Holiday Sneer: Do unscrupulous websites and fire-protection districts mess with our happiness quotient?

Holiday Sneer: Do unscrupulous websites and fire-protection districts mess with our happiness quotient?

Where Jackassery Reigns
Kudos to Post-Dispatch reporter Elizabethe Holland. Her repeated, in-depth coverage of the astonishingly corrupt Northeast Ambulance and Fire Protection District is watchdog journalism at its best.

So it was that on November 22 (a Sunday afternoon, no less) Holland once again found herself at the fire district's office for an "emergency meeting" of the board.

Those following the district's scandal thought the meeting would lead to the firing of attorney Elbert Walton Jr. and fire chief Joe Washington (a fat man in sweatpants), who've used the board to pad their pockets with hundreds of thousands of dollars in questionable expenses and payments.

Instead, taxpayers in attendance witnessed another blatant heist — this one in broad daylight — when the board approved $780,000 in severance to make Washington and Walton go away.

It wasn't supposed to go down like this.

On November 19, a St. Louis County judge appointed a new board member, Bridget Quinlisk-Dailey, to the fire district. It was thought that she would shift the balance of power on the three-person board away from Walton and Washington.

Prior to Quinlisk-Dailey's appointment, fellow board member Rhea Willis had stood in opposition to her counterpart, Robert Edwards, a board member aligned with Walton and Washington. But could it be that Willis was really a double agent placed on the board for just such a scenario as what occurred next?

Consider this: Walton and Washington placed Willis on the board on July 7 — four days after the fire district was sued by the attorney general and the state auditor for violating the state Sunshine Law and refusing a subpoena to hand over financial documents. In short, by July 7, Walton and Washington knew the end was near.

So what do they do? They appointed someone who looked like she was going to clean up the board by refusing to march in step with the powers that be.

Then on that sunny Sunday — when Walton and Washington agreed to walk away for a price — Willis rewarded them handsomely. She (along with Robert Edwards) agreed to pay Walton another $190,000 and Washington $450,000 in severance to step down. The same deal also gave another fire-district attorney, Bernard Edwards Jr., $90,000. That's $730,000 — just in severance. Additional expenses raised the total payout to the three men to $780,000.

Willis' change of heart completely flummoxed observers.

"I'm stunned. I don't even know what to say," Quinlisk-Dailey told the Post-Dispatch's Holland.

"Rhea Willis just betrayed the whole community's trust," said state representative Don Calloway (D-Bel-Nor), who was arrested during the meeting and charged with second-degree robbery when he tried to confiscate a checkbook after a fire-district official cut checks to Walton and Washington.

It was Calloway who in October filed a lawsuit to freeze funds for the fire district, hoping to put the kibosh on Walton and Washington's dubious financial practices with fire-district funds.

On November 24, a judge rejected the $780,000 payout.

At Daily RFT, we've always considered Calloway to be a rather levelheaded man, extremely smart and capable. But you know what they say: Get in a pissing match with skunks, and everyone goes away smelling awful.
— Chad Garrison

Raised on Robbery
Congratulations, St. Louis! No fewer than 59 bank robberies have gone down in the area so far this year.

That tops last year's total of 45, but pales in comparison to the 77 heists that local bandits pulled off in 2002 — a banner year., a website rolled out November 30 by the FBI and local law enforcement agencies, delivers the sobering stats straight to your desktop — along with a photographic directory detailing recent stick-ups.

Think of it as a Who's Who in Bank Robbery. Only, you supply the "who" via tips sent electronically (or over the old-fashioned blower).

According to a press release from the local FBI office, the public has helped cops finger bank robbery suspects in Dallas, Little Rock and Chicago, thanks to Bandittracker websites in those areas.

Besides figuring out which bank near you has been jacked lately, you can enjoy the range of get-ups in favor these days.

Panty hose and ski masks appear to have gone the way of the do-do bird. Robbers in St. Louis Cardinals caps are apparently a dime a dozen 'round these parts. Wonder if they'll ever catch the dude with really bad B.O.
—Kristen Hinman

Pocket-Picking Pikers
Do you ever wonder what free (as in free offer) really means? Of course, we all know that when you get an e-mail with a free offer from some company you've never heard of, it's very likely not actually free. That's a given.

But what if the offer came from a company like FTD, Continental Airlines, US Airways, VistaPrint, Orbitz, Priceline or Pizza Hut — you know, good old-fashioned American brand names? You'd be more likely to at least consider a free offer from one of those, right?

Well, according to a U.S. Senate Commerce Committee report released earlier this month, you'd be wrong.  

In the real world, we have laws and regulations to prevent companies from taking your credit-card number and passing it on to third parties that charge you a $10-to-$20-a-month fee to join a club you didn't know you joined. You'd think that most companies would cut it out, in the name of simple honesty and goodwill.

But as we learned from the report, in an environment where regulation is sketchy, many companies — some of them the trusted brands we've already named — are happy to pick your pocket for $10 to $20 a month. All told, the scam netted these firms several billion dollars over the last few years. 

Here's how it worked: The above-mentioned companies and several others partnered with outfits including Vertrue Inc., Webloyalty and Affinion Group to make you a free offer — a coupon or something — after you've made a purchase online. To accept the free offer, all you needed to do was provide an e-mail address. No big deal, right? I mean, you've always been told that if you don't enter a credit-card number, then you can't be charged, right? Wrong!

If you happen to read the fine print on the free offer, you'd see that by entering your e-mail address, you're allowing them to pass on your payment information to another company.

OK, you're probably saying to yourself, "Maybe these trusted companies weren't actually trying to steal from me after all. Maybe they just were mistaken about what these other companies were doing for them." That's where you'd be wrong (again), because these companies are unapologetic about the practice, offering flimsy excuses and explanations —probably because this kind of deceit has become a very profitable sideline. 

Now a word of warning: When you're shopping online this holiday season, be wary of any offers that come to you after you've made a purchase, because apparently many companies aren't to be trusted to not pick your pocket after checkout. 

Here's a list of companies who have participated in the scam and are mentioned in the commerce committee report — just so you know whom not to trust: Inc.

AirTran Holdings Inc. Inc.

Continental Airlines Inc.

FTD Inc.

Fandango Inc.

Hotwire Inc.

Intelius Inc. Inc.

Orbitz Worldwide Inc.

Pizza Hut Inc. Inc.

Redcats USA Inc.

Shutterfly Inc.

US Airways Group Inc.
—Bill Streeter

Misery in Missouri
We have an enduring preoccupation with happiness. It's an American art form. Pollsters are constantly probing our psyches, measuring our mood swings, tracking our present state of contentment.

Interesting, though hardly surprising — as Time magazine's Nancy Gibbs notes in her recent essay "The Happiness Paradox" — is that our general sense of well-being plummets to its lowest depths during recession years — 1973, 1982, 1992 and 2001.

So why, ponders Gibbs, is it that in some ways the current Great Recession, which we continue to plod through, is actually making us feel better?

Writes Gibbs:

"When the markets tanked last fall, happiness did too, and anyone who has lost his or her house, job or health care is probably still in a world of pain. But here's the funny thing: By this past summer, overall well-being was higher than it was in the summer of 2008, before the Apocalypse. In fact, the latest report finds America's cheeriness at an all-time high."

Gibbs postulates that the uptick in peachy optimism has a direct correlation to what she calls "the end of Expectation Inflation." In other words, we seem almost relieved that the bubble has burst, that a chicken need not be in every pot and that, after all, we can get along on less. In short, downsizing can be liberating.

This brings us to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, which was launched in January 2008 and provides a monthly report card on the country's attitudinal health.

The index is broken down by state and congressional district. Utah was the happiest state last month (must be all those merry Mormons), followed by Hawaii, Wyoming and Colorado. West Virginia ranked the most miserable, even glummer than Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio and Arkansas.

Missouri finished a distinctly unhappy 44th — a notch above peevish Indiana and a slot below morose Oklahoma.

As far as the nation's 435 congressional districts go, Missouri's 2nd (containing the west and northerly suburbs of St. Louis) scored a relatively cheery 68th. Not bad at all.

In the 8th district, though, they sure could use some happy-face buttons. That south-central swath of Missouri placed 393rd on the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index — the saddest of any of the state's nine congressional districts.

And the very gloomiest of them all: eastern Kentucky's 5th district.

—Ellis E. Conklin

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