A complaint against the Federal Trade Commission says the agency failed to follow its own published rules for a contest seeking the public's ideas to combat illegal robocalls. (Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images)
Like millions of Americans, entrepreneur David Frankel gets annoyed by robocalls, so he was excited to participate in a $50,000 competition announced last year by the Federal Trade Commission for ideas on how to combat illegal robocalls.
After he found out he didn’t win the contest in April, he called the agency to find out why. When he didn’t get answers, he filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking the FTC scoring data and other information concerning how the competition was judged.
Those records prompted Frankel to lodge a complaint Tuesday with the U.S. Federal Claims Court arguing that FTC failed to conduct the contest according to its own published rules.
Indeed, the whole competition amounted to little more than a public relations stunt, he said in an interview. It turns out the agency didn’t really give a hard look to hundreds of entries it received, he said.
“They solicited a bunch of ideas from the public but they didn’t really pay a lot of attention to what they got,” Frankel said. “Then they just made a bunch of press releases saying, ‘Oh, aren’t we a great agency because we enlisted the genius of the public?’”
FTC spokesman Peter Kaplan declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Among other problems Frankel identified with the competition, he said the FTC winnowed nearly 800 entries down to just seven, but can’t substantiate how or why those entries were picked.
Frankel also noted that under the FTC’s judging instructions, an internal panel would judge submissions on certain criteria. But he argued the FTC hasn’t been able to provide any evidence of such an internal panel, let alone any information about its judging efforts.
Frankel’s idea, as described in a June Wall Street Journal story, was outlined in a 15-page proposal that called for phone companies to share information that would track robocallers to their addresses.
The FTC announced winners in April. One entry proposed analyzing and blocking robocalls using software that could be utilized as a mobile app, and another aimed to route unwanted calls to a second telephone line that would automatically hang up on illegal robocalls.
In his complaint, Frankel said the FTC’s winners relied too heavily on caller-ID, which robocallers can get around.
Before going to court, Frankel turned to the Government Accountability Office, which handles bid protests for federal contracts. But the GAO dismissed his protest, saying it lacked jurisdiction because it was not a contract-related matter.
Frankel, who is representing himself in court, said Wednesday that he never planned or wanted to file a bid protest or lawsuit. He said he just wanted answers about how the competition was run.
“I really thought I was pitching in to help solve a problem that annoys hundreds of millions of people in this country,” he said.
“And I’ve been amazed at how resistant my government civil servants are in trying to engage with me to pursue that.”