Angle Heart

Scottsdale's Greg Crane calls himself an entrepreneur. Prosecutors in three states call him a grifter. But he's such a young man.

Inside the foyer of Greg Crane's north Scottsdale office suite, there's a niche in the wall facing the front door. It holds a small, fake plant and a proverb inside a clear, plastic frame. Every weekday morning, one of the women who works for Crane replaces the proverb from the day before with a new one, printed on a different color of paper, from a stack put together by Crane's wife. The day I met Crane, the paper was hot pink, and the saying read: "Your true character is revealed by what you do when no one's watching."

Which is pretty damn ironic, given what Greg Crane does for a living. Crane's a sharpie. Has been for years. Homeboy's got more angles than a pentagram. It used to be luxury-home construction, but then his partner went to jail and the state yanked his contractor's license because too many of his customers never got what they paid for, and Crane moved on, to greener pastures with new sheep.

Now, as a sideline, Crane wins promotional contests by outsmarting the rules. His bread and butter, though, is direct-mail marketing. Deceptive direct-mail marketing, designed to fool people into thinking the flier in their hands is a notice from the government, instead of a solicitation from Greg Crane. It's a highly profitable advertising strategy, but it tends to bring down the heat. Since 1994, Crane has admitted to violating consumer-protection laws in three states. He's also been slapped with more than $100,000 in restitution and civil penalties, which he treats like a cost of doing business.

The Texas Attorney General's Office just reopened an investigation of Crane, and the Florida attorney general is taking him to court for the second time. This summer, he got mauled by negative press in both states, which evidently led Crane to a new angle--putting journalists on his payroll.

In mid-September, I got a message on my voice mail at work from one of Crane's assistants. She sounded like a telemarketer reading from a script. "Hi, my name is Jo Ann and I work for a local document-preparation company called State Recording Service. We'd like to know if you're interested in making a little extra money doing freelance reporting." She left a number, and I called back. Jo Ann told me her company--S.R.S.--was based in Scottsdale but did business in several states. "We've been getting some bad press lately, and we're looking for people to help us with good PR." I asked her for specifics, and she told me to call Greg Crane--"the boss around here"--for an interview.

Crane's phone manner was joyous, as if there were nothing in the whole, wide world he'd rather do than talk to me. He asked me a few questions about my education and job history, then said he wanted to meet me in person to explain what he needed. I went to his office later that day. Crane is 33, but looks young for his age. He's tall, trim and exceptionally clean-cut. When I met him, he was dressed in his usual business attire--dark slacks and a long-sleeve Ralph Lauren dress shirt that, like the proverb in his lobby, changes color every day. Crane is aggressively upbeat, but very polite and friendly. He makes a textbook good first impression.

"So," he said. "Can you take something that's pretty boring and make it interesting?" I said sure. "That's great!" he said. Then he laid out a proposition: He offered me $150 to write three one-page stories about his business, with the promise of more work if they turned out well. The stories I wrote, he said, would be submitted to thousands of newspapers across the country. "We like to send out a lot of positive, interesting stories about our business," he said. "The more the merrier." I said I still didn't know what kind of business he was in.

"We're in the business of protecting people's homes," he said. Which is one way to put it. And Crane makes a lot of money putting things just the right way.

Check it out:
The legal documents State Recording Service specializes in preparing are Designation of Homestead forms. In this context, "homestead" has nothing to do with rugged pioneers settling the frontier. It just means a house that's owner-occupied. Legally, the issue comes into play when a creditor tries to force the sale of a residential property. If that house is also the owner's homestead--the place he eats and sleeps--it's protected in most cases, including bankruptcy and civil judgments.

In most states, designation of homestead is automatic upon the purchase of a new home. In states where it's not--Texas, Florida, Nevada, Utah and California--homestead-designation forms are widely available in stationery stores and copy shops. The forms are one page long, easy to fill out, and cost about a dollar. The price of filing a Designation of Homestead is also nominal--six to 10 bucks. Most people never file one, however, because there's no point unless you're in serious financial trouble. Even then, you have until the very day of a forced sale to file a homestead form.

"The point is, if you ever need one, you'll know it, and you've got plenty of time," says Tina Furlow, a prosecutor in the Florida Attorney General Office's economic-crimes unit.

The direct-mail solicitations Crane sends out offer to prepare a Designation of Homestead form--essentially, a few minutes of typing--for $25, the maximum fee it's legal to charge in most states for such a simple service. For another $22, State Recording Service will then actually file the completed form with the appropriate county recorder's office. Otherwise, the customer just gets it back in the mail. Which is probably when most of them realize they've been had.

Offering an overpriced, largely unnecessary service isn't illegal, though. It's the way Crane offers it that gets him in trouble. The mailers never explicitly claim to be a notice from the government. That's blatantly illegal. Crane prefers to tiptoe around the law, and he's meticulously crafty.

For example, a mailer Crane used in Arizona a couple years ago included a cover sheet that read, in blaring type: "NOTICE. Our records do not indicate that a Homestead form has been filed on your property. YOU MUST FILE for an exempt homestead according to A.R.S. 33-1101, et. seq., as per amended laws for equity protection. READ AND COMPLETE THE ENCLOSED FORM."

Which, deconstructed, is a total crock of shit. But how many new homeowners stop to figure that out, and how many--deluged with legitimate paperwork that comes in the mail--just fill out the stupid form and fire off a $25 check? Crane's profit margin lies in the difference.

Currently, S.R.S. uses similar mailers to solicit customers in four states--Utah, Nevada, Florida and Texas. Crane stays out of Arizona now. Two years ago, the AZ Attorney General's Office went after him, and, to cool things out, Crane signed a civil injunction in which he admitted breaking the law, agreed to pay back $8,000 to unhappy customers, and swore never to solicit homestead customers in this state again. The year before he signed the Arizona injunction, Crane made similar pacts with the attorneys general of Florida and Texas, in which he agreed to cough up some dough--$76,000 in Florida, $15,194 in Texas--and promised to be a good boy.

Crane has no criminal record in either of those states or Arizona. He deliberately operates in legal gray areas, and so far has dodged prosecution by cutting deals with typically understaffed white-collar-crime divisions, for whom a symbolic admission of guilt and a fat restitution order look good on paper, and free up prosecutors to work on criminal cases that are more of a lock.

However, unlike the deal Crane cut in his own state, the language of the Texas and Florida judgments left him some wiggle room. They did not specifically prohibit Crane from mailing any homestead solicitations to those states, only ones that are "misleading" and "deceptive," and fail to include "clear and prominent" disclaimers establishing two things: 1) State Recording Service is not a government agency, and 2) Filing for homestead is not required by law.

But hey--clear and prominent are relative terms. Debatable. Open to interpretation. Ditto "false" and "misleading." After he signed those deals with Florida and Texas, Crane waited about a year, then went back in with a modified mailer. The new generation includes no screaming "YOU MUST FILE" cover sheets, and a printed line on the back of the envelope states "This is a solicitation."

Other new touches, however, include the bold phrase "EQUAL OPPORTUNITY EMPLOYER," and an excerpt of ominous legalese from a federal law against mail tampering. The envelopes are postmarked Phoenix, but the return address is a mail drop near the state capitol building in Tallahassee, Florida, or Austin, Texas.

Inside is a one-page solicitation that looks more like a tax return than an advertisment. It's titled "State Recording Service Designation of Homestead Request Form." There are two information bulletins at the top. One assigns the recipient an eight-digit "S.R.S. Record Number." The other reads "Our Records Show Filing: None." There are two more disclaimers: One, "Not affiliated with any government agency," is printed directly above the return address, in the same font. The other--"Florida law does not require homeowners to file or record a Designation of Homestead"--is buried in the fine print at the bottom.

Sonya Sanchez, spokeswoman for the Texas attorney general, says her office reopened its investigation of State Recording Service this summer, but no legal action is pending. "We're looking into it, but the lines are blurry," she said. Florida's attorney general is feeling more in focus. In May, Tina Furlow filed a motion to find Crane in contempt of court for violating the 1994 injunction. The case is scheduled to go before a judge in January.

Crane refused to speak to me at length about the Florida case and S.R.S.' history of legal problems, except to insist his lawyers had carefully gone over his new mailers to make sure they satisfied the terms of his agreement with the state. He also said all unhappy customers receive a full refund. "Nobody has to sue us," he said. "If anyone has a problem, they can always call me and I'll take care of them."

In a July Tampa Tribune article, Crane defended himself by pointing out his mailers include several disclaimers Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth drafted personally. "There is a huge need for our service," Crane told the Tribune. "I don't understand why some people get confused. I don't know what other precautions we could take."

Jim Rose, a state investigator for the Florida AG's Office, said 4,866 residents have filed complaints against State Recording Service in the past 10 months. Rose has interviewed more than 1,000 of them, and he said not one realized Crane's solicitation was a private advertisement. He and Furlow also said they were puzzled when a series of glowing stories about S.R.S. began appearing in Florida newspapers about five months ago. "We've been wondering where those are coming from," Furlow said.

I had a good guess. Crane said he started hiring Valley reporters to write about his company in April or May. He told me his office faxes about 5,000 copies of several different articles every week to papers in Florida and Texas. It's a shotgun approach, just like direct mail. And it works. Originally, Crane said, he fired this PR salvo as a counterattack against bad press, but, to his pleasant surprise, the articles also generated a fair amount of business, and he's kept the program going, even though the media furor died down in Florida and Texas late this summer. "I've experienced bad press, and I've recently realized the power of good press," he said.

Furlow said the first puff piece about S.R.S. crossed her desk in June, attached to a complaint from a St. Petersburg man who sent Crane a check after reading the article in a shopping newspaper. "They all appear under headlines like 'Floridians File to Save Their Homes,'" Furlow said. "Who's writing them?"

Crane told me he's used several reporters Jo Ann rounded up with cold calls, after picking their names at random from the staff boxes and bylines of local newspapers. But he didn't say which newspapers, or which reporters. Furlow said most of the Florida articles have appeared in small-town and community newspapers--publications with low editorial standards that rely heavily on free-of-charge filler. She said none of the articles has included a byline.

It's practically impossible to pinpoint how many pro-S.R.S. articles have appeared in print, but Crane told me he's getting so many "hits," he just hired a press-clipping service for $300 a month to keep track of them all. "We're getting about 12 stories a week in Texas alone," he bragged.

They must all be in smalltime papers. A search of the Nexis database, which includes all major daily papers in the U.S., turned up 47 negative articles about S.R.S. in Florida and Texas--mostly based around court actions and consumer advisories issued by the AGs--but no happy-happy stories.

A search of national wire services, however, was more fruitful.
On September 10, two songs of praise for S.R.S. were picked up by the Business Wire, an on-line subscription service that distributes news bulletins and press releases to papers across the country. The first story, titled "Homestead Makes Sure Island Paradise Stays All in the Family," was datelined "Long Key, Fla." It told of a 63-year-old retired nurse who recently purchased a magnificent, historic home on a tropical island just off the coast of Florida. "To keep the house in the family for future generations," the article reports, "she recently turned to State Recording Service to prevent the house from being seized in times of financial hardship."

The second article, "Change in Texas Law Won't Guarantee Protection for Homeowners," describes how a new state law makes designation of homestead automatic when homeowners file for a routine property-tax exemption. "But such protection isn't guaranteed," the article warns. "In fact, it could easily be lost." Evidently, there's up to a 10-month delay in processing the paperwork. "To get instant protection," the piece informs readers, "Texas homeowners still can turn to the company that has been providing assistance to Texans who want homestead protection for the last several years--State Recording Service." Both articles contain a 1-800 number for S.R.S.

On September 11, the day after Business Wire posted the Texas article, the Zapata County News in Zapata, Texas, published it word for word. As usual, the article had no byline. However, at the bottom of the Business Wire post, there was a block of State Recording Service contact info that included the line "By: Matt Burgard, (reporter)."

Burgard is the police and fire beat reporter for the Scottsdale Tribune. He said he started working for Crane about four months ago after a woman called him out of the blue. Burgard said he's written about 30 articles for Crane. He said he was unaware of Crane's legal problems, and never knew when or if his articles were published. The purpose of Burgard's work, as he understood it, was "to tell the stories of customers they helped. To show the good the company does." Burgard said he originally took the job because "I had a wedding coming up, and needed extra money to pay for it." He said the firm paid him about $50 per article. He said his sources for the article were customers S.R.S. put him in touch with.

When Crane asked me to write for him, he said the company would supply me with written testimonials, or a list of sources to call, whichever I preferred. A story about State Recording Service that appeared anonymously in several small-town Florida newspapers this August quoted "Betty," an otherwise unidentified source, spewing this mouthful: "I called the 1-800 number [for State Recording Service]. The person I spoke to was very helpful, and I found out that filing the Designation of Homestead document helps protect a homeowner's property, and that filing for Designation of Homestead was the right of every homeowner and citizen as clearly defined in the state constitution and Florida statutes, according to Florida 222, Article 10.4." Just rolls off the tongue, doesn't it?

It's a fairly pathetic comment on how easy it is to manipulate the press--and how poorly most reporters are paid--that Crane was able to buy good media so cheap. Most hookers charge more than $50 a pop for quick sex. At that price, an article only has to generate two S.R.S. clients to pay for itself, not counting the value of putting a Band-Aid on S.R.S.' bleeding public image.

Not that bad press has cut too deeply into Crane's business. Frankly, it's hard to imagine most of the people who send him money read the paper on a daily basis. It's also hard to feel much sympathy for them. Crane's mailers are clever, but they reek of fish. But any telemarketer can tell you how well high-volume soliciting works. You call and call--or, in Crane's case, mail and mail--until you get a gullible person on the line. It's the P.T. Barnum principle in full effect. From that perspective, Crane's an intellectual bully, who beats up on naive people and takes their money. Mail bags full of it.

One afternoon last month, Crane took me on a tour of the rooms where his 12 employees field phone calls, sort mail, stuff envelopes and type up homestead forms. Most Designation of Homestead documents are basic, black-and-white affairs. But the ones S.R.S. sends out are printed on paper the color of cracked parchment. The lettering is fancy cursive, and there's a cool picture of a big eagle at the top. Each form is adorned with a gold sticker that says "SEAL."

In one work area, three women were sorting mail. On a table were several six-inch stacks of $25 checks, attached to completed "Homestead Request" forms. Racks of envelopes along one wall were marked "Utah return address, Florida return address, Nevada return address," etc. A memo tacked near a phone gave tips for handling calls to the 1-800 line: "It is always good to smile and sound happy when you are on the phone. You can make light of things by saying things like, 'You know how sue-happy people are these days!'" I spoke with one of the women during her cigarette break. She told me S.R.S. receives a seven- to nine-pound box of mail every day, filled with checks and homestead applications, forwarded from mail drops in all four states.

Business records Crane submitted as evidence in a 1994 lawsuit give a more precise estimate of how much he rakes in every month. Crane was the plaintiff in the suit. The defendant was a local legal-publishing company he hired in 1993 to oversee his advertising in Arizona. Every day, the company was supposed to obtain a list from the Maricopa County Recorder's Office of all newly recorded home sales and transfers, then stuff envelopes with Crane's propaganda and send a mailer to every name on the list. For this service, Crane paid 28 cents per name. He sued the company--Swaine Publications--for getting several months behind schedule, and accused its staff of just throwing away most of his mailers. He asked for $288,856 in lost revenue.

To substantiate his claim of damages, Crane submitted financial records that charted his company's monthly profits for a full year. To establish a trend, he showed that shortly before Swaine took over his direct-mail efforts, he spent $6,672 on direct mail--enough for about 24,000 mailings. The next month--allowing for a 30-day window of return--the company hauled in $24,682 as a result. In January of 1994, three months after Crane hired Swaine, he paid $6,090 for mailings and got back only $6,885. After firing the help, Crane showed, his company quickly recovered. In February of 1994, he spent $9,370 on direct mail in Arizona and scored $31,089 in return.

Swaine's lawyers came up with a creative defense. Their client wasn't liable for Crane losing business, they argued, because Crane's business was crooked. In February, Superior Court Judge Alan Kamin agreed. "The plaintiff has essentially requested this court to give plaintiff the profit he would have made had he been successful in deceiving the public," Kamin wrote in his decision. "This court rejects that request." Kamin dismissed Crane's suit with prejudice and awarded Swaine $1,231 in court costs and $14,550 in attorney fees.

It wasn't the first time Crane went to court and got his ass handed to him. He used to be the president of a Scottsdale luxury-home design and construction firm that was a magnet for lawsuits, which it usually lost. Crane got a contractor's license for the company--Horizon Estate Homes--in March 1992. Nineteen months later, that license was revoked when a state hearing officer ruled that Horizon was deliberately stalling on corrective orders from the registrar of contractors, related to multiple cases of incomplete, shoddy workmanship. State inspection reports on houses Horizon insisted were finished describe, among other things, open, sparking wires on the walls, "excessively uneven floors," the use of stereo-speaker wire in place of standard electrical wire, and a lot of badly cracked stucco.

The State of Arizona eventually had to pay $76,810 from the Contractor's Recovery Fund to Horizon clients who won lawsuits against the company. Horizon declared it was unable to pay off the civil judgments after the IRS seized Horizon's assets in 1994, claiming $83,147 in unpaid taxes.

There's more. Horizon's marketing director, Salvatore Di Giuseppi, pleaded guilty last July to one felony theft count related to four home-construction projects he put together after Horizon's license was revoked. In a plea bargain, Di Giuseppi admitted to absconding with $274,019 customers paid him to cover labor and material costs. In exchange, the state dropped two other theft counts and a criminal-enterprise charge. Di Giuseppi was fined $80,000, ordered to pay back the 274 grand, and sentenced to six months in jail, which he served this summer in a work-furlough program.

Before Horizon, Crane held the contractor's license for a company called Multi Cor Development. That license was revoked in 1992, and the state paid out $15,000 from the recovery fund to cover Multi Cor's defaults. It wasn't until the state began investigating the pile of complaints against Horizon Estate Homes that someone realized Crane had folded Multi Cor and reopened as Horizon Estate Homes.

"Notice is taken of Agency records which reveal the license issued to Greg Crane under the name Multi Cor has a less than exemplary record," a state hearing officer wrote in the 1993 report that revoked Horizon's license. "It would be highly inappropriate to allow Greg Crane to ignore Agency decisions and . . . insulate himself via 'license-hopping.'"

One month after Horizon lost its license, Crane and Di Giuseppi applied for yet another license, this time using the name Genesis Design Build Corp. It didn't work. Alan Felber, chief of licensing for the registrar of contractors, sent back a scathing letter dated October 20, 1993, which detailed 14 specific reasons their application was denied. Felber's letter is brutal. It basically guts the two men's history as contractors and holds up the entrails for public inspection. Among the 14 unsatisfied criteria: "Salvatore Di Giuseppi and Gregory Bruce Crane have not established good character and reputation. . . . They have failed to complete projects they have contracts for. . . . They have disregarded plans, specs and building codes. . . . They have failed to take appropriate corrective action when ordered to do so. . . . They have been misleading the public with false, deceptive and misleading advertising. . . . They have committed wrongful and fraudulent acts which have resulted in others being substantially injured."

When Horizon was still above water, its offices were in a small business park on North Scottsdale Road near the intersection of Scottsdale and Shea. Apparently, Crane likes the neighborhood. The home address he's used on legal documents for the past five years belongs to a store in a strip mall on Becker Street, one block north of Shea, that rents mailboxes by the month.

The headquarters for State Recording Service is also in the 'hood. Crane's latest digs are in the Scottsdale Condo Business Park, on 94th Street and Via Linda. The space looks like it was once set up for telemarketing. A large room in the back is filled with uniform cubicles, which are empty, except for three or four young women and a guy who looks like a younger version of Crane, answering phones and typing forms. The office decor is mostly fake plants and inspirational posters that look like they were ordered from the "Executive Accouterments" section of an in-flight magazine. Two stickers on the front window of the office proclaim membership in the Scottsdale Chamber of Commerce for this year and last.

The last time I met Crane at his office was a Tuesday morning in early October. The proverb in the lobby was blue. It said: "The difference between the ordinary and the extraordinary is that little extra." Triumphantly tacked above it was a facsimile sheet. The words "This Is Not a Bill" leapt off the page from six feet away. The night before, Crane set a fax machine in his office to auto dial about 400 businesses across the country and transmit a solicitation for his newest venture--YellowPage.Net, a Web site with a nationwide Yellow Pages phone directory. The site was activated October 1, with several thousand business listings organized by state and category, in alphabetical order. "Those are courtesy listings, just to get us going," Crane explained. "We're going to offer clients a paid, premium listing, which will place their listing at the top of its category."

Along with the banner "This Is Not a Bill," the solicitations Crane faxed to the first batch of potential "premium listing" clients prominently featured the YellowPage.Net banner, and the "let the fingers do the walking" logo icon. Although most people don't know it, the name "Yellow Pages" and the walking-fingers logo were never trademarked in the United States. "They're free for anyone to use," Crane says. "It's a valuable business tool, because it carries instant recognition."

Instructions on the YellowPage.Net fax direct business owners to simply confirm the name, address and phone number for their listing and sign at the bottom to receive their premium placement. Crane's angle lies in the fine print, which contains a stipulation that by signing, the owners agree to have $12.50 a month tacked on to their phone bill. The form doesn't lie. It's not a bill. It's a contract.

Another completed form unfurled from a fax machine in Crane's office. "That's what we like to see," he said. Crane had called me in that morning to discuss another offer. He said a contest had been illegally rigged against him, and he wanted me to write about it.

Here's the story:
Two Valley car dealerships--Liberty Buick and Peoria Pontiac--held a joint promotional drawing on Labor Day for $10,000 in cash or a 1997 Pontiac Sunfire, winner's choice. The contest had been advertised for about a week. The idea was, come down and check out the cars, enter to win. Both dealerships had red paper tickets in their showrooms for people to use as entry forms. The written rules for the contest said you had to write your name, address and phone number on the back. They said the winner had to pay taxes and licensing fees on the prize. They said relatives and spouses of dealership employees were prohibited from entering. But nowhere did they say one entry per person.

On August 28, Crane showed up at the dealership with 12,000 identical red tickets. Four thousand were stamped with Crane's information, 4,000 with his wife's and 4,000 with a friend's. Crane asked a secretary to sign a statement acknowledging receipt of the 12,000 tickets, then presented the management with a letter:

"As you can see, my friends and my hobby is to enter sweepstakes, raffles and drawings. We love to enter as often as possible in order to increase or guarantee our winnings. We realize that promotions like yours are put on for advertising reasons, and that you really don't care who wins the drawings, but only that you can advertise that you're having a drawing, in order to attract new customers into your stores.

"Thank you in advance for allowing pure, non-bias chance to determine who will win, based purely on chance and the amount of times that any individual has chosen to enter."

The letter was signed Greg Crane, and closed with "P.S. We love your dealership!"

The sentiment was not mutual.
Crane, wearing a hidden microphone, attended the Labor Day drawing with his lawyer. When one of the dealership's managers came into the showroom with the box full of entries, Crane demanded to look inside. All of his entries were packed tightly into a brick at the bottom, and the rest--about 400 entries, compared to Crane's 12,000--were sprinkled over the top like nuts on a sundae. Crane began to protest and snap pictures; on the tape, the manager is heard laughing. "Well, we're not going to give it to an asshole," he said, then reached into the box and withdrew a ticket. It wasn't one of Crane's.

"Nice ethics, huh?" says Crane, whose lawyer is preparing a lawsuit against the dealerships. Last year, Crane won a similar lawsuit against Norwest Bank for simply tossing out 5,000 entries he submitted to a promotional drawing for a new Chevy S-10 pickup. Court records show the bank had approximately 400 entries from the general public, which put Crane's odds of winning at 88 percent (Crane had a 98 percent chance of winning the Peoria Pontiac drawing). Norwest settled out of court. Crane says he got $12,000.

Entering contests is just a fun, easy way to pick up some extra cash and prizes, Crane says. He always keeps his eyes out for contests with printed rules that leave open a loophole. "You have to obey the rules in life," he says. "I just like to obey them to a T."

And most of the time, he doesn't have to sue--he just wins. In July of 1995, a brief article in the Phoenix Gazette headlined 'You've Got to Hand It to Comedy Central Winner' told how Greg Crane, owner of a Scottsdale mail-order business, just won a sweepstakes held by the cable network Comedy Central. Crane got $15,000 and a trip around the world. "I'm just a lucky guy," Crane was quoted. "But then, luck is what you make it." The Comedy Central contest called for entrants to submit a sketch of a hand. Crane drew one splattered with blood.

"I entered that one over 10,000 times," Crane says of the Comedy Central giveaway. "I entered by fax. The machine was running day and night for 10 days. It was a great trip. We went to London, Thailand, trekking through Nepal. We each had our own personal Sherpa. They even carried your water bottle. It was excellent."

Crane said he's won about $35,000 in cash and prizes since 1995, not counting the Norwest and Comedy Central drawings. Now he hopes to bolster that tally with a settlement from Peoria Pontiac/Liberty Buick.

He offered me $150--apparently relaxed in the belief that journalists don't cost much--to put pressure on the dealerships by writing an article for New Times about how he'd been ripped off.

"Give it a headline like 'Scandal at Liberty Buick,'" he suggested. I told him I'd look into it, and walked out to the parking lot. "Hey," I heard behind me. It was Crane, poking his head out the front door. "I've got a deal for you," he said. "I'll give you a $100 bonus if you get me on the front page."

Done.

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