Consumers across the nation bought furniture from Bassett and Ashley furniture stores. They bought tires, flooring, Bose sound systems and Hyundai Elantras — all with the expectation they would get $500 in free gas.
But the Seminole woman responsible for fulfilling the promise of free fuel, Crystal Marie Clark, owner of Tidewater Marketing Global Consultants, took the money and went on shopping and spending sprees of her own.
What she didn't do was fulfill the promise of the $37 million owed to hundreds of thousands of consumers and her other creditors across the country.
She bought clothes: $5,500 at Cache; $3,178 at the Buckle; $835 at Victoria's Secret.
She spent it on fun and games: $2,663 at the paintball supplier Airsplat; $1,368 at Gamestop.
She traveled: more than $5,000 in hotels; almost $10,000 in car rentals and limousines.
She helped her brother: $4,596 for his rent at the Indian Palms Apartments; $1,488 for his car payment; and $520 for his car insurance.
She even took care of the dead: $12,525 to Moss Feaster Funeral Home and $6,685 to Serenity Gardens Cemetery.
In all, amounts taken directly by Clark or on her behalf total $663,576 plus $9,104 for her brother's expenses, Pinellas County Circuit Court records show. Her general manager, James Barnes, collected $203,150.
Meanwhile, she left retailers to battle lawsuits brought by their customers over her free gas voucher program that was designed to be an incentive to get consumers to make purchases.
Clark could not be reached for comment and voice mail messages were not immediately returned.
Ashley Furniture and Big O Tires already face class-action lawsuits from consumers who did not get their gas voucher money. Hyundai of New Port Richey and Bassett Furniture landed in small-claims court and paid $500 owed to two consumers.
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the Pinellas County State Attorney's Office are investigating Clark and her now-defunct marketing operation.
The state-appointed receiver who has been reviewing Tidewater's records says he is considering a lawsuit against Clark and the insiders responsible for the personal spending to reclaim the money.
"This is nothing but from Tidewater's own bank accounts," said the receiver, Charles Stutts, a lawyer with Holland & Knight. "It took me a long time to get these bank records. Certainly we're looking at the possibility of trying to recover these transfers."
That action, Stutts says, could come within the next couple of months. He indicated that the criminal investigation continues to heat up as the U.S. Attorney's Office issued him a federal grand jury subpoena in regard to Tidewater as part of the Postal Inspection Service's case.
Clark launched the free gas program in January 2007 through her Largo-based business, Tidewater Marketing Global Consultants. She began the program with $461 in Tidewater's bank accounts and collected — and spent — more than $3 million before the state shut down the company.
For the program, Clark sold gas "vouchers" to so-called incentive brokers or directly to retailers to use as a way to bolster business.
Retailers gave the gas vouchers in denominations as high as $500 to consumers when they bought electronics, cars, furniture, flooring, storage space and countless other products throughout the United States and Canada.
To get the free gas, Tidewater first required consumers to pay a $5 registration fee. Tidewater referred to the program as a redemption or loyalty program, which required ongoing actions by consumers beyond just the purchase of the retailers' products.
Tidewater required participants to buy $100 worth of gas each month for a single brand of gas and turn in the receipts. In exchange for the gas receipts, Tidewater promised it would issue a $25 gas card each month until the total value of the voucher was reached.
The company delivered about 28,000 prepaid debit cards to consumers, but about 548,000 cards or at least $16.4 million remains unpaid.
"I think the whole thing's a shame," said Carol Thomas, who received one of Tidewater's vouchers after she purchased $4,307 worth of furniture from a Bassett store in Indianapolis but didn't get her gas money until she sued.
Clark "wanted people to believe that she honestly wanted this business to work, but it doesn't sound from the way she was spending the money that she did," Thomas said.
Don Dominguez, a tire and tire incentive broker who raised concern about the voucher program to authorities and retailers, questioned why it has taken so long to bring action against Clark.
Dominguez said he began raising concerns about Tidewater's operation more than a year ago. The state Attorney General's Office shut the company down in February but no charges have been brought against Clark.
"We need some sort of vehicle to address the problem when it first gets into the retail customers' hands," Dominguez said. "If I'm a victim of this scam, what do I do? Who do I call? How do I get action on this?"
"She had all this money to spend free as she wished with no interference," he said. "Did any of these agencies protect the public? After $3 million? I don't call that protection."
Stutts said the process is complicated, even for him as the receiver. He said some of Tidewater's accounts were with Wachovia Bank, which was acquired during the course of his review. That delayed his ability to get bank records.
And had the company been solvent, Clark's expenditures might not have been as objectionable. The key, Stutts said, is whether she is fulfilling her obligations because she was the sole owner of Tidewater.
For example, if she claimed the personal expenditures on her taxes, she might have been covered, had the company remained solvent.
Public records do not indicate whether she claimed the expenses on her personal income tax.
However, Stutts views the personal expenditures as inappropriate and said the business had little to do with providing a service to retailers and consumers.
"It appears to provide a vehicle for these folks to put money in their pockets without regard to the interest of consumers or creditors out there," Stutts said.
What's worse for Tidewater is that the debts continue to increase.
The work by Stutts and those involved in the receivership reached $311,656. Stutts and others working on the receivership must be paid by Tidewater, so they collect only if they reclaim money owed to the company, which is increasingly difficult for all creditors.
"The bills don't stop coming," Stutts said.
Ivan Penn can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Consumers_Edge and become a fan of Consumers Edge on Facebook.