I reviewed a total of about 20 complaints about my online material. None of these complaints involved tax publications. None were connected to offline activity. None of the complaints resulted in any finding of wrongdoing. I see no other pattern.
If I count the work I did as a teenager raising sweet corn and bailing hay, I’ve now been in the work force for more than 40 years. During that time, I’ve never received a formal work complaint of any kind from anyone about anything. In contrast, in the past 20 years online, I’ve drawn more than 20 formal complaints with law enforcement agencies! What’s going on here? What triggers this wave of online complaints? After receiving notice of the most recent complaint on Friday afternoon (based on misinterpretation of a Facebook post), I’ve taken some time this weekend to reflect on the topic.
The three things that all of these complaints have in common are: 1) the trigger event was an online publication, 2) I did nothing wrong, and 3) no adverse action was taken in any case.
I wonder why have I had to deal with so many complaints. I don’t know anyone else who has had nearly as many government complaints do deal with. A recount of the complaints seems like a good place to start. I’ve written about some of them before. They are listed here roughly in chronological order:
Numerous complaints, probably 5 to 10 counts, by state insurance departments about health benefits and insurance articles that I wrote before the Affordable Care Act. These articles were written for or sold to a third party publisher. The concern was that the articles were not accurate after the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Regulators took offense of the “false information” being disseminated that was marked “by Tony Novak”. The problem was that I sold the articles when the information was valid. In total, by 2010 I had more than a thousand articles published online that I did not control. I did not own the content now and I did not influence the editorial policies of the web sites that owned and published the content. In each case it seemed that the government curmudgeon eventually realized that it was pointless to continue to harass me.
One case of misinterpretation of new health care law – One complaint involved an interview I did for Yahoo Finance and resulted in the Better Business Bureau temporarily withdrawing my A+ rating. The underlying issue was that someone at the BBB who was not an expert in ACA made an incorrect interpretation that something my company was doing was wrong. They dropped the complaint but never apologized. I dropped my BBB membership over the incident.
3 to 5 cases of mistaken identity where people just took my name or trademark (or a name that was similar to mine or my trademark) and attached it to a complaint. In one case I even cooperated with an FBI investigation to clarify that a fraud being conducted had nothing to do with me or my business. In each case I had to deal with law enforcement or a lawyer to show that is isn’t about me. I learned that in some cases the investigator used the information I provided, added it to their case file, and used it as evidence against me. I learned my lesson to not provide them with more information. This is frustrating but I suppose there is no way to control this risk.
Two complaints by State Boards of Accountancy. I’ve received complaints by both New Jersey Board of Certified Public Accountants and Pennsylvania Boards of Accountancy about state licensing requirements based on an address printed on a web page that was not my work address related to the practice of accounting. The basis of the complaint was that I was “advertising accounting services” from my home or marina address. That was not the intent of publishing my home address or the marina address. Both complaints were investigated and closed with no further action.
Two complaints by the City of Philadelphia for failure to file city tax returns based on LinkedIn and Google business profile pages that listed me as working in the “Greater Philadelphia region”. But the fact is that I did not publish that wording (apparently the sites develop regional information based on actual address outside the city) and I have never worked in, had an address in, or had an obligation to file a Philadelphia tax return. Again, the complaints were dismissed.
Four complaints about my work at Money Island, NJ based on Facebook posts. I am unaware of whether the complaint source is neighbors or online government trolls. All complaints were investigated and dismissed.
Online photographs were misused. I’m aware that New Jersey state government has used my published photographs in a false and inappropriate way as evidence in another another unrelated legal matter. That is wrong but there is little I can do about it.
Two complaints by a HR person at the Pennsylvania Utilities Commission (PUC). The HR representative did not understand that pre-programmed social media posting programs (I used Tweet Deck at that time) allowed me to post during work hours automatically; that did not mean that I was posting all day while “on the clock” at PUC. That complaint was dismissed and probably embarrassed the official for her lack of internet savvy. The second complaint she brought a few months later involved an online webinar on the Affordable Care Act that was promoted by the New Jersey Society of Certified Public Accountants that I gave to peer members during a day off from my work for the PUC. It was not a paid “outside employment” that would have required pre-approval but rather just a peer-to-peer educational program that did not require pre-approval from the employer. The HR department even had an investigator sit in as a troll on the webinar. Again, the complaint was dismissed.
What can I learn from this mis-matched and seemingly unrelated bunch of at least 20 complaints about my online activity? Why does it seem that have I drawn many more online complaints than others in similar positions?
One friend wonders whether my role as a community activist or political critic draws unwanted attention. It’s possible, but I doubt that is the reason. I don’t have any good answers but will continue to remain aware of the situations that can trigger these government complaints.