Only a few short years ago, Abe Issa was a star of the solar energy world.
As the owner of Fort Worth-based solar energy companies, Issa was building an industry-leading profile as owner of some of the fastest-growing businesses in North Texas.
In 2015, he promised a gift of $500,000 to Texas Christian Universityâ€™s Neeley School of Business to build the Abe Issa Field Sales Lab. Issa graduated from TCU.
The money never came through, and the sales lab was never built. Thatâ€™s a good thing for TCU because Issaâ€™s companies have been accused of breaking so many sales rules that the Texas attorney general investigated.
Things got so rough with complaining customers and awful online reviews of his businesses that Issa had to change the names of his companies.
It didnâ€™t help. The attorney general went after both the old companies and the new ones.
In 2018, Issaâ€™s companies agreed to pay $3 million in penalties and restitution to customers who were promised huge savings on their electricity bills if they switched to Issaâ€™s products. Often, those promised savings never materialized.
I have to credit Alan Oldfield, an 84-year-old music composer from Bedford, for turning my attention back to Issa.
I last looked at Issaâ€™s business dealings in 2016, when I profiled a Duncanville man who claimed he lost money when he bought Issaâ€™s salesmanâ€™s promise that his electric bills would drop significantly with his new solar panels. They didnâ€™t. The man figured he saved $177 in one year with the panels. He took out an $18,000 loan to pay for the setup. At that rate, heâ€™d break even in 93 years.
Recently, Oldfield sent me a note about Issa. The composer wrote lots of letters. He sent letters to the Texas attorney general, as well as the attorneys general in states where Issaâ€™s companies have expanded.
He complained about Issa to the Better Business Bureau and also to officials at TCUâ€™s business school.
But his most important letters were sent to the bank that financed his loan with Issaâ€™s company to pay for the weatherization project on his home. Oldfield committed to paying $11,500 for the work. But as with other customers, his electric bills barely dropped, he told me. Thatâ€™s when he launched his protest.
He wrote to the bank leaders, including members of the bankâ€™s board of directors. Iâ€™ll explain how that worked for him in a moment. But first I want to show you what the Texas AG says Issaâ€™s company did wrong.
In 2016, Issa told me in an interview that he ordered his sales people to stop promising that electric bills would drop significantly. Promises were unreliable, he told me, because customersâ€™ lifestyles affect their electricity usage.
His problems stemmed from his sales reps who were independent, he said, working on commissions. He didnâ€™t have enough control over them, he said.
â€śWe donâ€™t want to be taken advantage of,â€ť he told me four years ago. â€śBut we donâ€™t want the homeowner to feel like they are taken advantage of, either.â€ť
This week, I couldnâ€™t reach Issa, despite voice messages, an email request, and chats with one of his lawyers and one of his company directors.
The company sent me a statement by email about Issaâ€™s new company: â€śEnviroSolar is a top-15 national residential solar company with the highest compliance measures in place. Every customer goes through a diligent quality control process, including a recorded call at the point of sale to ensure complete understanding of the financing and project details. …
â€śFurther, every agreement is reviewed for accuracy before the final design process is started. From the initial meeting, through install, and beyond, all communication between customers and our customer service team is recorded for quality control purposes.â€ť
In a brief phone interview, company director Nathan Greving told me: â€śWe have the best compliance in the industry. We have quality control on every customer who comes in. Very strict compliance standards. Making sure customers understand the full details of what theyâ€™re getting.â€ť
Both statements left out why they do this. Thanks to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxtonâ€™s office, they have no choice.
Give Paxtonâ€™s consumer division credit for its handling of Issaâ€™s companies. There were two lawsuits in 2018.
The first lawsuit was against Issaâ€™s original companies, before their names changed: Global Efficient Energy, Energy Stars, Global NRG, Fort EPC and Solar Pow.
The final agreement prohibits those companies from doing business in Texas. The companies agreed to pay a $2.3 million judgment, with $1.9 million of that going to aggrieved consumers.
The second lawsuit was against Issaâ€™s new companies â€” EnviroSolar, E-Grid Tech, EnviSolar, Next Step Energy and KMA Investments. In the voluntary order, Issa agreed to pay the state $700,000 and promised to enact strict protocols to create what his director told me is â€śthe best compliance in the industry.â€ť
Issa had no choice. If you read all the promises of good behavior in the settlement, you get an idea of the bad behavior that preceded it.
Customers must now get copies of sales agreements.
They must be properly informed about ways they can cancel.
Sales staff must be upfront about who they represent when they knock on doors.
They must be honest about prices, tax credits, rebates and discounts. They must be honest about product certifications, too.
The deadline to get a piece of that $3 million passed last year. Unfortunately, Oldfield never heard about the two cases until I showed them to him.
But he did OK on his own.
Turns out that not only does Oldfield write music for TV shows and movies. He also writes a darn good protest letter.
He originally spent $11,500 on weather insulation inside his home (no solar panels). His complaint letters to the bank and its board of directors paid off. Big time.
The bank agreed to write off the remaining $7,500 on his loan. He doesnâ€™t have to pay it.
â€śI was pretty lucky,â€ť the composer told me. â€śI didnâ€™t know what to do, but the letters turned out to be the thing.â€ť