When 13 Howard County brides couldn't get their wedding pictures from a photographer they each had hired, they turned to the county Office of Consumer Affairs for help.
"My investigator spent a lot of time in somebody's basement trying to figure out whose pictures were whose," recalled Steve Hannan, the office's longtime director. The photographer "went out of business, but the brides got their negatives," Hannan said of the case from the early 1990s that is typical of the kind of complaints his office handles.
Hannan, a 57-year-old lawyer, is retiring today as director of the county's four-person Office of Consumer Affairs, ending a three-decade career in county government. But he is not fading away.
Hannan is taking a higher-profile position as executive director of the private, Baltimore-based Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition. The job will allow him to work mainly from his Columbia home, giving him more time with his 10- and 12-year-old stepchildren, he said.
"Steve brings many years of experience and obviously a knowledge base that is probably unmatched in Maryland," said Hank Greenberg, immediate past president of the nonprofit umbrella consumer group. "We were very fortunate to have someone of his caliber."
No replacement has been named as director of the county's consumer affairs office, a position that pays Hannan $99,798 a year.
Hannan's move to a private group in a way brings his long career full circle.
Hannan's first consumer job was with a small nonprofit in his native Washington called the Auto Owners Action Council that concentrated its efforts mainly, he said, on complaints by owners of the Chevrolet Vega, a 1970s compact car.
"The [Ford] Pinto was explodable, and the Chevy was planned obsolescence," Hannan joked.
But even a newly minted lawyer not interested in a conventional legal career had to earn a living, so when he saw an ad for Howard's new consumer affairs office, he applied and was hired as the first investigator, for $11,700 a year.
He became director in 1987, thanks to then-County Executive Elizabeth Bobo, who said the director's job came vacant and Hannan impressed her.
"I think he's a very bright, talented guy who probably could have been successful in many different careers. He's got a real passion for consumers getting a fair deal here in our community," said Bobo, a Democrat who is now a state delegate. "He's done a great service."
Evidence of that is his longevity in an appointed job through the administrations of Bobo, Charles I. Ecker, a Republican, James N. Robey, a Democrat, and the current county executive, Ken Ulman, a Democrat.
"I think that says a lot about his abilities and his character," Robey said. We got [consumer] complaints. They were shipped down to Steve's office, and you never heard any more about them. He was the kind of department head you like."
Howard County's consumer operation is one of two in Maryland -- Montgomery is the other -- where consumer protection officials have subpoena power, and the legal ability to order unlicensed firms to stop doing business without going to court.
"One of the things subpoena power does is it makes business have to talk to you," Hannan said.
He has loved the work.
"This has been the best job I could have had. I'm kind of recalcitrant. I needed some freedom, and every county executive I worked for gave it to me," he said. "We gave consumers not just a voice, but leverage."
When he first started, most complaints were about workmanship and warranty problems on the hundreds of new homes going up in Columbia.
"Columbia was the biggest industry and the problem area," he said. Now, the office still gets about 300 complaints a year, ranging from people seeking refunds for poorly done work to an entire community's anger over a developer's attempt to corner the market on cable television services among the new homes.
Along the way, there were cases such as the bait-and-switch sales practices at a Clarksville auto dealer, which advertised specific vehicles at very low prices, only to have customers repeatedly told that vehicle was out on a never-ending road test.
Hannan's office got two vehicle buyers the cash difference between the low advertised price and what the customers actually paid for the same model -- plus $12,000 more for public education.
"The office has grown up with the marketplace," he said.
Hannan said his office recovers an average of about $1 million a year for consumers, resolving about three-quarters of complaints to the customer's benefit. The office costs about $340,000 a year to operate, with a director, two investigators and one secretary.
"When people call the Office of Consumer Affairs, it's not months and months before they get attention. Once a complaint is filed, it's assigned to an investigator within 24 hours and the first letter goes out to the businesses within 48 hours," Hannan said.
"It was a great run. I'm still not bored. I always come to work to be nosy. I'm really proud of the work that the office has done," he said.