Car dealers have a dismal reputation, ranking lower in consumer trust than almost any other business. And no one has been more critical of the industry than a man who was once a sleazy car salesman himself — Duane Martin Overholt.
Founder of stopautofraud.com, Overholt has worked with government agencies, Dateline NBC and the national consumer advocacy group Public Interest to expose crooked car dealers and educate car buyers.
"He is legitimately among the most knowledgeable people in the auto industry on auto fraud,'' says William Amlong, a Miami lawyer.
Amlong is among several attorneys who have gotten clients by way of Overholt's Web site. But now Overholt is at the center of a legal battle with a formidable adversary — U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan of Sarasota.
In several suits in which Overholt had a hand, former employees of Buchanan's dealerships in Sarasota and Pasco counties accuse Buchanan and his companies of bilking customers, falsifying records and pressuring employees to contribute to his 2006 race for Congress.
Buchanan, a Republican who faces Democrat Christine Jennings, denies the allegations and says the suits are politically motivated. His Sarasota Ford dealership has countersued, claiming that Overholt is "spearheading'' lies meant to destroy Buchanan's business, and trying to "stir up" litigation from which he would profit as an expert witness.
"The reason Buchanan is going after me is simply because I'm telling the truth,'' says Overholt, 55.
An intense man with a quick temper, Overholt acknowledges he was a "bad boy'' who engaged in unsavory sales practices. He has a checkered past that includes a bankruptcy, IRS liens and delinquent child support.
Moreover, Overholt's ties to a Maryland auto dealer who pays him $4,400 a month and provides him with a Cadillac have raised questions about his motives in targeting other dealers.
"I'm not a rich man,'' says Overholt, who lives in Maryland. "Every penny I get goes to helping the consumer.''
Overholt's stopautofraud.com lets consumers download a free Car Buyers Primer, which lists the "most common dealership scams.'' It also invites them to send in sales documents for free evaluation of deceptive practices like charging for items that are not on the car.
More controversially, consumers can get names of "local attorneys that may take your case.''
Critics say the main purpose of the Web site is to drum up business for Overholt and a small group of lawyers.
"He has been involved in a lot of litigation, much of which has not ever gone to trial and is more about trying to get a settlement and get as much out of any business as possible,'' says Darrin Chrisman, operating partner of Buchanan's Sarasota Ford.
Overholt's Web site says he has "developed'' or "participated in'' dozens of suits nationwide, some of which resulted in substantial jury awards or settlements. But aside from seminars he runs for law firms, Overholt says he gets no money from attorneys and no cut of settlements.
Amlong, the Miami attorney, had a dispute with Overholt over some of the Buchanan cases.
"Duane started talking about how he would be the expert witness in these things,'' Amlong recalls. "I think it's very close to paying referral fees to nonlawyers,'' which is prohibited by Florida Bar rules.
He said Overholt also wanted publicity about the lawsuits even though it could potentially jeopardize the clients' cases. "What might be good for my client is not necessarily what's going to be best for Duane,'' Amlong said.
Amlong briefly represented Joe Kezer, who says he was fired as Sarasota Ford's $300,000-a-year finance director after objecting to its sales practices. Overholt acknowledges offering his services but says, "I never asked for a dime."
Overholt says 90 percent of his funding comes from auto dealers who comply with the law.
"I tell them right up front, 'If you don't do the program, I'm going to go after you,' '' he says.
Of the 25 or so dealers Overholt advises, his main benefactor is Jack Fitzgerald, owner of Fitz Auto Malls in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Clearwater. Fitzgerald, 73, has such an upstanding reputation that a trade association chose him to respond to the 2003 Dateline show in which Overholt exposed tricks of the trade.
"Apparently that upset Mr. Overholt, and he came after me and sent shoppers into my dealerships convinced he would find the same practices he thought were universal in car dealerships,'' Fitzgerald says.
When Overholt didn't find anything suspicious, the two men began working together, Fitzgerald says. Besides the Cadillac and monthly retainer, Fitzgerald, a pilot, sometimes flies Overholt to meetings on his jet.
Fitzgerald, who has no dealerships near Buchanan's, says he has never benefited from Overholt's activities, despite allegations to the contrary. Nor does he want to get involved in politics, though he has some sympathy for Buchanan.
"It's not easy to run a car dealership if you're doing something else,'' he says.
Overholt's road from "bad boy'' to antifraud crusader has taken him through three marriages, life-threatening illness and a religious epiphany.
His second ex-wife sued him for 15 years of delinquent child support for their son, totalling $51,637. He paid $5,000 in 1997 to settle.
Overholt briefly co-owned a Pittsburgh auto dealership that went out of business in 1992, prompting a move to Florida. In 1994, he declared bankruptcy with $1-million in debts, including $15,790 he and ex-business partners owed to the IRS. He is still paying off a tax lien filed in 2004.
For the rest of the decade Overholt worked at series of Tampa Bay dealerships. His Web site says he was at church one Sunday when he realized he was part of an industry enmeshed in "lies and deception.''
"The very next day I took all of my personal records and documents containing fraud, forgeries and other mass violations of sales practices to the U.S. Secret Service, not knowing if I would go to jail for the rest of my life."
Overholt got immunity from prosecution, and while at Bennett Car Sales in Clearwater reported on activities that sent top executives to federal prison. In 1999, he sued another employer, Sonic Automotive (Clearwater Mitsubishi), claiming he was fired as a finance manager for reporting allegedly fraudulent practices. The suit also alleged Overholt was canned for taking time off to consult with doctors on a botched surgery that caused him chronic diarrhea and shrunk his weight from 187 to 128 pounds.
Sonic said it fired Overholt for forging a customer's signature. Overholt denied it and reached a confidential settlement, which he recently described to a rich businessman considering legal action against Buchanan:
"I can tell you this — I draw close to $14,000 a month in interest on that money that's kept in a secured account.''
Overholt says he was exaggerating to impress. He has spent "every penny'' of the settlement, he says, on the consumer advocacy work he started in 2001.
"I'm not proud of who I was in the past. I'm a bad example for anybody to follow, and I hope nobody does. But at least I learned and at least I'm trying to make a change.''
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed. Contact Susan Taylor Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org