Can Anybody Be Trusted?

How the story of Tire Works, Nina Radetich and the state of Nevada adds up to a farce about integrity

Photo: Ryan Olbrysh

It begins in a Chevy.

In November 2008, a state investigator known as a “decoy” in subsequent legal accounts posed as a “person who had just purchased an auction automobile”—a 2000 Chevy Malibu—and took it to the Tire Works store on South Pecos.

Months later, the car, which secretly had been examined by a College of Southern Nevada mechanic in the state’s attempt to catch Tire Works in dishonest business practices, would actually be sold at auction, accidentally, by the state, before the case against Tire Works was over. Decoys would become a theme in this case, as more than 170 complaints of bad business practices would be overshadowed, at least temporarily, by a blast of other allegations aimed at everyone within reach—most notably, KTNV Channel 13 anchor Nina Radetich.

What’s the story really about—auto-shop ethics, the state’s ability to investigate, media ethics, a community of conflicting interests? A lot of people have had a shot at redirecting it: investigators, the media, attorneys, anonymous commentators and public-relations agents. It may yet reveal itself to be a story of even deeper duplicity than has yet been alleged. Maybe, though, the story of Tire Works and Nina Radetich is more a tragicomic commentary on our times.

Last fall, the now-defunct Consumer Affairs Division of the Nevada Business and Industries Division began investigating consumer complaints against Tire Works. The Consumer Affairs Division had received, in previous years and increasingly in 2008, complaints from consumers who believed they had been ripped off. By the spring, the state had decided to ask a local TV station to help with the investigation. KTNV Channel 13 hopped in, and the duo—the state and Channel 13—did some undercover work in Tire Works’ garages, allegedly showing fraudulent behavior. The Consumer Affairs Division turned the case over to the attorney general, and in March the AG filed charges of deceptive trade practices against Tire Works. Channel 13 aired the investigative story featuring the undercover footage; the piece was introduced by, but not reported by, anchor Nina Radetich. It was reported by investigative reporter Darcy Spears.

Could’ve been that simple. But as we know now, Nina Radetich was friends with Tire Works owner Roshie Weightman. Weightman had contributed to Radetich’s personal charity interest. So when Spears’ piece was set to air, Weightman called Radetich to see if, according to the Las Vegas Sun, Radetich “could help her get balanced coverage.” Radetich suggested, while being secretly recorded on the phone—the power of questionably legal secret taping looms large on both sides here—that Weightman employ Radetich’s boyfriend, spinmeister Jack Finn, then also employed at NV Energy, for some PR help.

But before Radetich’s alleged ethical meltdown made the press in September 2009, Tire Works employed the Gordon Silver law firm to file two defamation lawsuits in May, against the college mechanic and an alleged former Tire Works employee who posted on the KTNV website. It appeared Radetich’s suggestion for counterspin was a natural, and Tire Works took the battle to the PR arena, which drew attention out of the garages. And yet none of this really seemed to whip up the press just yet; it was a fairly routine auto-shop-alleged-rip-off story.

And then the Sun broke the story of Radetich’s ethical breach, provided to the paper by an anonymous source. Ninagate made the rounds in most news outlets, with many journalists calling for Radetich’s dismissal. KVBC Channel 3 reported that UNLV media ethics professor Mary Hausch was using the Radetich debacle to teach her students what not to do in journalism; Hausch also called for Radetich’s resignation. The Review-Journal and Sun chastised Radetich; so did the Weekly, CityLife—a lot of critics pounced. She has been publicly asked to admit her mistake, redeem journalism, eat crow. To date, she has not admitted wrongdoing, resigned or been fired. While it may have been a clear case of an ethical crack-up, the pile-on atop Radetich left room to wonder where the vociferous public ethics commentators were when Tire Works had more than a hundred complaints of bad business against it. Do we assume consumers simply are not as interested in knowing about the ethics of their mechanics as their news anchors? Or were we just trusting the state—the drowning-in-debt state led by a punchline governor—to handle the charges against the auto-repair chain with more than a dozen shops?

Nevertheless, public interest followed the media-misconduct story. The state was painted in with Radetich. No one was shining light on the alleged fraudulent business practices at Tire Works anymore. And to make matters even more dense, the attorney general’s office lost the evidence car to auction, and the Consumer Affairs Division’s office closed because the 2009 Legislature didn’t fund it. Among those missteps, AG spokeswoman Edie Cartwright wants one thing understood: “The press [Channel 13] was set up by Consumer Affairs Division, not the AG. The press seems to be unaware that Consumer Affairs Division investigated them and did this sting and handed it over to us to prosecute. Getting the press involved was Consumer Affairs Division’s doing—not the AG’s,” Cartwright writes in an e-mail. A spokesman for Tire Works is equally clear: Until the state roped in Channel 13, this was a run-of-the-mill AG “hand-slapping,” says Mark Fierro, Tire Works PR rep since the spring.

So when Tire Works denied the CAD/AG’s claims and filed a counterclaim in May, it sought to poke holes in the investigative choices made by the state, not just to call attention to potential defamation by individuals such as the CSN mechanic and Internet commenter. And the Tire Works team has done a bang-up job in bringing out the Keystone Kops spin. This is from their legal response to the claims against them:

“The Division partnered with Channel 13, a media outlet that sells its ad time, in conducting its official investigation of Tire Works, and permitted Channel 13 to run video from the hidden camera investigation in its story aired to the public at large, even though the investigation was undertaken by the Division in its official and statutory investigatory capacity, which should include the right to due process by all parties involved, and should include the ethical duty to conduct official investigations with the decency and decorum that a state agency should exhibit.’’

The AG’s office, while certain it did not invite the now-scrutinized Channel 13, nevertheless offers this defense in an e-mail to the Weekly: “Attorneys General offices around the nation frequently use TV stations when looking at auto repair deception. California is a good example of this. The Nevada AG’s office has done this twice before—Purrfect Auto and Brake Team.”

A court date on the matter is set for October 22.

From there it just gets ugly

The allegations against Tire Works slid further into the sideshow arena; our indignation with the anchor took over. But by the time some mysterious little person crept out and hung signs that say “Nina Lies” around town, this whole thing was about much more than any single player, although it’d taken Nina’s name. With the signs, a couple of damning websites and 200 primarily anti-Nina comments posted after the Sun’s first story on Radetich, plus 40 more on each of the subsequent stories and a host of Facebook diatribes, Las Vegas began a fit of moral cannibalism.

Tawdry accusations, of dubious accuracy, started flying. Pull one well-connected string in Vegas and the sections of the community unravel. Sure, online commenters are notoriously vitriolic and inaccurate under cover of anonymity on any story, but it seemed that this story opened a special floodgate. Long-suppressed suspicions and conspiracy theories, hateful accusations and plausible plots, logical stretches and crazed rants sprung up everywhere in Ninagate. In their recklessness, the allegations ranged from the unlikely (Radetich single-handedly ruined faith in an otherwise perfectly well-regarded local media) to the political (Radetich wants to run for office as a Republican, the liberal Sun is out to get her; or the Ron Paul Revolution is out to get Radetich) to an endless stream of purported conflicts of interests (Sun reporter Abigail Goldman’s husband is a former Channel 13 videographer, accused of being angry at Channel 13, who went to work for KLAS Channel 8) to the friends-of-friends-in-high-places (Tire Works attorney Dominic Gentile “used to be pals with” Nina’s old boss, Jim Rogers, media mogul at Channel 3) to much worse. Each of these, times 10 more, has been suggested online by anonymous web posters. Untrustworthiness aside, each plays into a real rotting-flesh sentiment that everything and everyone around us is not to be trusted. That’s a richly ironic thing to happen in Las Vegas.

The thing is, it didn’t really start with that Chevy. It started with what Mark Fierro calls “AG 101”: the well-worn cycle of people complaining to state agencies about auto shops; the AG investigating; the shops recoiling.

Such as it is, now is a hot market for the auto repair industry, and, Fierro says, an extra bad time for an auto shop to have a legal or PR problem.

“This is an industry that moves counter to the economy. When [the economy] goes bad, people keep their car,” Fierro said. “Roshie was not going to let anybody disparage the business.”

Here are some excerpts from the 170 complaints against Tire Works, made from 2005 till recently, the weight of them in the more recent years, provided by the attorney general. Each inadvertently forecasts elements of the story we’d find magnified in Ninagate, a near pitiful cry for someone to be transparent, reliable, fair:

September 2005 (Foreshadowing: Bring a tape recorder)

[After having gotten service at Tire Works] ... On September 3, 2005 at approximately 5:38 a.m. we went to our garage, I brought my Panasonic recorder along model RR-US361. I started the car and recorded the still screeching drive belts. ... I felt like a mark for a group of con artists ... I explained to her [Tire Works employee] how Chris [another Tire Works employee] deceived me about the brand of drive belts he stated would be replaced on my car. I then told her that I was recording conversations. She considered this as a threat by me, and asks me is it legal for me to threaten her. (Note: I did not ever threaten anyone at any time!)

December 2008 (Be careful)

We started our journey to California for the holiday. ... My left front tire blew out traveling around 70 mph. The tire felt like it was losing air and then it blew. I couldn’t believe this because I just put four brand new tires on my car and purchased them from the Tire Works store ... [After purchasing another tire, and having another flat] they checked the valve stem and moved it around and it was releasing air. I ... requested my refund for the replacement tire that I purchased ... About 15 minutes later Donna was her name called me to deny my claim with the reason being that the tire was too badly damaged because I drove it while it was flat. I tried to explain to her that the reason it went flat was due to a valve stem problem that your stores did not replace but charged me for them and she would not listen and cut my call off. How ignorant can this company be! I am very concerned with the practices and policies of this company Tire Works. They had many chances to do the right thing and failed through their policies and procedures. I consider myself and my family very lucky that I was able to stop my vehicle to safety twice without causing harm to ourselves and to others.

May 2008 (Ask people to do a good job; have witnesses)

I explained to Tim [Tire Works employee] ... I was not experiencing any problems with my car [but] would like a quote to make the service engine light go out ... I fully explained to Tim in front of others that what I wanted was a Good Job and the Service Engine Soon light to go out, regardless of cost, quality and Good Service was what I needed and wanted. Tim indicated they were not like others and quality service is what I would get. Tim called back at 3 p.m. and indicated my car was ready to pick up ... I walked 4 miles to pick up the car. When I arrived the service engine light was still on.

February 2008 (Give me a break)

I took my truck in on 2-10-08 to get my oil changed and was charged for 4 gallons of oil and my truck only holds 10 quarts.

July 2006 (Consult the Lord)

[The guys at Tire Works] told me that they would not be able to match the quoted price that I had gotten at Don’s DI [another auto shop]. At this point, I was very confused as to what I should do. I called my pastor, Pastor Matt Vogt of Water of Life Lutheran Church, and asked him for advice. Pastor Vogt talked to Corey [the Tire Works rep] on my cell phone, and then Pastor Vogt talked to me on my cell phone and told me that I should take my car to Don’s DI and that Tire Works would refund my money. I wanted to be sure that we were all in agreement, so I kept Pastor Vogt on the phone and spoke to Corey. I asked Corey if my money would be refunded. He said the transaction would have to go through the corporate office and then would be refunded. I hung up with Pastor Vogt, went to Don’s DI, and had the work done for $1,016.60. Several days later, I checked my account via telephone and found that the money had not been refunded.

April 2008 (Ask for them to admit their mistakes)

I told her I had been extremely patient with them and had been to them five times and showed good faith and due to their constant mistakes they have damaged our truck over and over and endangered my wife and myself each time making the vehicle worse. I told Rachel [Tire Works employee] that now my custom rim is permanently damaged due to their neglectful brake jobs, as photos will show ... Tire Works’ constant mistakes and their inability to admit to their mistakes I had to pay Team Ford twice to inspect and finally repair Tire Works’ job.

July 2008 (Get your money back)

My complaint is: I want my refund, no less than $1,580. My car is still not running in good condition, car runs worst. The 1st time, the garage did a bad reparation because the car stopped in the middle of the road only one day after ($380). The second time, I gave $850 but the car didn’t start. The 3rd time, he asked me [for] $1,500 but I refused. Finally, it was just the fuel pump who cost $350 in another garage.

About the allegations, Tire Works’ PR representative, Fierro, says, “Tire Works has an excellent reputation ... these are a few of the hundreds of thousands of transactions,” and, he says, the majority of complaints have already been adjudicated and won by Tire Works.

But as much as this story is about car problems, and media problems, it’s about a more fundamental issue: People going about their lives trying not to feel taken advantage of at every turn. The complaints seem to be saying, Can you trust anybody? The Tire Works-Radetich episode neatly encapsulates the convoluted dilemma of having to worry constantly about buried agendas, hidden costs and fine print in every facet of living—a phenomenon that seems accelerated in recent years. It reminds us of how much energy we spend trying not to be conned, not to have to second-guess the motivations and connections of everyone with whom we come in contact. Radetich is, whatever else, a totem for all of this frustration at the end of a long stretch of disappointing rip-offs from AIG on down to many aspects of our everyday lives. We’re exhausted.

And compounding the perfect-storm timing of this farce is the fact that it’s a weird time to be in Vegas. While the Bernie Madoffs of the world may not have arisen here, the idea of losing one’s shirt to hustlers is an inextricable part of the city’s identity. Enough already.

On the other hand, we’re a crowd of imperfect and complicated people trying to dig our way out of a hole, many of us connected by more than lingering feelings of being cheated. We’re a community.

And so it is with a humbling nod to the frustrating web of our situation that I make some disclosures:

I bought new tires last week at Discount Tire, a competitor of Tire Works. Pirellis. Too expensive for my budget. I have lingering feelings of remorse and outrage about the cost of car maintenance as I write this.

I work for Las Vegas Weekly, which is a sister publication of the Las Vegas Sun, which broke a big part of this story. Several years ago I worked for the Sun. Attorney Dominic Gentile has, to the best of my knowledge, provided occasional advice on First Amendment matters to this organization and other media outlets, and also represents Tire Works.

I am Facebook friends with Las Vegas Sun reporter Abigail Goldman’s dog. My significant other does not do PR, nor is she a former employee of Tire Works, Channel 13 or NV Energy, like Nina Radetich’s alleged significant other, but she may know something; she usually does.

I often watch Channel 8 news, but I’m a flipper, and when it lands on Channel 13, so be it. I’ve never had bad feelings toward Nina Radetich; I don’t know her. However, it should be noted that a disproportionate share of my Facebook friends, who are mostly acquaintances for whom I have nice feelings, posted calls for Nina Radetich’s dismissal after the Sun’s story about her ethical transgression. None posted anything about Tire Works or the attorney general that I can remember. I am sometimes forgetful.

It’s an imperfect world.

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