SAN DIEGO’S MOST VISIBLE CONSUMER ADVOCATE, Marti Emerald has been a fixture on local television and radio for 25 years. She began her broadcast career in 1978 in Washington, D.C., as a reporter for Associated Press Radio and in 1985 joined San Diego’s KGTV Channel 10, where she launched her popular Troubleshooter reports. In addition to a host of professional honors——including one from the National Press Club for best consumer reporting in the United States——she’s won dozens of awards for community service. Emerald lives in Tierrasanta with her husband, Michael Klarfeld, and 13-year-old daughter, Chloe.
TOM BLAIR: You’re a wife, a mother, an award-winning investigative reporter and a public speaker. Are you still a part-time jazz singer, too?
MARTI EMERALD: Haven’t done it in a long time, but who knows when a gig will pop up?
TB: And now you’ve just finished your bachelor’s degree; and you’re about to start law school. How are you going to juggle all this?
ME: I don’t know. I guess you just put your head down and put one foot in front of the other. The time’s going to go by anyway, so I may as well make good use of it. And I do want to get a better education.
TB: You got your undergraduate degree in what?
ME: It was a B.S. in liberal studies—and don’t read anything into that.
TB: Well, the B.S. part does come in handy in journalism.
ME: I went to National University and —can I brag?—I graduated magna cum laude. In fact, they crowned me one of their distinguished alum in a nice ceremony. It was encouraging for me with this new step ahead.
TB: Where will you be going to law school?
ME: Thomas Jefferson.
TB: And continue full-time at the TV station?
TB: You married an attorney a couple of years ago.
ME: Michael Klarfeld. He’s an amazing man. We’re celebrating our fifth wedding anniversary. And he has been my rock.
TB: It has to be helpful in your work to have an attorney at home. Does he ever give you advice?
ME: When does he not? But yes, absolutely, the discussions around our house are very interesting. We met when I was doing a story about a consumer issue. He helped write the law that took expiration dates off gift certificates in California. He sued dozens of major national retailers. Some friends were the lead plaintiffs. And he won the suit. Then he went to his assemblyman at the time, Jan Goldsmith, and said there ought to be a law. And so the two of them sat down and wrote it, and it passed unanimously.
TB: So you met him because of that case?
ME: Yes; I did a story on him. And then a few years later, we met again, when I was reporting on one of his clients who was rolling odometers.
TB: How romantic.
ME: Well, the upshot is that he fired himself from the case and took me to lunch. But he’s been a great adviser. He’s been a lawyer for 51 years; he was admitted to the bar in Massachusetts three months before I was born.
TB: Let’s talk about some of the cases you’ve investigated. Does one stand out as the weirdest call for help you’ve ever received?
ME: Yes. It was a story we called “Dr. Lipo.” It involved a plastic surgeon who was practicing in La Jolla. The call I got was from a woman who was in tears, hysterical, and said, “Nobody will listen to me when I tell them the waiter did my liposuction!”
ME: That was my response. But instead of recommending mental health counseling, I asked her for documents—something to prove the waiter did the liposuction. And she sent me a pile of stuff. It turned out her plastic surgeon, after he put her under, brought in a friend of his—a waiter, who worked in the Gaslamp Quarter—and let him do the lipo. And he botched the job; destroyed her bladder. The plastic surgeon ultimately lost his medical license.
TB: That’s weird, certainly. How about most rewarding?
ME: Pam Lee. This was a call we got from a homeless woman who was living at St. Vincent de Paul Center. She had four sons. She said, “I have four children, and I’m dying of breast cancer. I need to find the birth mother who gave me up when I was born, to see if she might be willing to raise my children.” How could you say no to that? So we called a private eye we’d worked with a number of times . . . and he found her within 24 hours.
TB: Was the birth mother willing to be reunited with her daughter?
ME: She told us she had recently been praying that one day she would meet the child she gave up for adoption. She lived in Dallas; didn’t have the money for airfare. Southwest Airlines donated tickets to bring Pam’s mother to San Diego for the reunion. And three months after the reunion, Pam passed away.
TB: Did her mother take the boys?
ME: I think they found the father, who had been floating around. And I believe he took two of the boys, and the grandmother took two. So Pam got her wish. It doesn’t get much more rewarding than that.
TB: Thirty-five years ago, newspapers popularized the so-called “Help Line” columns, but they died out after a few years. You’ve managed to do the same sort of investigative consumer pieces, and you’ve had a 20-year run. Do you see it going on forever?
ME: It’s a big expense for any news operation to devote the people needed to answer the phones and letters and do the research. And I do think the consumer segment is an endangered species, for two reasons: It’s expensive to maintain a unit like this, and quite frankly, sometimes the subject of the investigation is an advertiser. The fight for advertising in our industry is fierce. It’s a very tough road for television news these days.
TB: But your segments continue to be popular. How many requests do you get for help from the Troubleshooter in a typical month?
ME: Well, we don’t have just the Troubleshooter segment anymore; that went away a couple of years ago, when we were rolled into a new investigative unit. Tom Jensen is our investigative reporter following government malfeasance, following paper trails. And I continue to focus on consumer issues. And we have a producer, Kristen Castillo, who oversees what’s happening with the Troubleshooter line—the letters that come in.
TB: But requests for help haven’t changed.
ME: It’s probably about a thousand a month, with e-mails, calls and letters combined.
TB: We hear more and more about seniors being victims of these con artists. Are they particularly vulnerable to scams?
ME: There are a few factors working against senior citizens. One, the cons know where the money is. You’re not going to find them trying to set up an 18-year-old. And they know senior citizens who rely on dividend checks aren’t making as much from their investments anymore.
TB: Is their generation maybe more trustful, too?
ME: In some respects. It used to be that a handshake sealed a deal. But these days, even if you sign all the documents and they’re all checked by your lawyer, there are still some folks who won’t follow their obligations. In Orange County, Jim Lewis was just sentenced to many years in federal prison. We reported on him about two years ago, on how he’d perpetrated a Ponzi scheme —kept it afloat for 20 years and bilked investors out of about $156 million. It had all the trappings of a legitimate investment vehicle. But when the rubber met the road, he couldn’t give people their money back. A lot of seniors put all of their retirement savings into his hands, and he never invested them in the market. He just lived a very good life.
TB: I suppose some of us may look at these victims and think they should have known better. Are you ever surprised at the gullibility of some of these people? Do you ever think, “How stupid can these people be?”
ME: I do. But then, after I get that feeling—I put it away. I stick it in a drawer. Because I know anyone can be taken. And when you look at the cost of living here— especially in the past 10 years—and senior citizens living on a fixed income, with only their pension checks coming in, you understand better. They think, “Wouldn’t it be nice to make it go a little further?” And so many people wind up being duped by their own gullibility, their goodness and, people say, even their greed. The three Gs. Those will get you every time.
TB: Did anyone ever try to get even with you for one of your reports? Have you been sued?
ME: You know, I shouldn’t say it out loud; it might change things. The answer is no. But there are people who’ve written letters of intent to sue.
TB: Canceled advertising?
ME: Oh, boy. The word “haggle” comes to mind. About 15 years ago, the New Car Dealers Association didn’t like our use of the word “haggle” in a story we did. And so they came to our general manager, Ed Quinn, and said, “Here are the kinds of stories you need to be doing about car dealers—not this stuff that makes us look bad.” And Ed said, “Nobody tells me what kind of stories to put on this station.” And so they pulled one and a half million dollars of advertising. And it lasted almost a year.
TB: A power play.
ME: They are very powerful. The biggest threat we got about pulling advertising goes back to the late 1980s. There was a diet clinic with a very buxom nurse who appeared in the ads, saying, “You’ll never be fat again.” They spent millions of dollars in the local market, including ads on Channel 10. Only it was a scam. Everyone who went to the clinic was diagnosed with a thyroid problem and prescribed a very powerful drug. And it was making people sick. We got a lead on that when a woman called and said she had some kidney problems because of some medicine she was taking—the secret ingredient for this diet. So we went asking questions, and we found that the guy running the clinic was a convicted pimp out of Texas.
TB: I take it no medical degree.
ME: No medical degree. He had done two turns in the Texas penal system, and he had made a lot of money running girls—including his wife. He had to launder the money somehow. So he laundered it through snow-cone stands in Houston, through hair-rejuvenation creams, and then he created this medical clinic—all to launder his prostitution money.
TB: And then he made more money on that.
ME: Tons of money—more than he ever made running prostitutes.
TB: And you busted this guy?
ME: Busted him wide open. But here’s the irony: We finish airing this big investigative story—just blew him out of the water—and we go to a commercial. And the first commercial is for his medical clinic. So we had to go to management and plead a case, because these guys were big advertisers. Channel 10 took the high road; agreed to pull the advertising. And then we went to all the other media in town, including the newspaper, and said. “You need to know about these guys.” And none of them pulled the ads. You want the epilogue?
TB: Of course.
ME: He didn’t pay any of his advertising bills. A lot of media organizations in this town got hung with uncollectible debt.