Being a journalist who covers issues important to the African-American and other marginalized communities, I have taken on powerful forces over the years. I have provided a voice for underrepresented communities and engaged both the private and public sector, but always strove to be accurate and respectful. After all, how can I demand civility and fairness from others if I don’t practice it myself?
Earlier this year, I wrote a piece in a publication that focuses on issues in the African-American community, about the rooftop solar business, and expressed concerns that industry bad actors were misleading consumers. I focused on three aspects that worried me: First, that new customers may be unaware that the panels can cost upwards of $15,000 and can generate an additional lien against their home, making it harder to sell. Second, rooftop solar salespeople often tell customers that they will save a lot of money on their utility bill, which is not always true. Third, salespeople engaging in high-pressure tactics often do so in the hope that a customer will sign a contract before they understand all of the complexities of a long-term financial agreement.
In response to my article, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) — which represents the rooftop solar industry in Washington — wrote a response in the same publication refuting my piece. I didn’t fully agree with SEIA, but I respected their right to voice their opinion. I saw their response and was hopeful that going forward the industry would take more steps to protect minority consumers. I decided to move on and continue writing about the other issues important to me.
However, in the last few weeks, I have become a target of an intimidation campaign led by SEIA. Specifically, a gentleman named Michael Schmidt, a senior vice president at Crosscut Strategies, who claims to be an agent of SEIA, has repeatedly called and emailed me and my staff. In one call, he even asked a staff member why I had not responded to him, questioning what was I “afraid of.”
In his correspondence to a woman in my office, Mr. Schmidt states that I wrote that solar companies “are targeting communities of color.” He went on to say that “the SEIA team finds this abhorrent” and they wanted to follow up with me about what I know, “since the column didn’t provide details.”
“SEIA takes this issue and consumer protection generally very seriously,” he wrote. “Would it be possible to arrange a quick call between Dr. Malveaux and SEIA’s general counsel about this?”
I believe that Mr. Schmidt’s suggestion that I speak with SEIA’s general counsel, Tom Kimbis, is an attempt to assert that my comment about “targeting communities of color” could be libelous. If SEIA wanted to provide me with facts to change my mind, why couldn’t Mr. Schmidt provide me with that information, or connect me with SEIA’s communications or policy experts? The suggestion that I speak with SEIA’s in-house attorney was designed to intimidate.
Be assured, I take this threat seriously. I believe I did nothing wrong, but I do not have millions of dollars to defend myself. SEIA represents companies like Tesla that are worth billions of dollars. It wouldn’t be a fair fight.
I want to be clear: I wrote the rooftop solar piece based on recent correspondence sent by three Democrats in the Congress to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). The letter was read by Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, a Hispanic, and Reps. Emmanuel Cleaver of Missouri and Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, both African-Americans.
At the end of the letter sent by those congressmen, they stated that the high-pressure sales tactics used by bad actors in the rooftop solar industry are often targeted at the least sophisticated consumers. Therefore, the matter is a “particular concern for minority communities in our districts and around the nation.” That is where I got the line in my piece that SEIA seems to be so upset about.
If Abigail Ross Harper, the head of SEIA, or anyone at the association has an issue with what I said in my piece, then they should have reached out to me and asked to speak. I would have agreed and had an open mind. But the fact that they decided to try and use a hired gun to try and intimidate me and my staff only makes me believe that the premise of my original piece — that the rooftop solar industry does not respect minorities — was sadly all too accurate.
Malveaux’s latest book, “Are We Better Off?: Race, Obama and Public Policy,” is available via amazon.com.