This week, the Blotter is reprising 10 different Ross Unit investigations that made a difference in 2010. Today: Helping free a "Runaway Toyota" driver from state prison, and cracking down on abusive debt collectors.
Runaway Toyota Driver Freed From Prison, Sues Carmaker
Koua Fong Lee was convicted of vehicular homicide after his 1996 Toyota Camry raced out of control on a St. Paul, Minnesota exit ramp, hitting an Oldsmobile and killing its driver and two passengers.
Even after he began serving an eight-year prison sentence, Lee continued to maintain that the car had accelerated suddenly and that his brakes wouldn't work. Lee's 1996 Camry was not involved in the most recent round of Toyota's safety recalls die "sticky" gas pedals and ill-fitting floormats that the automaker said might cause "sudden acceleration" incidents, but Lee's attorneys maintained the accident was caused by unintended acceleration. They presented numerous other cases of owners of 1996 Camrys who alleged that they had also experienced throttle control problems, as well as the results of a reexamination of the crashed Camry by an expert witness.
In an exclusive prison interview with Lee and his attorneys that aired, ABC News learned of their plan to present new evidence that would show flaws in Lee's Toyota. The story, which also featured family members of the crash victims saying they thought Lee might not be responsible for the incident, aired on Good Morning America and posted on The Blotter on February 22.
A follow-up Blotter story reported Lee's motion for a new trial and the half-dozen affidavits from drivers of other 1996 Toyota Camrys who claimed their cars accelerated suddenly. Lee's car was re-inspected by experts hired by his attorney and the county prosecutor, and for weeks the two sides debated the findings of their reports. Defense experts said they had found evidence that Lee's accelerator may have been stuck open and that Lee's brakes were depressed at the time of the crash.
In October, Lee joined a civil lawsuit against Toyota, claiming the auto giant knew its cars had a tendency to accelerate and "knowingly hid" safety problems from regulators.
Rogue Debt Collectors Terrorize Bank of America Customers
Hard-nosed tactics may be standard for debt collectors hired by major corporations to recover money from people who have fallen behind on their bills, but nothing could prepare Bank of America customers for the noxious phone calls placed by a collector with the Harlingen, Texas office of Advanced Call Center Technologies.
ABC News aired recordings of the calls, in which a collection agent used the n-word and told one startled customer, "This is your f___ing wake up call, man," in a voicemail message left at 6:30 a.m.
Messages left by the company's collection agents including one in which an agent called the customer a "little, lazy a** bitch," and told him to "get your mother f___ing a** up and go pick some mother f___ing cotton fields, bitch."
The customer, 32-year-old Allen Jones of Dallas, said he received the calls because of an $81 debt on his Bank of America credit card. Jones said the calls continued even after he told the debt collection company he had paid his credit card bill. "The representative acted like, oh, we can call you as many times as we want," Jones said in an interview broadcast on ABC World News with Diane Sawyer and Nightline. CLICK HERE TO WATCH THE WORLD NEWS WITH DIANE SAWYER SEGMENT,CLICK HERE TO WATCH THE NIGHTLINE SEGMENT, AND CLICK HERE TO READ THE BLOTTER ARTICLE
Jones saved the taped messages and hired lawyers to sue ACT. A jury in Texas found both the debt collectors and the corporation responsible and awarded Jones more than $1.5 million.
Impact: Two days after ABC News confronted the Bank of America CEO on a Manhattan street corner, the banking giant terminated its contract with ACT.
Bank of America notified ACT its services were no longer needed, "as a result of what was raised here," said ACT chairman Chris Debbas.
Bank of America said its decision to terminate ACT was not related to the ABC News investigation, but because of issues surrounding the economy.
The ACT chairman said Bank of America had been supportive of his company, even after the verdict, and had not acted until after the ABC News interview with Moynihan.
ACT has since made management changes, according to its chairman, who said the phone calls were "deplorable."
"I worked very hard to build this company and our management team and it is unthinkable that somebody would call somebody and do that," Debbas told ABC News. He declined to identify other major corporate clients but said they continue to his firm's collection services.
"Everybody understands in this business how hard it is, everybody was outraged by what they heard, and I was indignant," said Debbas.