Make us your home page

Suit accuses Largo gas voucher company Tidewater of fraud

The nationwide free gas voucher program created by a Largo marketing company was a $39 million "fraudulent scheme," according to a lawyer appointed by the state to review the finances of Tidewater Marketing Global Consultants.

Lawyer Charles Stutts said in a lawsuit filed in Pinellas Circuit Court on Friday that Tidewater "fraudulently created and sold millions of worthless coupons for distribution to retailers and consumers."

Stutts' suit seeks to reclaim money spent by Tidewater owner Crystal Clark, general manager James Barnes, computer programmer Michael W. Hunter and affiliated firm Elite Marketing of Tampa.

The lawsuit accuses Clark of concocting the gas voucher scheme, which sold vouchers to brokers and retailers for $2 to $4 to use as incentives for consumers. Retailers then distributed the vouchers free to tens of thousands of consumers after they purchased furniture, tires, cars, electronics and other products.

The voucher was a promise of free gas valued at as much as $500, a compelling inducement when gas prices topped $4 a gallon and as the economy soured.

But instead of fulfilling the vouchers, Stutts says, Clark, Barnes, Hunter and Elite Marketing pocketed the money for themselves, even as obligations and liabilities continued to mount.

"The money obtained by Tidewater through fraud and deceit retains its character as ill-gotten gain, regardless of how or why Tidewater spent it," the lawsuit states. "In addition, Tidewater's owner and president, as well as several of its financial advisers and managers, knew or should have known of Tidewater's fraudulent scheme and abused their positions of confidence to unjustly enrich themselves."

Clark, who is under criminal investigation by state and federal authorities, previously asked not to be contacted any further about the case. Elite Marketing's owner, William S. Kilichowski, did not respond to phone calls requesting comment.

Hunter, the computer programmer, denied any knowledge of Tidewater's scheme. He said he also was not an agent of Elite Marketing, a company he worked for from 2001 to 2003.

"I didn't do it," Hunter said. "I was the computer guy. I had nothing to do with operations of the place at all."

Of the $3.052 million in receipts taken in by Tidewater, Clark transferred more than $1 million to her personal accounts or spent the money on cars, clothes, trips, drugstore purchases, and entertainment for herself and her family.

Almost $700,000 went to Hunter and more than $200,000 went to Barnes, Tidewater's general manager, according to the lawsuit.

Still unaccounted for are the untold millions brokers pocketed. After purchasing the vouchers from Tidewater for as little as $2, brokers resold the vouchers to retailers for as much as $45. Despite the price, "these coupons had no value, as they were nothing more than pieces of paper imprinted with numerical codes generated by Tidewater through a computer program," the lawsuit states.

The scheme left retailers nationwide and in Canada — including Ashley, La-Z-Boy and Bassett furniture stores; defunct Tweeter and Sound Advice electronic stores; Tire Kingdom and its sister company, Big O Tires — saddled with tens of thousands, and in some cases millions, of dollars in debt to consumers.

Ashley Furniture reached a settlement in its class-action suit. A fairness hearing is scheduled for Jan. 29, in the Circuit Court of Cook County in Illinois. Information and a consumer claim form has been posted on Ashley's Web site at www.gasredemption

Tire Kingdom posted a notice from its president about alternatives to the voucher program for its customers at A class action against Big O Tires remains in litigation.

An Ashley Furniture spokeswoman declined to comment Tuesday. Tire Kingdom's spokesman did not immediately return phone calls.

Don Dominguez, a tire incentive broker who first raised concern about the gas voucher program, said he remains troubled by the way the case against Tidewater has unfolded.

"I'm still kind of disappointed in the process, because it's been so slow," Dominguez said. "Even with a civil suit, I have my doubts about any of the plaintiffs being satisfied monetarily."

Times staff writer Rodney Thrash and news researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Ivan Penn can be reached at or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter at Edge and become a fan of Consumer's Edge on Facebook.

Suit accuses Largo gas voucher company Tidewater of fraud 12/08/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 9, 2009 1:12pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Pinellas grants St. Pete's request to add millions to pier budget

    Local Government

    Times Staff Writer

    The Pinellas County Commission has granted St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman's request to dedicate millions in county funding toward the city's new pier.

    The St. Petersburg City Council on Thursday  voted 7-1 to appropriate $17.6 million for the over-water portion of the Pier District. This is a rendering of what the new Pier District could look like. [Courtesy of St. Petersburg]
  2. Pinellas licensing board loses support for staying independent

    Local Government

    CLEARWATER –– The Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board on Monday lost its strongest supporter for staying independent.

    State Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican running for governor, said Monday that he will no longer support any legislation to keep the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board independent. This photo was taken in August. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]
  3. Triad Retail Media names Sherry Smith as CEO


    ST. PETERSBURG — Triad Retail Media, a St. Petersburg-based digital ads company, said CEO Roger Berdusco is "leaving the company to pursue new opportunities" and a member of the executive team, Sherry Smith, is taking over.

    Sherry Smith is taking over as CEO at Triad Retail Media, the company announced Monday. | [Courtesy of Triad Retail Media]
  4. Two new condo projects for same street in downtown St. Pete

    Real Estate

    ST. PETERSBURG — It lacks the panache and name recognition of Beach Drive, but 4th Avenue N in downtown St. Petersburg is becoming a condo row in its own right.

    Bezu, a condo project planned at 100 4th Ave. N in downtown St. Petersburg, will have 24 units including a three-level penthouse with infinity pool.
[Courtesy of Clear ph Design]
  5. AAA expects gas prices in Tampa Bay will continue to fall


    Ticking slowly and steadily, regular gas prices have receded for the last 10 consecutive days. The average unleaded gas price in Florida is $2.67 this morning, a nickel cheaper than a week ago. In Tampa Bay, the current average unleaded gas has dropped 7 cents from a week ago to $2.62. The national average for regular …

    Gas prices for regular gas continue to decline. In Tampa Bay, the current average unleaded gas is down 7 cents from a week ago at $2.62 a gallon. [Times file photo]