams, Wade says, is that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Which raises the question of Dan Parsons, who, open-book and all, comes off as perhaps just a little too good to be true himself. Sooner or later, Dan Parsons, like everyone else on the planet, must be selling something.

What is it?

"I am," he admits -- again trying to pass off integrity as dirt -- "a shameless manipulator of information for what I think is a good cause. I would be offended if someone called me a PR flack, but am I one? Of course. Why do you think I opened the door to you? Two primary reasons. One, I don't think we're being used enough. I think we've got some stories. And second is what I call an offensive strike: I'd like to be your friend, so that if you do catch me for DWI on Allen Parkway…"

Imagine, at your job, going on record with this statement. Is this transparent honesty? Or foolishness?

And either way, how does he get away with it?

He is the public face of the Better Business Bureau, and at the end of the day, the Better Business Bureau is in the business of selling trust. Dan Parsons is trust's poster boy. Businesses have to trust him. Consumers have to trust him. Law enforcement has to trust him. Reporters have to trust him. It's the thing that he's paid to provide.

Consider this: It is Dan Parsons's job to be the most honest man in Houston.

"That's why when you came at me for an interview, I'm like, 'Dig, dig. I will give you the shovel….' I can tell you right now, that's the way I am, that's the way we are, that's the way my CEO has empowered me to be….'No comment' doesn't exist at the bureau, and the day it does, I'm out the door."

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