Frosted about unkept promise of heating oil

Consuming Interests

April 24, 2007|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,Sun Columnist

Bonnie Chandler's blood is still boiling about the partnership of former Congressman Joe Kennedy and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez supplying free heating oil to poor Americans this past winter.

Her beef has nothing to do with politics, although some critics have called the free fuel offer a publicity stunt by Kennedy and an attempt by Chavez to embarrass the U.S. government and the man he calls the "devil," President Bush.

The 63-year-old Harford County resident also has no gripe against philanthropy: She is, after all, one of those who needs help to heat her home.

What really annoyed Chandler was that she was not able to collect on the promise.

"If I waited on that Joe Kennedy for my heating oil, I'd still be here sitting in the cold," Chandler said last week, when spring still felt like winter. "When I called, none of the fuel distributors do it around here."

Back in February, Chandler received a letter from Kennedy's Massachusetts-based nonprofit, Citizens Energy Corp., saying she was approved to receive 100 gallons of free heating oil from a program it started with Citgo Petroleum, Venezuela's state-owned oil company.

"As a household approved to receive federal fuel assistance ... you are authorized to receive a free delivery of fuel from our program without any approval letter from us or call from you," said the Feb. 6 letter from Citizens' director of charitable programs. "We have written your dealer to let him know about the change to encourage him to provide your free delivery as soon as possible and to inform him that we are writing you as well."

And yet, when Chandler called her dealer - Husky Heating Oil in Columbia - she discovered that Husky isn't in the program.

"I tried calling the 1-800-JOE-4-OIL number that the letter tells you to call if your dealer hasn't been notified, but I couldn't get an answer," Chandler said. "Thank goodness my son helps me. But what if I was dependent on this and needed this free fuel? I feel like it's a ploy."

Chandler can rest assured the letter is not a ploy. But actually getting her hands on the freebie was going to take some work - even though, curiously, the letter leads people to believe three things: 1. You don't have to do a thing because Citizens has already done all the work for you. 2. Your dealer will automatically bring you free oil if you ask. And 3. If you have any problems, just call the toll-free number.

In regards to the first two assumptions, Dan Seledee, managing member of Husky, which has 7,000 clients in the Baltimore region, says he has never heard from Citizens and has no wish to join.

"We have no pre-arranged deal," Seledee said. "What they're describing in their letter is a partnership and there is no such thing. Customers started calling us about Citizens' letter before we even knew anything about it. No one from Kennedy's organization called me or wrote me.

"I think it's insensitive of them to send these letters without making sure we're participating," Seledee said. "We've had to explain to customers that we're not. ... They're basically trying to say that I should just give this free oil to someone, send the bill to Citizens and then they'll pay me back. I'm just supposed to trust [Citizens]. That's a grand assumption on their part."

And in regards to the toll-free number, it's not much use to Chandler or anyone else if no one answers.

A few calls around found that larger companies such as Carroll Independent Fuel in Baltimore and Southern Maryland Oil in La Plata are indeed participants. But surely it wasn't Citizens' intention to have customers like Chandler search for a willing player?

Certainly not, said spokesman Ashley Durmer, who apologized for the confusion.

While an apology is nice, it doesn't explain why Citizens would tell consumers that a dealer is participating when that's not true. Asked to clarify, Durmer would not address the question.

The irony here, Durmer said, is that the free fuel letter was altered in February by Citizens "to make it easier for people to get help. We were trying to make the process more seamless for people who were already approved for federal assistance, which meant you were automatically approved with us."

But again, an automatic approval from Citizens does not equate with an automatic approval from your dealer. Citizens didn't make it easier; it made it more perplexing for consumers and annoying for the companies that had to explain why they had no free fuel.

Despite the misleading language, Durmer said that about 5,000 individuals in Maryland alone received free fuel this past season from a lineup of 72 participating dealers.

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