The boss of the Harris County sheriff's consumer fraud division is a walking example of deceptive advertising. A silver-gray toupee gives the appearance of a full head of carefully styled hair. Two nose operations and a chin job have substantially altered facial features that their owner considered too Jewish. The son of a millionaire merchant and land owner, he parks his sheriff's car in bus zones because his county salary is not large enough to pay parking lot fees.
Deputy Sheriff Marvin Harold Zindler is a hard man to pin down, not only because his considerable energy keeps him moving all over the county, as well as to Austin and Washington and other power centers where consumers have managed to draw the attention of politicians, but also because his complex personality defies neat classification.
His supporters, including the seemingly endless stream of complainants who daily line the benches outside his office, would tell the world Zindler is their only hope in an apparently deaf and powerless arena of local officials. His detractors, including some of the merchants whose pocketbooks and reputations have been crimped by Zindler, maintain he is a raving ogre, verging on paranoia, totally self-seeking and an egomaniac besides.
Such polarities are inspired by a man as colorful and unpredictable as a pinball machine, a man driven to equal heights of pique and rage by a roofer defrauding a widow of her life savings or a drug store not stocking candy bars it advertised. A man who carries a pistol and handcuffs to address a Sunday afternoon meeting of old folks at the Jewish Community Center.
Since he began his consumer operation in October, 1971, Zindler has brought the weight of criminal sanctions against store owners, repairmen, pyramid club operations, building contractors and others whose disputes with customers formerly were settled in the civil courts, if at all. He has shown little favoritism in targets for his criminal charges. Defendants range from the advertising director of Foley's, Houston's largest department store, to gypsy palm readers to bookies said to be welching on bets.
His tools are existing state laws, most on the books for years but seldom used in consumer cases, and an uncanny flair for publicity. Both are equally important in his work. The criminal charges he lodges include deceptive advertising, a misdemeanor, and theft by bailee, a felony. He has lost count of the number of formal complaints filed, but they probably approach a thousand.
This record is no small accomplishment for a man crammed into a small suite of offices off a stairwell on the seventh floor of the Houston Criminal Courts Building and operating with a staff that includes one other deputy, two secretaries and an assistant district attorney assigned to screen the criminal charges.
The results of all this fire and smoke so far are hard to measure. Consumerism is necessarily plagued to a certain extent by P. T. Barnum's Law (There's a sucker born every minute): For every shady operator shut down, at least two will probably take his place and find willing customers. But at least citizens of Houston and its environs are learning that in Zindler they have an ally.
And they flock to him with continual tales of outrage, despair and woe: complainants in business suits from downtown office buildings, housewives in curlers and slippers, blacks and chicanos in worn garb. They sit on an old wooden bench, perhaps discarded from a courtroom or church sanctuary, grumbling, sharing stories of what they consider to be wrongdoing at the hands of the commercial sector.
One man says he had to pay almost twice the agreed figure to get his car back from a repair shop. "The manager just laughed at me. Maybe Mr. Zindler can help me." A young, attractive housewife contracted to have a new roof put on her house. The contractor did one day's work and never came back, even though she had already paid him half the price. She can't afford a lawyer and figures the consumer fraud division offers a way out of her jam.
They wait—as many as 80 a day—in a narrow, dark, noisy corridor. Once inside the office, the din does not noticeably subside. The phone complaints are if anything more numerous than the ones made in person. Callers are frequently greeted with, "Consumer fraud division. Can you hold, please?" Jerry-built walls provide cubicles for Zindler, the secretaries and Deputy E. L. Adams and Assistant District Attorney Neal Duval, who interview the great majority of complaints.
Zindler is out of his office as much as he is in—making speeches, arresting persons charged by his division, visiting the press room in the courthouse, filing charges in a justice of the peace office. Adams, a remarkably calm and good-humored man, grouses occasionally about Zindler's absenteeism, complaining that if the boss talked to more people, the lines wouldn't be so long. Zindler himself complains that his staff and office space aren't big enough. "They put me in an office next door to the men's room" he says.
Not all complaints, of course, result in criminal charges. Some problems are resolved over the telephone. Some persons are referred to other offices, such as the small claims courts. Filing a criminal charge does not guarantee any specific results. A lot of Zindler's charges have been tossed out by justices of the peace, who say that the matters are civil in nature or that no one was hurt by the transaction. Defendants, however, have learned they cannot rest easy after a justice of the peace dismissed the charges.
In one such case Zindler charged the owner of a car repair firm with theft by bailee after a customer complained he had been unable to get his car back from the company, even though he had offered to pay the repair bill, because the company wanted him to sign a statement that he had inspected all the parts installed in his car. He refused to sign the statement.