Am. Samoa Solar Company Accused Of False Advertising

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CEO claims costumers confuse ‘zero down’ purchase with ‘free’

By Joyetter Feagaimaalii-Luamanu

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa (The Samoa News, Oct. 20, 2014) – With concerns raised by the public about La O Samoa — a Division of Help U Solar LLC — a company, which is getting people to sign up for "free solar panels with free installation" the Territorial Energy Office (TEO) Director, Ali’itama Sotoa told the company to stop the drive and advertisements, and stop "signing the locals with false advertisements and contracts."

Sotoa had declined to comment on the issue that was brought to Samoa News’ attention by phone calls and queries from the public asking about the company, saying the TEO director was not responding to their concerns.

However, email correspondence between Sotoa and Help U Solar LLC Chief Operating Officer Marc Hamilton was leaked to Samoa News indicating that the TEO Director had reached out to the company, asking that Help U Solar LLC stop "signing [up] the locals with false advertisements and contracts."

Sotoa in an email, dated Oct. 11, 2014, told Hamilton that the TEO office was "getting a lot of phone calls and office visitations" from residents in regards to La O Samoa's current drive and verbal advertisements at people’s homes.

(The verbal advertising the director is referring to is person to person talks and there has been no advertising in Samoa News and as far as we know, none on radio or television.)

According to the email, the TEO director stated, "Your field people are telling and signing the locals with false advertisements and contracts respectively. I have not seen the contract, but telling the locals of ‘Free Solar’, ‘Free Installations’ and etc. is ethically wrong, misrepresentation, false advertisement and sending the wrong messages."

He also told Hamilton, "I strongly suggest to inform your local representatives to STOP all contacts and the signing of the people because of the inaccuracy of the information given to them."

The TEO Director said that TEO and the American Samoa Power Authority (ASPA) under the umbrella of the American Samoa Renewable Energy Committee (ASREC) that was created by Executive Order by the Governor of American Samoa "wholeheartedly request to cease all current developments/actions that are misleading."

"As I mentioned in our phone conversation, La O Samoa can be and will be one of the 5 companies that are already approved and part of the SP [Solar Project] taking in consideration of its capabilities…"

Hamilton responded to the TEO Director via email on October 12, 2104, saying, "We take your and all American Samoans input serious but this Email even more, and are seeking input from our friends & counsel. This being a holiday weekend here, that is difficult but we will reply as soon as is possible."

Earlier in October, Hamilton also told Sotoa in an email that they "are only in American Samoa to see if we can help the people, so there we have complete agreement. Working out the details is just the process of business, that I'm sure we can work things out."

Hamilton also noted in his email that their American Samoa operations director is Eti Lauatua'a. Emails to Hamilton and their counsel, Marcellus Talaimalo Uiagalelei were not immediately answered.

However, in response to Samoa News queries over the weekend, Help U Solar LLC CEO Joel Peck MD confirmed that La O Samoa is a Division of Help U Solar LLC operating in American Samoa with a mission to help bring Solar Energy and reduced electricity costs to the people and working as local independent contractors to help determine interest in solar for the people.

Samoa News asked for an explanation on the project that has been advertised on island by the La O Samoa staff, in which "free solar and free installation" is alleged to be offered.

Peck said that is a "misrepresentation" and further stated that the accusation that La O Samoa is advertising the company’s Solar Project as "Free" or "free for all" is absolutely inaccurate.

"To our knowledge, no member of our staff is promoting or advertising our solar project as "free" or "free for all", he said. "Of course we have had to try out several people in an effort to find the right mix to train our people, as any business."

The company’s CEO added that "this goes against all of the training and materials we’ve provided for our staff and field personnel, as well as the content of our discussions with members of the government and the American Samoa Power Authority.

"Furthermore, the word ‘free’ does not appear AT ALL in the broker agreement we offer. If we discover that a member of our staff is disregarding their training and instructions, and promoting the project as ‘free’ we will act swiftly to correct such misstatements," he said.

Peck also explained the concept of "Zero Down", and how this is not at all to be confused with "Free", and seemed to suggest this is where the confusion is occurring.

"We are all familiar with paying for large items over time — whether it’s a car, a house, or furniture — where you pay something initially, and then make payments over time until you’ve completed the purchase. You’re familiar with the terminology "10 down" or "20% down. ’Zero Down’ is where many businesses offer a payment plan that requires no initial money down, or no initial out of pocket costs. This does not mean ‘free’."

He also pointed out that it requires a strong negotiating position with the provider of solar panels to get a payment plan with no money down – "It is for this very reason that we seek to sign up as many home owners as possible — we believe that with the support of the people of American Samoa, La O Samoa will have the strong negotiating position necessary to bring in the best available options to many homeowners, not just the few.

He reiterated, "solar panels are not free — they must be paid for, in some manner."

Peck told Samoa News that "this is a very complex area of finance, which is why you need an organization to bring this to a reality."

He further explained, "the benefit to the consumer is that purchasing the electricity from the Solar Entity is less expensive than continuing to pay current rates."

Peck also pointed there is a federal program that provides for solar tax credits, which can be applied towards the expenses for solar, and points out that they are trying to bring it to American Samoa, — it’s set to expire 12/31/2016.

"That means if we don’t accomplish our goal of rapidly bringing residential solar to the homes in American Samoa, the people will lose the opportunity to have 30% of the cost shouldered by this federal program," the CEO says, adding: "If the 12/31/16 deadline passes, any homeowner not yet having solar may miss the opportunity" and nobody knows at this time if the Federal Residential tax credit program will be renewed.

According to the website: La O Samoa; their goal is to significantly reduce the overall electric power bills paid by the average Samoan homeowner. We will harness the power of our local communities and nation employing Samoan labor, American equipment, and utilizing monies available from the federal government," the website claims.

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