Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

Julie Matthews' never-ending search for trouble

Julie Matthews’ career is in trouble. The 38-year-old has spent most of her working life sorting through it and sorting it out. Trouble has paid her bills. It still does, but differently. Gone are the bright lights, the television cameras, the mail (even flowers) from grateful fans for being tough yet compassionate, tireless and fearless.

Of course, that was the glamorous side of her decade as the Global TV Troubleshooter, going on air almost nightly to help consumers settle differences with businesses they believed had done them wrong. There was also frustration, considerable overtime and a deluge of distressed phone calls and emails. Now that’s all gone, too.

Earlier this year, in her new office at Service Alberta’s downtown Edmonton consumer investigation unit, trouble remains but it doesn’t set the phone to a near-relentless buzz. Her email pings infrequently. If there’s a camera anywhere, it’s designed for security rather than the 6 o’clock newscast. The shelves above her desk are stacked with white binders fat with legalese – the acts she’ll enforce in her new role as an investigator and peace officer.

If this seems an unusual next step in the career of a media personality – many of whom move on to freelance or consulting work or to PR roles – it isn’t, in this case, illogical.

“When I started I was a reporter. When I left I was an investigator,” says Matthews (Radio and Television ’95) of her time as Troubleshooter. “When I came in here,” she adds, “I felt at home.”

The day she walked into the office of this provincial government ministry, she felt as if she’d joined a squad of troubleshooters, bringing to it a unique background and skill set that may help the unit advance its efforts to protect consumers – efforts that in 2013-14 recovered $560,000 for Albertans and dealt $146,000 in fines to unscrupulous businesses.

The change means more to Matthews than just being among her own kind. She’s got two young boys who will now have the pleasure of a mom who can make time to come to school events.

Balanced with that, she might now be able to better satisfy her drive to set things to rights by laying charges. The Troubleshooter role, she says, “was a big part of my identity” – so ingrained that unresolved cases haunt her to this day. Trouble didn’t always stop with Matthews before. Now it can.

Trouble will find her

Julie Matthews' peace officer badgeMatthews didn’t get to this point in her career by seeking trouble; it found her.

“I’d love to tell you that it was my lifelong dream to be Troubleshooter and right the wrongs,” she says. “Maybe in an indirect way that is part of what appealed to me about that job.”

Some moral imperative may have indeed pushed her because as Tim Spelliscy, who hired her for the job 10 years ago, says, “It’s the type of role where you need someone who’s keen to do it.” The workload is so intense that the job burned through five reporters in the 10 years before Matthews.

“You can’t talk somebody into that job,” adds Global’s Edmonton station manager and regional director for news.

Matthews was definitely interested, mostly so she could come home. She was in the Okanagan at the time but grew up in a Bruderheim household where “the news was on every single night,” she recalls. “In the morning we were shushed around the breakfast table because the radio was on and the news was about to start.”

Working at the station she grew up with (Global was ITV at the time) was a dream come true – one she realized after stops at stations in Lloydminster, Lethbridge then Penticton, where she honed an ability to deliver as a one-woman (plus cameraman) shop.

For Spelliscy, her B.C. stint represented a potentially reliable, self-directed reporter. For Matthews, it opened the door to being reunited with a fiancé back home.

Though she took the job, it made her nervous. “At the time, I didn’t really think of myself as a pit bull,” she says. “I wasn’t sure I was as tough as the Troubleshooter needed to be.

"I didn’t really think of myself as a pit bull."

“That kind of job puts you in a position where you’re dealing with a lot of people who are not happy to see you. Basically, you’re taking on the most confrontational job in media.” (No one took a swing at her as happened with male Troubleshooters, she says, but she did receive at least one death threat.)

Nevertheless, she made it her own, Spelliscy says. “She became more effective and stronger in that role as time went on.” Matthews fielded roughly 30,000 calls and emails and conducted more than 275 investigations annually. By her last three years on the job, she was recovering more than $100,000 a year. But it came with a cost.

“I became almost addicted to it,” says Matthews. She was doing two- or three-minute spots (most stories get roughly a minute) as often as four nights a week. She was responding to complaints when she was at home and during her commute. “My personality just became a workaholic. I tried to help everyone, even though it was completely impossible.”

Looking back, Spelliscy is amazed Matthews stayed with the job for a decade without burning out. “In a way, Julie is a victim of her own success because the bigger stories and the higher profile just led to more phone calls, more emails and more people saying, ‘Can you help me?’”

The good in people

a sketch of julie matthews made by a former colleague at Global TVMost of Matthews’s cases came from Albertans feeling cheated by moving companies, insurers, used car dealers and homebuilders. One reason for the high number of complaints, particularly in the last category, suggests Phil Perry, is that consumers are too trusting.

“Most people want to see good in people,” says the Construction Engineering Technology instructor.

In Alberta, that approach doesn’t always end well for a couple of reasons. Perry, who as president of two condo boards has had mixed experiences with building contractors, points to the booming economy and the skilled-labour vacuum it creates.

“A lot of guys are migrating into the commercial market,” he says. “As a result, there’s a lot of people entering the residential market who don’t have the skill sets. There’s more work out there than there are contractors able to do it.”

Martin Roy, the director of Service Alberta’s consumer investigation unit who hired Matthews, is less generous in his assessment. “We’re a ‘have’ province and it brings individuals … who try to take advantage of the situation.”

"There’s a lot of people entering the residential market who don’t have the skill sets."

In recent years, his group of 20 investigators across the province has been growing more proactive. Rather than simply responding to complaints, the unit also targets problematic industries. In spring 2013, for example, he worked with Matthews to televise a Service Alberta “bait house” project aimed at home inspectors operating without a licence.

It was one of several connections he’d made with the reporter over recent years, as Matthews would frequently consult the organization during her investigations and even earned awards from it for her efforts. Going forward, though, baiting isn’t an operation he sees suited to her.

“Julie, given her high profile, would not be my first choice to be utilized as an operator to conduct undercover stings,” says Roy. Instead, he’ll rely on her experience to help identify new targets. And though he stresses she wasn’t hired for her local celebrity status, he intends to lean a little on her established public persona.

“The average Albertan doesn’t know that we exist,” he says. Matthews’s comfort with an audience could help spread the word about the consumer investigations unit at conferences, seniors’ centres and online through social media. “That’s something I want to work towards: elevating the profile of our unit,” he says.

“We want to get the message out to Albertans to try to help them before they become a victim of an unscrupulous business. I think having Julie as part of the team is a step in the right direction.”

An incredible story

Julie MatthewsAmong Matthews’s professional strengths, and perhaps one of the reasons she ultimately had to leave media, is an unwillingness to let go.

In November 2013, a dense fog settled over Highway 21, causing 40 collisions. The reporter happened to be in it and realized it was up to her to capture the story – despite having a previously broken foot. (Matthews loves high heels and had caught one in an elevator door track, leading to the injury.)

“There she is, walking cast, crutches, in the fog, doing a story using her iPhone,” recalls Spelliscy. “And the footage was one of the most incredible stories I had ever seen.”

When she couldn’t juggle camera and crutches, she hopped down the road, safety taking a back seat to the story. “All I can hear – and I’ll never forget it – is this terrible sound of crashing behind me,” she says. Regardless, she wouldn’t let the opportunity to share the story get away.

That tenacity is one reason Spelliscy will remember her as one of his most effective Troubleshooters.

It’s also why unresolved cases haunt her, including one in which a 90-year-old woman paid $3,000 to a moving company to relocate her 69-year-old blind son. It never did and never refunded the money. “They ignored the woman, ignored her family and they ignored me,” says Matthews, who was never able to recoup the cost. “I still think about her.”

"The footage was one of the most incredible stories I had ever seen.”

Often, however, Matthews could achieve much with a camera and persistence. Sometimes, the results were immediate. “In some cases,” she says, “we’re talking $50,000 cheques were returned.” If she was in some way addicted to the job – to the bright lights, the camera, the thrill of the hunt, the accolades – she admits it is a hard habit to break.

“I had to figure out, ‘Hey, am I ready to walk away from what some people would say is being someone, being a celebrity?’” More than that, she worried, “Would I be able to still make a difference and feel that level of personal satisfaction?”

Thinking back on that moving company, she believes she could. “Maybe now I may or may not be able to make them give her money back but I may be able to charge them. I may be able to hold them accountable.”

Today, she’s ready to move on, a first file on her desk, a landlord-tenant dispute over a damage deposit. She’s still holding on to memories of those 10 years in the spotlight but she has put them literally behind her. A portrait of her at her desk at Global – a going-away gift – leans against the wall at her back, waiting to be hung.

To her left is another portrait, one done by her youngest son for Mother’s Day that shows his understanding of what mom does for a living now.

“He drew a picture of me looking like a cross between a superhero and a police officer,” she says. “He has said to me, ‘Mommy, I’m sad I’m not going to see you on TV anymore.’

“I said, ‘I’m sorry. But you’re going to see me more in person now.’”

Consumer protection tips from Julie Matthews

Get everything in writing. Verbal promises are tough to prove.

Research companies carefully before hiring – even search Google for complaints.

Take photos as proof.Photograph your odometer when you drop your vehicle off for repairs, the condition of your rental apartment when you move out, and your rental car when you return it.

Before leaving on vacation, check your insurance policy. Someone may have to check your home every 24 to 72 hours for it to be covered.

Read the fine print before signing anything.

Only door-to-door contractors with a prepaid contractor’s licence with Service Alberta can take deposits from you in your home.

Top warning signs of an online scam: the person asking for money claims to be living or working overseas; they don’t accept credit cards or cheques and insist you wire money; they use heartbreaking stories to try to win you over.