Marvin Zindler, Consumer Lawman
A stylish, self-proclaimed public protector battles deception in business and poor taste in fashion.
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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.
A justice of the peace later dismissed the case, but Duvall presented the matter to a grand jury, which indicted the owner, J. J. Enright of Texas Motor Exchange, on the theft charge. A district court jury, in what Duvall termed the first major court victory in consumer fraud cases in Houston, convicted Enright last November and gave him a five-year probated sentence.
That conviction added to Zindler's stature and respectability around the courthouse, although he shared the limelight with Duvall, who prosecuted the case. Other lawmen, attorneys and reporters who had grown accustomed to seeing Zindler's lawsuits dismissed or who had branded him as an incorrigible publicity hound were forced to revise their estimates. "You can damn sure bet he's got the attention of car repairmen now," was a common reaction to the outcome of the case, which is on appeal.
In a reversal of their usual relationship with Zindler, newsmen sought him out after Enright's conviction. He gave an uncharacteristically modest statement, saying only, "It was a victory for the people." Usually it is Zindler who is looking for reporters, and when he calls, they come running. No other law enforcement official in Houston, probably in Texas, can summon reporters and cameramen on such short notice and with such regularity.
Years spent as a photographer for the now defunct Houston Press and as the public relations director for the sheriff's office have honed his knack for spotting the unusual, comic, and —occasionally—significant story. The only common theme running through stories Zindler gives to the media is Zindler. And he knows that it's not a story unless someone is there to report it. He admits to using the media whenever possible to his own advantage. "I want the public to know I'm here to help them and I want the crooks and cheats to know I'll get them," he says.
He loves to see his name in print and his face on the six o'clock evening news. He subscribes to the theory that no story about him can be a bad story, that any mention of his name, even critically, is good. He carries at all times a list with the phone numbers of local television stations and newspapers.
Recently he alerted the TV stations that he was going to a Walgreen's drug store to arrest the manager for deceptive advertising. Zindler beat the camera crew to the store, and, instead of going ahead with his arrest, wandered around the magazine stand killing time until the newsmen arrived.
Zindler stories have an almost mystical ability to mushroom and generate other Zindler stories. Late last year he charged the sales manager of a large, Florida-based appliance store with deceptive advertising for allegedly failing to provide a customer with a raincheck guaranteed in a newspaper ad. That was the first story. After he filed the charge, Zindler called the manager and asked him to come to the courthouse. The man did, and posted a personal recognizance bond, but Zindler didn't know about it.
A couple of days later, Zindler obtained a warrant for the man's arrest and, with his usual posse of television cameramen, went to the store to pick him up. On seeing evidence that the manager had already posted bond, Zindler backed down. That was the second story.
The store and the manager retaliated by slapping Zindler with a $35,000 lawsuit in federal court, accusing him of hurting the store's trade and slandering its integrity. That was the third story.
Zindler, not to be outdone, generated the fourth story when, on the complaints of two customers, he filed two more charges of deceptive advertising against the store manager.
The fifth, and, at this writing, last story to come out of Zindler vs. the appliance store, occurred when Zindler and the store's general counsel called a press conference to announce that the manager had paid a fine on one of the three charges, Zindler had recommended dismissal of the other two, and the store had dropped its suit against him.
Zindler chose his office as the scene for the press conference, thereby adding considerably to its noise and turmoil level. As two TV cameramen scurried to set up their lights, and two newspaper reporters lounged against the walls, Zindler moved a bemused complainant to another chair so the man wouldn't be in the picture. Then, with lights glaring and microphones in front of him, Zindler and the store's lawyer, looking slightly embarrassed and confused, made their announcements. The whole performance was repeated a few minutes later when a third TV crew arrived. Zindler, always eager to cooperate with any newsman's request, agreed to the instant replay even though the attorney was worried about missing his plane back to Miami.
Almost as an afterthought, Zindler told reporters as they were leaving, "And you can put in your stories that this is not a trade out. If they violate the law, I'll file on 'em again."
Such rebounding and multiplying stories, plus his continual concern with getting his story to the people, have led local reporters to regard Zindler with some suspicion and a little antagonism. Zindler sheds such feelings with ease. "I can't let them bother me," he says. He doesn't carry a grudge and either agrees with criticisms or turns them to his advantage.
During Enright's trial, the defense attorney attacked Zindler for his role in the case. Zindler had taken the witness stand, and, when asked what his job was, had turned toward the jury and proudly said, "I am Harris County's consumer protector." The lawyer, in his closing argument, charged, "When you pull back the curtain there is an individual who is not a consumer protector but is an assistant deputy sheriff who is apparently an egomaniac."
"Hell," Zindler said later, "I would have stipulated to that."
A visit to Zindler's comfortable, middle-class home in suburban southwest Houston provides a trip through long years devoted to collecting the printed name and picture of Marvin Zindler. Rummaging through boxes of clippings, scrapbooks of Houston Press photos, and high school and college yearbooks, Zindler details high points of his life since he was born in the home of A. B. and Udith Zindler in Houston in 1921. The elder Zindler was to make more than $1 million in a clothing store and land dealings and become mayor of the city of Bellaire. Marvin estimates that his share of the family estate, left to him in a trust fund, is worth about $1 million now, depending on the value of the four Zindler stores and land, in which he owns a quarter interest with his three brothers.
His 12-year-old house belies any connection with great wealth. It is roomy and tastefully furnished in Middle-American, but it is a tract house, much like one an advertising manager or car repair company owner or roofing contractor might buy. This particular evening Zindler is at home with his wife, Gertrude, Marvin Jr., one of his five children, and Marvin Jr.'s wife, Carmen. "It is a close family," Zindler says. His daughter-in-law echoes the sentiment. Even though she and Marvin Jr. have their own apartment, they visit at Zindler's "almost every day."
The family is sitting in the den, watching an old Roman gladiator movie on the color TV. Zindler has just returned from making a Sunday afternoon speech—he averages about one a day—and launches into tales about his career. The other family members listen patiently and attentively, contributing details that he leaves out. They seem to enjoy the stories of his exploits, even though they've undoubtedly heard them many times before. Toward the end of the evening, as Zindler searches diligently for a picture from an earlier time, before his facial operations, Marvin Jr. says, "Most people just walk out the front door on him when he starts going through the clippings and photographs. He's like a man with a million slides of the Colorado River."
The clippings at times do seem to be endless. He first hit the papers when he won a national twirling contest in high school. He was in the band, he says, playing the flute and piccolo because they weren't so hard to carry as bigger instruments, when the band director told him to start learning to be a drum major.
He spent a year at Tarleton State College then came home when World War II got underway, went to work buying men's clothes in his father's store, and in 1942 married Gertrude, his high school sweetheart, in the Plaza Hotel. "She was Methodist and I was Jewish, so we had to get married in a hotel."
He joined the Marines but lasted only a month before they booted him out for flat feet. "That should give you an idea how I got started being a cop." Then, "because everyone else was in the Army," a radio station whose owner knew Zindler through his father, invited him to be a disc jockey and newsman. He still has some tapes from spot newscasts. "They're really awful," his son says, chuckling. "He would ask a man who had been in a wreck, 'Does it hurt? Do you think you're gonna die?'"
The radio job led to part time work as a TV cameraman and photographer for The Houston Press when that paper was in its glory days as the scandal sheet of Houston. His pictures were nearly always of traffic accidents or crime scenes and often filled more than half a Press front page.
In 1962 he decided to get out of reporting law enforcement and become part of it. He joined the sheriff's office in January. "He should have been a lawman at 19," Gertrude says. "We'd go on a date in high school and he'd drop me off at 9:30 or 10. His mother would call at 11:30 or 12, wanting to know where Marvin was. He'd be out riding around with the Bellaire Police Department."
His early years with the sheriff's office were in the civil division, where he served and collected judgments, and on the fugitive squad where he picked up criminals arrested in other jurisdictions all around the world. He began making the papers when he collected strange judgments or unveiled a new wrinkle in transporting prisoners: He had a furrier make a pair of mink-lined handcuffs for lady prisoners. "They looked like the lady might be wearing a wrap," Zindler says. "It wasn't so embarrassing for them."
Even then he was known as "The Dapper Deputy" because of his always smart, always in-style clothes. Pictures show him in a sheriff's car, nattily dressed with a snap brim hat on his head and a box of cigars on the car seat. He has since given up the hats ("I quit wearing them when everyone else did") and the cigars ("I quit smoking them because they burned holes in my new double knit clothes and you can't get those mended.")
Zindler hasn't parted with the extensive wardrobe. If anything, it has grown. On a recent trip to New York he bought about 60 suits. He thinks he may have more than 100 altogether, counting "those in the closets, some in the cleaners and some downtown at the store." His clothes have forced his wife out of their bedroom closets. He doesn't plan to let her recoup, either. Talking with a visitor at home, Zindler says his wife gets mad at the money he spends on clothes because she doesn't get to buy any herself. Well, the visitor asks, why can't she buy some clothes? "Because I'm buying em," Zindler responds.
His concern with appearance is not limited to attire. He owns "three or four" toupees, valued at about $300 apiece. (Last year when the attorney for an organization Zindler was trying to shut down threatened to have Zindler's scalp, the deputy carefully boxed one of the hairpieces and delivered it to the lawyer.) Zindler got the first toupee in 1954, and, he proudly says, "no one's ever seen me without it." How does he manage that? "You knock on the bathroom door," his son says, "ask if you can come in, and you hear, 'No. Get out of here, goddamn it.'"
The same year he bought the first toupee, Zindler had his chin lifted and a nose job. "The nose job wasn't right, so I had them do it again," he says. (He says he had the plastic surgery because he looked too Jewish. "Houston was more prejudiced then. It may be my imagination but right after the operation I started getting invitations to join organizations, requests to serve as an officer of clubs, things that had never happened before.")
The effort that goes into the total Zindler look includes a small makeup table in a closet. The makeup and a sunlamp give him a healthy, tanned appearance even in the middle of winter. The sunlamp sessions are not without pitfalls. About a year ago Zindler appeared at the courthouse wearing sunglasses all the time, even indoors. "I burned my eyes under the sunlamp," he explained. His favorite eyewear now is a pair of purple tinted glasses, adopted after short, unsuccessful tries at a monocle and a pince nez.
The appearance dictates some concessions in the equipment he carries to perform his role as a deputy sheriff. He has a chrome-plated, pearl-handled .45-caliber automatic pistol. It stays at home in a drawer while he carries a smaller, 9 mm gun. "The .45 doesn't look right under my coat," he grins.
Zindler wears suspenders as well as a belt, not because of an excess of caution, but to help support the extra weight of the pistol and handcuffs he carries around his waist. He only carries the weapon and cuffs because sheriff's department policy dictates it, he says.
As much as Zindler relishes his reputation as a dandy, it is likely he enjoys his duties as the consumer's friend and protector even more. He brings almost unlimited energy and enthusiasm to his job. Each case, while he is working on it, becomes in his mind the most important problem he has handled, and he will spend hours trying to convince newsmen that it should be written up and shared with the public. His efforts as head of the consumer fraud division have spanned almost every conceivable area and include the trivial and zany as well as the serious. A short sampling of Zindler cases includes:
A charge of using the American flag to advertise, filed against the advertising manager of Foley's after the store ran an ad featuring a drawing of Old Glory. The manager drew a probated jail term.
Charges of deceptive advertising lodged against the managers of two Houston Walgreen's drug stores because, Zindler said, the stores did not carry a particular brand and size of candy that had been advertised.
The theft case against Texas Motor Exchange's Enright.
A theft charge against a roofer who allegedly did not finish a job he contracted for.
A theft by false pretext charge against a TV repairman who allegedly did not install all the new parts he billed a customer for.
A full-dress grand jury investigation of odometer rollbacks by car dealers. Only one criminal charge, a perjury indictment against an odometer repairman, resulted from the probe, but Harris County auto dealers resolved to ask the new legislature for criminal penalties for turning back mileage indicators.
And, in one of his most bizarre cases, Zindler filed a theft by false pretext charge against a gypsy.
Zindler tells the story this way: A gypsy fortune teller, visited by a woman, told the customer her family was infested with evil spirits and, for a price, the fortune teller would get rid of the spirits. The customer came back, complaining that she was still having problems. The fortune teller replied that now she needed a refrigerator to bury the spirits in. So the unfortunate lady went to the store, bought a refrigerator, and had it delivered to the gypsy. The lady's husband came home, found the sales slip for the refrigerator and, after hearing his wife's story, complained to Zindler about the fortune teller. Zindler visited the gypsy and found the refrigerator being used to store food and drinks. He filed the theft charge. "I wouldn't have arrested them if they had buried the refrigerator," Zindler said. He later dismissed the case when the gypsy made full restitution.
As the variety of his cases suggests, Zindler does not have any master plan for cracking down on consumer fraud. The impression is more that of a man reacting to a series of phone calls and visits from the grieved customer. The phone jingles and Zindler springs into action. "I like to work on one problem or a series of related cases until we get the thing cleared up, then move on to something else." Most of the time he does not initiate any investigation or file any charge without first having a complaint from a citizen.
He is not particularly interested in obtaining a glossy string of convictions. "We don't consider going to court a success," he says. "We want the customer to get taken care of after we get in the case. If we get a bunch of convictions, that means we're not successful, we're not able to work out the problems between the merchant and the customer. That means the customer is not getting any restitution." He says he prefers to resolve a problem with a phone call.
He shares with the Federal Trade Commission a passion for bringing honesty to advertising, expecially where large, established businesses are concerned. He searches both Houston papers daily for deceptive ads, and can pick them out easily because "I wrote more phony ads than any of those people when I was in the clothing business."
"Just because a man wears a suit and tie and has a store doesn't make him different from anyone else in the eyes of the law," Zindler says. "There's no reason for a big store to advertise something for sale and then not have it." Zindler feels, though, that the big boys of business are pretty clean in their dealings with customers. "They're going to be in business tomorrow. Their operation is based on tomorrow. We worry about the merchant who seems more concerned about making a fast buck today and doesn't care about tomorrow."
Zindler says some consumer problems in other parts of the country don't seem to be prevalent in Houston. "Consumer chiefs in other cities and states have told me that a lot of their complaints stem from grocery stores—overpricing, bad advertisements and the like. We get very, very few complaints on grocery stores."
Zindler says he does get a lot of complaints about merchants not backing up their warranties and guarantees. "We've been pretty successful talking to these people on the phone," he says. "And as a general rule we find that a warranty is only as good as the company you buy from." He feels, though, that he or anyone else is powerless to substantially alter the number of bruised and dissatisfied consumers. "The consumer problems probably haven't changed much here since we started up. Wherever there's money and people involved, you're going to have problems."
Sometimes, however, Zindler can spot an illegal operation where higher ranking law enforcement officials have seen none. He scored what he considers to be one of his major consumer victories against Tussey & Associates Success Clubs, Inc., after Harris County District Attorney Carol Vance and Houston Police Chief Herman Short said they could find nothing illegal in the club's operation.
Zindler, after several members complained to him, initiated an investigation of Tussey, a success-motivation organization which offered seminars and lectures on self-confidence. The firm had clubs in 11 Texas cities. Estimates placed the membership as high as 8000 persons who had invested more than $10 million. One lawyer described it as "a Dale Carnegie operation with the added lure of a quick and handsome profit." The club, operating on a chain-letter principle, sold memberships for $150 to $500. Members then earned $80 to $l50 for each new member they recruited and smaller commissions when the new members in turn recruited others. Zindler persuaded a grand jury to probe the club, even though Vance at first said the firm was not violating state law and Short concurred with the district attorney's position.
The grand jury indicted several Tussey officials on charges of operating a lottery and, after subsequent actions in civil courts, Tussey closed its operations in Texas. Mark Vela, an assistant district attorney who participated in much of the Tussey litigation, credits Zindler with the initial thrust behind probes that led to indictments and court orders against the company. "Without him (Zindler), the investigation would have died somewhere along the way. Had it not been for his persistence, we would not have gotten them," Vela says.
Vela admires Zindler's determination, but contributes his own story about Zindler's preoccupation with Zindler. As Vela tells it, he once left his office while Zindler was making a series of phone calls from the assistant district attorney's phone. When he returned, Zindler was gone, but he discovered that Zindler, like almost anyone else, doodles while using the phone. "Only most people draw circles or pictures or make notes," Vela said. "Marvin had filled an entire page with two words: Marvin Zindler. He wrote them in every way imaginable, in block letters, in script, big and small. It was a whole page of Marvin Zindlers."
Zindler was using Vela's office on another occasion when he announced one of his most off-beat consumer cases: Acting on a complaint that a man was not paying off on football game bets, Zindler arrested the man and charged him with possession of bookmaking paraphernalia. At that time Zindler said he didn't care what kind of complaint a consumer had; he just intended to enforce the law. "I don't care whether it's a store not delivering what it advertises, a repairman not fixing television sets, a stock fraud scheme or a gambler not paying off. I'll get 'em." he said. Meanwhile, the modly-dressed defendant sat morosely in a corner of the office, maintaining that he was in investments and did not owe anyone any money.
Such capers have earned Zindler criticism from some unlikely sources, including the Better Business Bureau of Metropolitan Houston and other lawmen. The Better Business Bureau, in a newsletter published shortly after Zindler moved into the consumer fraud area, accused him of "generalized, irresponsible public statements." Loyd Frazier, until recently the chief deputy of the Harris County sheriff's office, says he sometimes had complaints about Zindler from other deputies because Zindler seemed to like publicity too much. "I had to get on Marvin once or twice because it didn't look good for the prosecution of a case to have the TV cameras on the spot for the arrest. Then it looks like he's doing it just for the publicity." Frazier lauds Zindler as "a real good officer. When he gets something, he won't let up. He gets carried away sometimes. He seems to have an ego that, when he gets an assignment, no matter how large or small, he stays with it."
Some members of the district attorney's staff, men who must prosecute the cases Zindler files, despair at Zindler's zeal, which they feel is untempered with a good working knowledge of the law. "There's no way I can make a case like that stick," is a common complaint. Zindler freely admits he is no lawyer, but he says he tries to look up the law before he files a case. In the Tussey probe, he says, he had a gut instinct that the firm was illegal, though he didn't know what laws it was violating.
He professes not to worry about the pokes and jabs from his critics, saying he just wants to do his job and he wants that job to be in law enforcement. Before the first of the year, there was common speculation that Jack Heard, the incoming Harris County sheriff, would keep the consumer fraud division but move Zindler to a less visible position in the sheriff's operation.
As this issue went to press, Texas Monthly learned that Heard had fired Zindler. Zindler is considering running for public office.