In the Ramada Inn, across I-10 from Ikea, dozens of young sales agents spill out of vans and head for the first-floor conference room. They're in their late teens and early twenties, tired from a long day of selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door, but excited about the money they think they're going to get.
In the conference room, a line of middle-aged managers sit behind folding tables and count the stacks of receipts and cash their agents place before them. It's a ton of money. The crews hit Houston in late February, it's near the end of March now and it's been a lucrative stay. Houston is always a windfall.
It's been a tough hop for this caravan of sales crews, though. Winding their way down from California, they lost a few agents. Two were arrested in Albuquerque after they allegedly forced their way into the home of an elderly couple and beat them to death, raping the wife first. A few weeks later, another agent allegedly raped a woman in Claremont, California, so he got picked up, too. Then, in West Texas, a van flipped, killing one agent and injuring three others. That's seven agents out of commission. That's about a $2,800 loss per day.
After they turn in their cash and receipts, two agents, a pudgy girl and a lanky guy, hit the parking lot for a smoke. Two Houston Press reporters are there, observing. Without knowing they're talking to reporters, the agents walk over and ask for rolling papers. When asked what they're doing in town, the agents explain their job and how much they love it. It's a blast, they say. You lie all day to sell subscriptions, and you unwind afterward with some smoke. You tell the customers that you live a few streets over, that you go to the local school and play on the soccer team, that you just sold subscriptions to their neighbor, and the idiots buy it because by now you've got it down to a science. And on to the next town. And the next.
In the eight months the Press investigated door-to-door magazine sales across the country, the industry has seen at least three murders, one rape, two attempted rapes, one stabbing, one attempted murder, one vehicle fatality and one attempted abduction of a 13-year-old girl.
Interviews with former agents reveal a constant party atmosphere where agents have easy access — often thanks to their managers — to drugs. The agents come primarily from two populations: reprobates who need to leave wherever they are fast, and vulnerable kids from unstable families who believe that hopping into a van full of strangers is better than what awaits them at home.
Crystal Mahathy is an example of the latter. In 2000, the 17-year-old crossed paths with a Texas-based magazine crew manager named Rick Senner.
Rick Senner got his start working for Russell Wood, one of the industry's biggest names. Senner started as an agent under Wood, who's based out of the hinterland of Pilot Point, Texas, about 50 miles north of Plano. Senner worked his way up from agent to crew manager, and later left to start his own company. When he's not on the road, Senner is with his wife and daughter at their home in Gainesville, just a few miles from Pilot Point.
Senner's crew was working Mahathy's hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana, when he spotted her in an Arby's and figured she would make a good agent. Senner is six-one, blond, handsome and has the kind of confidence that allowed him to shrug off things like the warrant for his arrest out of Phoenix, where he was busted for weed and was a no-show at court. He offered a way out of Fort Wayne, and a way out of Mahathy's mixed-up family life. But first, because she was under 18, Senner wanted her mother to sign a permission slip. Because her mother is illiterate, Mahathy got an older cousin to sign for it instead. With that taken care of, she was able to hit the road. She made money for Senner, who made money for his boss, who in turn made money for major-league publishers.
Like many agents, the teenage Mahathy didn't know what she was getting herself into and how hard it was going to be to get herself out of it. Senner and his colleagues have a great sales pitch, and truth doesn't always close the deal.
Agents are often driven across the country by managers whose driver's licenses have been suspended or revoked. And while the industry's trade group says it encourages member companies to conduct background checks, the crews are overflowing with agents with open warrants, extensive criminal histories and probation terms that prohibit them from leaving their home state. Since its inception in 1987, the National Field Selling Association has not only done nothing to clean up the crews, it has lobbied against proposed legislation that would implement the most basic of safety regulations and prohibit the hiring of underage employees.
While mainstream publishers and their trade group, the Magazine Publishers Association, say door-to-door sales account for a minuscule percentage of annual sales, this seemingly small percentage still translates into millions. It's profitable enough to publishers like Condé Nast, Reader's Digest and others that they still consider door-to-door sales a worthwhile venture in the 21st century. And without publishers' participation, the industry would cease to exist. Which means, quite simply, that publishers have decided the collateral damage is worth the boost in circulation.
The following is a story of that collateral damage — of murder, rape, assault, overdoses and scamming — and the business decisions and lack of legislation that make it possible.
In February 2000, Rick Senner, Crystal Mahathy and the rest of Senner's crew hit a rave party in Oakhurst, California, where they recruited an 18-year-old girl named Mandy Nixon.
When Nixon told her parents she wanted to drive around the country with Senner's crew, they were concerned. Nixon was a bit of a rebellious spirit. As a minor, she had trouble with drugs and alcohol and wound up on juvenile probation for a while. But Crystal Mahathy, who had turned 18 on the road, told the Nixons she'd look out for their daughter.
But a day or so after Nixon left, her parents read about the history of complaints online about All-Star Promotions, Senner's employer, and they grew concerned. They called Senner a few times to have him drop off their daughter wherever they were so they could bring her back home. But he ignored the calls. Deciding they needed more muscle, they had Nixon's former probation officer call Senner and tell him he had better get Nixon off his crew, so he dropped her off by a motel outside Medford, Oregon.
Although Mahathy said she'd look out for Nixon, Mahathy was having her own regrets about joining Senner Sales. She had called her Aunt Patsy a few times from the road, saying she wasn't getting the money she was promised, and she wasn't eating regularly. She wanted to come home. But Patsy never seemed to have the money for a Greyhound ticket.
On February 4, around the time Senner dropped Mandy Nixon off in Medford, Mahathy called Aunt Patsy from a pay phone outside a Wal-Mart. It had been a really long day; she hadn't made enough sales, and she felt really pressured. That time, Patsy told her to stay put. They'd get her a ticket. But the call was abbreviated; Mahathy had spotted Senner's rented Ford Explorer and she said he'd be mad if he found out she was calling home again. She'd call back later.
The next night, on their way to sell to Joneses in Eureka, California, Senner's crew was stopped by California Highway Patrol officers for driving 30 mph over the speed limit. Apparently unaware that Senner had a warrant for pot possession out of Phoenix, the officers gave him a citation and let him go on his way.
Less than an hour later, near Redding, Senner rounded an especially dangerous stretch of mountain highway running parallel to the Trinity River. With no guardrail, and with terrible visibility at night, the road had seen its share of accidents. Senner lost control of the Explorer and drove off the highway, falling into an embankment 80 feet below.
Passenger Scott Tarwater was ejected into the Trinity River, whose rapids carried him so far away his body wasn't found for three weeks. But a timely burial wasn't a problem for Mahathy's family, because she was right there in the passenger seat. Crushed to death.
Whenever there's a tragedy tied to the industry, whether it be the death of one of the agents or of one of the customers, the industry mouthpieces issue impotent condemnations or reiterate the notion that door-to-door sales are just a sliver of the pie.
The Magazine Publishers of America will give a variation of the following, which is a statement it gave to the Press: "Magazine Publishers of America condemns any door-to-door business that preys on vulnerable individuals or poses a threat to the public. [MPA] has long urged its members to identify any subscriptions coming from these sources and recommends that its members cease doing business with any company that does not fully comply with the law. Our guidelines and relations with subscription agents are clear, and we encourage all our members to follow them."
Which, based on the Press's investigation, previous media stories and industry watchdogs, is complete nonsense. The object is to push subscriptions, and it scarcely matters how.
A customer is a "Jones." A sales pitch is a "spiel," and there are all kinds of spiels — a school-spiel, cancer-spiel, you name it. These lies are known as a dirty canvass, and they're quite successful. Of course, there are natural salespeople who don't have to dirty canvass and can write ten or 12 sales a day, but the agents who can't snow a Jones and who come back empty-handed are known as WABs, weak-ass bitches. A WAB occupies a stratum in the caste system right below circus freak and just above whore. No one wants to be a WAB, so sometimes you have to dirty canvass.
If the MPA is unaware of dirty canvassing, then its only other choice is to somehow believe that door-to-door companies are the country's single-biggest employer of college athletes in the marching band whose parents are dying of cancer and who are competing for a scholarship to study theater in London.
It's easier to understand the continued interest in door-to-door sales once you understand the financials.
Jack Hanrahan, a media consultant with three decades of experience in print advertising, publishes the CircMatters newsletter. He gave us a better understanding of how just a slight bump in circulation can mean serious money.
When magazines decide how much a page of advertising will cost, media buyers convert that into a ratio of cost-per-thousand.
Say the publisher of a magazine with a circulation of 1 million copies prices each page of advertising at $50,000. That's a cost-per-thousand of $50. Say the circulation jumps 50,000, which brings total circulation to 1.05 million. If the publisher keeps the cost-per-thousand at $50, that raises the single advertising page rate to $52,500 ($50 x 1,050).
If the magazine sells 100 pages of advertising per issue, then the total value of the 50,000 jump would be $250,000 per issue. ($2,500 per page x 100 pages). If the magazine runs 24 issues a year, that's 24 x $250,000 — $6 million, from an extra 50,000 copies.
That's enough incentive to keep using sales agents. Of course, publishers don't want to be linked to any of the kids knocking on the doors, so the system has been arranged to keep everyone at arm's length.
It works like this: Agents knocking on doors turn their sales receipts in to their managers, who send them off to clearinghouses. A clearinghouse submits the subscription orders to the publishers, who then mail out the magazines. The clearinghouses choose which traveling sales crew companies to work with; the heads of those companies usually have their managers do the hiring. This arrangement allows the publishers, clearinghouses and road crew company heads to pretend they have nothing to do with the kids pushing the publishers' product.
The real blessing for everyone, though, comes in a labor loophole: Even though a crew's agents ride in the same vehicle, are dropped off in the same neighborhoods, are returned at night to the same hotels and have commissions held by managers who dole out the cash when an agent wants to buy lunch or alcohol or a new pair of shoes, labor laws have allowed company owners to hire their agents as "independent contractors." Since the crews rarely have solicitation permits, if they are arrested for selling without a license or for any other matter, they are instructed to tell authorities they are not in fact employed by the company they're traveling with.
The companies that run the crews primarily hire through newspaper advertisements promising big money and free travel. The ads are generally placed when the crew hits a town; the prospective hires meet a crew manager at a hotel and are usually hired on the spot. Although they're promised about $500 a week, their money goes on "the book," a mysterious ledger kept by crew managers. Often, agents will start out in the red, already owing managers hotel rent money. Managers also dock pay for canceled orders or other so-called infractions.
Agents sell from a "hot-list," laminated brochures of magazine titles, usually provided by clearinghouses, that agents show their Joneses. The agents work on a point system; the hot-lists show the points each agent would get for a particular subscription. For example, a 2006 hot-list from the National Publishers Exchange, one of the country's largest clearinghouses, shows 40 points for Reader's Digest and 80 points for GQ. According to the titles on the hot-list, the agents were selling for — and NPE was clearing orders for — Condé Nast, Disney Publishing, Meredith and others. (While the list also includes titles from Hearst, a company spokesman told the Press, "A written directive was sent in January 2007, but most clearinghouses were alerted to our policy against accepting orders from door-to-door 'crews' years earlier." A Meredith spokesperson said the company de-authorized door-to-door sales in March 2007.)
Every link in the chain holds the door-to-door sales information close to the vest. Citing proprietary interests, publishers will not disclose their clearinghouses, and clearinghouses will not disclose their contracted magazine crews. Since there are only a handful of major clearinghouses in the country, publishers would have you believe that, after years in the industry, higher-ups are too incompetent to have figured out who their competitors clear through.
National Publishers Exchange was a member of the National Field Selling Association (NFSA), the trade group for door-to-door magazine sales companies. In 2006, the association stopped disclosing its membership, so it's difficult to tell if NPE is still a member.
The NFSA will not say why it decided to keep membership private, but that's not surprising for a trade association that doesn't even have its own office — instead, mail and phone calls are directed to the Philadelphia office of Fernley & Fernley, which prides itself on being "America's First Association Management Company."
And while Ellen Buckley handles preliminary media calls for the NFSA, she doesn't seem to know a whole lot, mostly because she wears a lot of hats. While she may be listed as the "director" of the NFSA, she is also, for example, Administrative Director of the North American Horticultural Supply Association, which means she doesn't just field calls about mag crews, but could probably also help with questions about mixed perennials and potting soil.
So for tough questions, Buckley refers reporters to the NFSA's Washington, D.C., attorney, Dan Smith. Smith has lobbied for the group, most notably in 2000, when legislators proposed the federal Traveling Sales Crew Protection Act. The bill was a response to a 1999 wreck in Wisconsin that killed seven agents and paralyzed another. It occurred when the 20-year-old driver of the van — whose Iowa license had expired and who previously had his Wisconsin driving privileges suspended — saw a police car and panicked. Not wanting to get busted again, he tried to change seats with a passenger while driving 80 miles per hour. The coordination was a bitch. Twelve passengers were ejected. The owner of the company the crew worked for never skipped a beat — she just hired a bunch of new kids and started up under a new name. Smith was the guy who handled the lobbying against the proposed safety act — lobbying that worked.
The bill called for making sure crews stayed in hotels that met certain safety guidelines, and making the companies keep an itinerary of where their crews were at any given time. Such a schedule would have helped when, in Houston in 2005, a sales agent raped a 17-year-old mentally retarded girl who answered the door of the apartment she shared with her mother. To gain her confidence, that agent acted as if he had a disability as well. If the Traveling Sales Crew Protection Act had passed intact, there's a very good chance authorities would be able to find out which crews were operating in Houston on June 5, 2005. As it is, the case remains unsolved.
Although Smith says otherwise, when it comes down to it, the NFSA doesn't appear to do much except hold an annual conference in Illinois where members gather to play golf. Smith says actual work is accomplished at the conference, such as the year a cop talked to company owners about driving safety, and another year when a CPA discussed tax preparation. Smith says he's also given talks about negligent hiring. (After 20 years, the NFSA members are still scratching their heads over this pesky "driving safety" thing. Seven years before the fatal Wisconsin wreck, an agent driving a van with only a learner's permit lost control in Des Moines, Iowa, hit a median, flipped the van and ejected nine passengers. Five were killed, six others injured.) (see "Cataloguing Grief").
In its newsletters, the NFSA is careful not to mention names of the sales agents, particularly those who die on the job. In its fall 1999 newsletter, the first one released after the Wisconsin tragedy, the lead article was the president's message on "Stating the Cause for Utilizing Prepaid Phone Cards in the Field," followed closely by "Small Wonders," a reflection on "the simple discoveries of the century." Sample passage: "Where would we be without the brassiere, first patented in 1914, or the zipper, patented in 1913? Could those inventions be related?" (For the record, the sales agents killed in Wisconsin were Peter Christian, 18; Cory Hanson, 22; Amber Lettman, 16; Crystal McDaniel, 26; Marshall Roberts, 16; Malinda Turvey, 18; and Joseph Wild, 21. Monica Forques, 16, was paralyzed from the waist down).
Of course, it's different if one of their own dies, as in the January 2006 newsletter's tribute to founding member Don Fish: "The next time you pick up a golf club, look up and say, 'Good luck, Don' — he will be playing with the greats of the game." (The NFSA named its annual golf tournament after Fish, who had the opportunity to die at age 74).
Smith talks in a sort of aw-shucks manner that would have you believe he wishes the NFSA could do more to ensure the safety of its agents and the Joneses they solicit. But don't think the trade group is just giving up — after 20 years of existence, the NFSA is toying with the radical notion of mandatory background checks. The bitch is, the NFSA has to be really careful about violating antitrust laws that limit the rules trade groups place on their members. So Smith says the NFSA probably has to stop just short of forcing members to conduct background checks.
"We can mandate that in order to be a member you must agree to do background checks," he says, adding that the NFSA would have no way of confirming if any of the companies ever did the checks.
"We can't force proof," Smith says. "The name of the game is, we're a trade association...the key is, you can't tell people how to run their business."
Furthermore, Smith was at a loss as to how someone might be able to confirm a company did the checks in the first place.
Citing privacy laws, he says, "You can't conduct background checks and send copies to a trade association to show you did it," apparently unaware of the fact that one of the NFSA's board members runs a service that audits companies' criminal background checks.
"The name of the game is whoever's doing the recruiting has got to run the background check," Smith says. "They've got to determine from what they see whether or not to put this guy out there or not. Now if they do it and screw up, then shame on them, but I'll find out after the fact, just like you do. Now can I do anything about it? The worst thing, the toughest thing I can do is to terminate their membership. I wish there was something else I could do, to be brutally frank, but there isn't any."
But if Smith has the power to jettison any owner who gets caught not running checks, he apparently hasn't been introduced to the NFSA's president, Vinnie Pitts. In 2000, after one of Pitts's agents murdered a woman in New York, the woman's family sued Pitts, who eventually settled for $1 million. The woman's sisters told local papers that they believed Pitts would now conduct background checks for sure. But in 2005, another of Pitts's agents — who was on probation for felony burglary out of Minnesota and was not supposed to leave the state — raped and beat a woman in Wisconsin (see "Sales Force").
Back in the Houston Ramada, 79-year-old Diane Tork is in Room 301, smoking 100s, punching numbers into her calculator, taking calls on her pink cell and sifting through names and numbers of potential hires. Age has been kind to her body, but not so much her mind.
She'll get confused and send wrong birthdates back to the home office for criminal background checks, but of course it doesn't really matter anyway, because the checks are worthless. Only a formality. The kind of checks where you really don't want to find anything.
Tork says she started in the business on December 21, 1945, when she was 16. She eventually ran her own company, then took over for a company out of Spring when that owner died in the early 1990s. She worked alongside her now ex-husband, John Tork, who is 20 years her junior.
John Tork also had his own company, the Houston-based Tork & Associates. In 1992, the Federal Trade Commission sued Tork's company for violating the "cooling-off" period, which allows customers three days to cancel an order. After Tork failed to respond to the suit, a federal judge fined his company $50,000. A year later, Tork was convicted of larceny and sentenced to three years and six months in a Texas prison.
Diane says she and John, who share a home in Atlanta, Georgia, are semiretired. John has long suffered type 2 diabetes, and recently had a foot amputated. Diane has been off the road for a long time and only pops into hotels to check on things once the crews are about to hop.
Her company is called Prestige, which clears orders through a Phoenix clearinghouse owned by the late Robert Spruiell (see "Upper Management"). Joining Prestige on this hop are at least two other companies — it's not uncommon for supposedly distinct companies to travel together. And it's not uncommon for these groups to say they have no idea what the other is up to, which is what Diane Tork tells the Press.
She can't speak for Team-XTreme, which is run by a guy named James Scribner, who was described as an alcoholic by every ex-agent who spoke to the Press about him. Diane Tork doesn't disagree with that characterization, saying, "He's a drunk. I've heard that he will take his clothes off and run around the hotel naked — never around me." ("Scribs," as he's known, is just one of the industry's many middle-aged men whose jobs require them to travel around the country in vans loaded with women in their late teens and early twenties, something that apparently creeps out no one in publishing. A few former agents accused Scribs of getting a tad too friendly with them when he was on a binge. One former agent said, "If you're 18 years old, he wants to fuck you. He's a dirty, nasty old man. I do not like that guy.")
Diane says she runs a tight ship: Her agents aren't allowed to bring alcohol inside the hotel. She also says her agents are periodically drug-tested. And if she hears any of them are using a dirty canvass, they're out. She says she's had to fire about 15 agents in the past month for failing drug tests and lying to Joneses.
The kids can be a handful. Yet it's precisely these kind of troublemakers that Diane targets, mostly because, according to her story, she's a philanthropist at heart. Sure, she could hire upstanding kids from stable families who are maybe looking for a summer job before going off to Harvard, but that would just be too damn easy. She'd rather take in needy kids and nurture their self-respect by giving them a job and responsibilities.
"Kids today, their parents don't want to talk to them; they throw them out on the streets...sometimes these kids need help," she says.
So she can be stern, but maybe not as much as her ex-husband John, who, she says, is especially hard on the young women in his crew.
"He hates girls," she says. "You know why he hates girls? He thinks they're all sluts. And he gets so mad that girls go around with half of their body hanging out...he doesn't like his guys associating with the girls." (John Tork didn't return numerous voice mails).
But deep down, she says, he's a softie. And neither he nor anyone else in the mag crew business should be painted with the same brush, she says. There are good and bad in every line of work.
It's a sentiment that was echoed by a lot of people contacted for this story. The media always wants to focus on the negative. Why talk about things like agents on probation who beat, rape and kill people when you can talk about kids who are honing valuable job skills?
James Scribner originally agreed to speak with the Press, but ultimately changed his mind, because of his belief that the Press just wanted to focus on the "negative."
Of course, Scribs and Diane Tork have a point. Few media stories describe how fun life on a mag crew can be — if you're not a WAB. First of all (based on what ex-agents told us), there is nearly unlimited access to marijuana, cocaine, pills and meth. It's like an especially fun dormitory on wheels. A lot of these young adults were already using before they joined crew, and find it absolutely wonderful that there are jobs where you can be high all the time, and instead of your boss caring, your boss is getting high with you.
You also get to travel the country, which means you get to experience Ramadas and Holiday Inns from coast-to-coast, as well as seeing the country's beauty from a van window. Plus, you get to knock on doors in exciting tourist destinations like suburban Houston, suburban Phoenix, suburban St. Louis and suburban Minneapolis.
For the guys, there's potential to get laid like crazy. Since crews are constantly picking up new agents, if a guy isn't getting anywhere with the current batch of young women, he just has to wait about 24 hours before the new batch arrives.
For the female agents, there is the promise of finding a boyfriend. A lot of serious relationships start on the road, and many lead to marriage. There are drawbacks, though; the Press spoke with a few female former agents who say their managers coerced them into getting abortions because a pregnant agent can't be walking all that much, and, really, who wants to buy a magazine subscription from a knocked-up 18-year-old? The idea is to appear innocent, not coked-out and with child.
Sure, if sales are bad, you don't always get to eat, and if you complain, managers often remind you of your station in life, and how your own family didn't want you, and besides, what the hell else are you going to do with your life? The agents who do manage to leave often come back because the lifestyle has gotten in their blood.
An agent named Jenn (she asked that her last name not be used) told the Press about returning to her crew, even though she knew it was bad for her. Jenn was hired in 2006, when she was 22 and hiding from her abusive boyfriend in a North Carolina women's shelter. Traveling around in a van seemed like a nice change of pace, so she answered an ad in the paper for Sunshine Subscription Agency, and met up with the crew manager, a 34-year-old guy who had served time in a Florida prison for burglary. She left with him that day.
She enjoyed the constant partying but had disagreements with the company owner (Vinnie Pitts, the current president of the NFSA), so she left after only a few months. But when she got home, she was freaked out by how quiet and slow things were. Her thumbtack habit grew worse — on the road, she would steal thumbtacks from bulletin boards and poke herself. She didn't know why. Once home, though, she was driving the suckers all the way in.
"I had not been alone for two months," Jenn told the Press. "I was so used to — no matter where I was, whether I was going to the bathroom, whether I was walking to the ice machine, I was never alone. And then all of a sudden, I was."
She added, "Physically, I couldn't be still, because my body was used to walking miles and miles a day, that if I didn't walk anywhere in one day, I would have these muscle spasms all over my body. And so I would walk for hours."
So she went back to the crew and got what she needed; the excitement, the friends, the exercise, the drugs. All fun things. Which goes to show that there is a positive side to this story.
A year after the Wisconsin wreck, that state's governor, Jim Doyle, sent letters to the publishers of the magazines sold by the crew.
In his letter to Condé Nast, specifically citing the magazine Allure, Doyle wrote, "Our complaints document a pattern and practice of illegal conduct and deception in the marketing of your magazine. Unfortunately, last year's accident in Wisconsin was not an isolated incident. Other young people and adults have been killed in other states while working for itinerant sales crews. Young people are recruited to sell your publication with promises of extensive travel, wealth and college scholarships. Once employed, they are treated like animals."
He then laid the final responsibility at the feet of Condé Nast: "As a major publisher, you have the ultimate responsibility for the way your magazine reaches the public. You also control the purse strings because you pay these companies for obtaining new subscriptions. Clearly, you are in the best position to ensure that these companies obey the law and do not risk the lives of the children representing your product."
To date, Doyle appears to be the only politician who has called the publishers on their complicity in the door-to-door trade. However, it appears his words didn't quite sink in.
Two months after his letter to Condé Nast, he got a response not from the publisher, but from a lawyer for the Magazine Publishers Association, displaying that organization's uncanny ability to speak out of both sides of its mouth.
Attorney John Hadlock wrote that, to the best of his knowledge, the company running the crew in the Wisconsin wreck was not authorized by the publishers or the clearinghouse the company used. (This, of course, is an unverifiable statement, since all of the information is closely guarded).
Hadlock continued: "...And substantially, all of MPA's member publishers have taken steps to disassociate themselves and their magazines from road crew agents known to have acted unethically...."
And then, "The publishers would like to work with state and federal regulators to have a central clearinghouse of agents that are believed to be unethical or that violate the law. For antitrust reasons, MPA has been unable to create such a list for fear that that would be deemed an unlawful boycott."
A careful rereading of those passages presents a paradox: How were MPA's members able to "disassociate" from agents "believed to be unethical," unless they knew which agents had bad records and which were kosher? Presumably, one would have to work from a list in order to make disassociation possible.
Yet, "MPA has been unable to create such a list" for fear of inviting accusations of antitrust violations. So which is it? Either there is a list or not. Apparently, the likes of Condé Nast are afraid of being sued by people like Rick Senner and Vinnie Pitts, which would indicate that Condé Nast doesn't have much in its budget for hiring decent attorneys.
Hadlock ultimately blamed these unfortunate situations on the industry's bogeymen, the nefarious bunch of unauthorized sellers known as "rogue agents."
"Magazine publishers see such unethical agents as a serious problem," Hadlock wrote. "Agents of that type are quick to disappear when they are under scrutiny, only to reappear later under a different name and at a different location."
Although Hadlock's letter acknowledged the Wisconsin wreck, the MPA never issued a public statement on the tragedy. It was a sensitive time for them — it was the same year the association got a new president, Nina Link, who came to the MPA from the Children's Television Workshop, where she was, among other things, a producer of Sesame Street.
Nine months after the Wisconsin tragedy, Link was interviewed by Folio, a magazine geared toward people in publishing.
The interviewer asked Link, "In television reports about the accident, the MPA refused to comment. Was that the right decision?"
"I don't know," Link is quoted as saying. "People here are so thoughtful, and that decision was made with a lot of consideration."
The interviewer tried again: "Would you refuse to comment?"
Link said, "I'd have to be in the situation. If I felt it wasn't in the best interest of magazines, then no."
A few questions later, the interviewer asked, "Should publishers be more aggressive in self-policing efforts?"
Link's answer: "We have some 'best practices,' and again, we have established guidelines. I think many members have been good about following those guidelines, but there are probably a few that haven't."
The thing is, neither Hadlock's letter to the governor, nor Link's position that publishers take the MPA guidelines seriously, appears to hold up under scrutiny.
At the time of Crystal Mahathy's death — 11 months after the Wisconsin wreck — she was working from a hot-list provided by National Publishers Exchange, one of the country's biggest clearinghouses, which cleared major magazines like Time, Rolling Stone and US News & World Report. Yet NPE did not sever ties with Senner after the wreck. He served six months in jail and was back on the road, still using NPE's hot-lists.
After the families of Crystal Mahathy and Scott Tarwater sued Rick Senner, Russell Wood and All-Star Promotions (the case was settled for an undisclosed amount), Senner split from All-Star and joined a company called Entrepreneurs Across America. (Mahathy's and Tarwater's families also sued Firestone Tires, which in 2000 had recalled a massive number of defective tires, many of which were fitted onto Ford Explorers, one of which Senner was driving. Firestone settled with the families for an undisclosed amount).
Entrepreneurs Across America also used hot-lists from NPE, which featured titles like Reader's Digest, Maxim, Forbes and Elle. And these titles were hawked by top-tier individuals like Jacob Kanupp, who, according to internal documents from EAA, was a top seller when he joined in 2005. At the time, the 23-year-old Kanupp had a warrant out for his arrest and had racked up charges (if not outright convictions) for possession of cocaine, assault with a deadly weapon, carrying a concealed weapon, felony possession of marijuana, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, credit card fraud, driving without a license, DWI, defrauding an innkeeper, drunk and disorderly conduct, and, oh, littering.
Representatives at the National Publishers Exchange ignored calls from the Press for weeks. It wasn't until we left a voice mail saying we had confirmation that NPE had subcontracted with All-Star Promotions and Entrepreneurs Across America that we got a call back. That was from a woman named Elaine Scanlon, who would only say that they do not disclose which road crew companies they work with.
A TV Guide representative was the only person who would admit to a relationship with National Publishers Exchange, and that was only because, according to the representative, TV Guide dropped NPE — and all door-to-door sales — in 2007.
A representative for US News & World Report stated in an e-mail, "...since U.S. News is a privately held company, we do not disclose individual vendor sales information."
Ellen Morgenstern of Reader's Digest also sent an e-mail, stating, "the vast majority of Reader's Digest subscriptions come from direct mail efforts, partnerships, and via the Internet. A very small percentage come from authorized subscription agents that comply with industry guidelines and practices."
Beth Jacobson of Wenner Media, which publishes Rolling Stone, seemed confused when told that the Press was looking into door-to-door sales agents. "Wenner media doesn't directly retain those companies," she said, which is precisely the point.
The Web site for the Pilot Point-based Direct Subscription Services includes Rolling Stone on its list of available titles. But it's much better for Wenner Media never to step into the same room with a top-selling DSS agent like Tim Heinecke, who joined the company after skipping out on probation for beating his three-year-old daughter.
Who wants to be publicly associated with that guy?
In her short time on the road for Senner Sales, Crystal Mahathy got to meet all kinds of people.
The thing about a Jones is, you never know what you're going to get. Some male Joneses will buy any crappy magazine from an agent showing enough cleavage. Some will invite you in for a joint. Some will slam the door in your face or sic their dog on you.
Mahathy was so young and unassuming that she seemed to invite sympathy from her Joneses. A woman in Rio Dell, California, invited Mahathy in for some food and a rest. She wound up talking to Mahathy for two hours. She felt so bad about taking up Mahathy's time that she bought a subscription to Rolling Stone.
Before Mahathy went on to the next Jones, the woman made sure to get her address. Mahathy gave her the address to her aunt Shirley's house.
The following Christmas, Shirley Mahathy opened her mailbox and found a card from Rio Dell, addressed to Crystal. Shirley opened the envelope to find a Christmas card — a red background with pictures of little toys scattered about, and a bed with three sleeping tots.
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Inscribed in the card was a message from the woman who had sat and talked with Mahathy months earlier.
"Hey little one," it read, "...please send a note and let us know you are safe and home."
Of course, the woman never got a note. By that time, Crystal Mahathy was ten months dead.