Column: My own private Enron

The offer was tantalizing - spend 10 to 20 hours a month passing out an energy drink to my fellow students and get paid a whopping $250, plus a free digital camera and all the energy drink you can imbibe. The goal: to have all of Duke University hooked on this neon green, caffeine-laden beverage.

Most of my employment with Burly Bear Network - a Lorne Michaels owned promotional company that focused on marketing music, television and products to college-aged audiences - was smooth sailing. Like collegiate Tupperware parties, we held events to promote our product, "Amp," Pepsi's answer to Red Bull. We were at football games, at raves and sometimes we were just standing on the walkways and thoroughfares of Duke, passing out the product and taking pictures to prove our hard work to the company.

I must have been blinded by the bright green beverage, because I failed to see the light during my employment. Every so often, Burly Bear would contact its energy drink representatives and offer an additional gig - mine was a concert promotion that was supposed to pay $100 per person. When my friend bailed on the extra work, I picked up the slack. Burly Bear knew I was stranded at the last minute, knew I had put in double the labor and promptly sent me a check for $50. When I inquired about the error, I was told that it was a misprint in the original job offer and that since I didn't have a contract for that particular job, it would not make much of a difference. I tried to complain further up the ladder, but was rebuffed, with a subtle threat of termination.

In good faith, and still enjoying the central component of my job - throwing parties with free beverages - I decided not to quit.

The second missed signal was the following January, when my fellow Burly Bear promotional representatives were informed that we would have to do twice the number of promotional events the following spring in order to make the same wage we made last time. While we were led to believe - in e-mails and on dastardly worded contracts - that our work was to be based on a certain number of events per semester, we found out once again that Burly Bear had used the power of vague language to bind us contractually. No accounting gimmicks, no insider trades, just sly language intended to deceive, reinforced by unofficial communication from our direct supervisor.

I'm not sure why, but I decided to stay with the company for the spring semester as well - although the creativity of our beverage events had gone down. Instead of organizing parties, we would appear in the same three populated campus locations and pass out energy drinks to the masses. There may have been less excitement with our new strategy, but we were still doing our job. It was fair, my promotions team figured, to treat a hostile employer with half-assed work.

I should not have been so surprised when my former boss e-mailed in early July, informing campus representatives across the country that Burly Bear had folded and that the delay in receiving our final paycheck was going to be indefinite. Our boss, too, had been left high and dry, laid off with back-wages never to be paid. The old phone contact numbers were disconnected, the website went offline. The old boss's e-mail told us that while there were multi-million dollar contracts lined up for the fall, it was not going to be enough to sustain the company during the summer. The only people left at the time she e-mailed us were a handful of executives.

As a student of public policy and history - and now of law - I have been kicking myself for having been such a willing dupe, especially given the culture of corporate irresponsibility that has engulfed the United States over the last nine months. This was my own private Enron.

Burly Bear preyed on college students looking for a low-impact jobs and disposable income. As I should have expected, the dream job was a nightmare. College students are prime targets for disreputable firms like Burly Bear. There are more of such firms crawling around campuses everyday, roping students into doing their dirty work for a nominal fee- and I don't just mean student religious groups!

And as I have learned now, I could very well have had a chance to obtain restitution had I acted earlier. The law of contracts offers more relief than one initially expects. Terms that I am studying now- reliance, consideration, promissory estoppel - made it quite clear that the specific details of our situation made my co-workers and I ideal candidates for a cause of action against Burly Bear. But, then came the bankruptcy. Later on, we were offered 20 percent of our outstanding credits as restitution. I sent in my request for my $50 settlement and never heard back from Burly Bear or the law firm that was handling the creditors. I debated writing a letter to Lorne Michaels, but I figured that given the generally miserable quality of Saturday Night Live this season, he probably is too busy to respond.

Martin Barna, Trinity '02, is a former editorial page editor of The Chronicle. His column appears every third Tuesday.


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