Consumers who say they were cheated by a Clearwater marketing firm that has distributed hundreds of thousands of vouchers for free gas could get a glimmer of relief today.
The state attorney general wants a Pinellas circuit judge to order Tidewater Marketing Global Consultants Inc. to stop doing business. The state also wants the judge to appoint a receiver to preserve the company's assets for consumers.
After receiving notice of the emergency injunction hearing in Pinellas County Circuit Court, Tidewater began shuttering its operations in Clearwater and Largo on Tuesday evening, sending confused and angry employees to the unemployment line.
Some of the disaffected workers said they went to the Attorney General's Office and to the Pinellas State Attorney's Office to file complaints, joining thousands of consumers here and around the country who say they have been cheated.
James Davis, who said he has worked for Tidewater since September, and Amy Haas, who said she handled data entry and telephone calls for Tidewater, said they did not receive their last paychecks.
They were among a dozen employees who said they were told Tuesday night that the state Attorney General's Office was shutting them down so everyone had to leave the building.
Sandi Copes, spokeswoman for Attorney General Bill McCollum, said Tidewater was only informed about today's injunction hearing; no orders were given for the company to close.
Through a Tidewater official, company president Crystal Clark has said she does not want to comment. Her lawyer, Thomas Little, did not return messages.
Tidewater is being besieged on other fronts, as well. The company faces eviction from its Clearwater office. The landlord, Allen's Creek Champ Inc., filed suit against the company earlier this month for failing to pay rent in January. The suit says Tidewater owes $4,481.82.
A man has filed a lawsuit in federal court in Dayton, Ohio, seeking class action status on behalf of an untold number of consumers, like himself, who say Tidewater failed to fulfill promises of his gas card. Shawn DeWeese also names Big O Tires, LLC, as a defendant.
DeWeese's attorney said she holds the Big O Tire company as responsible for leaving consumers empty-handed as she does Tidewater because the tire company gave the customer the gas voucher offer as part of a purchase agreement.
"We think Big O is very responsible because they chose" Tidewater, said attorney Colleen Marie Hegge. "The customer doesn't know who Tidewater is. These customers were enticed to the dance, so to speak, by Big O."
DeWeese's suit could mean trouble for dozens of retailers throughout North America that signed onto Tidewater's gas voucher program, companies that include large corporations such as Tire Kingdom, Ashley Furniture, La-Z-Boy, Bassett Furniture, the Big Screen Stores as well as Chrysler, Lincoln, Hyundai, Ford, Nissan, BMW and numerous other car dealerships.
If retailers are forced to make good on the vouchers, which are valued at as much as $500, it would cost them a fortune.
The retailers bought the gas vouchers from Tidewater, for as little as $7. The voucher for $500 of free gas would be used as an incentive to get customers to purchase cars, furniture, tires and electronic equipment.
There are some 2,000 registered complaints against Tidewater with the Florida attorney general, the Better Business Bureau and the Pinellas County Consumer Protection agency. But the attorney general's investigative files show that there are hundreds of thousands of gas vouchers that may have gone unfulfilled.
Former Tidewater employees terminated this week questioned where the company's money had gone because they said Tidewater management rarely gave them gift cards to send out to consumers.
They said over the last two months, their payroll checks sometimes bounced and they were sometimes paid in cash.
"We didn't get paid on Friday," said former training manager Vanessa Wiscombe of last week's payroll. "I asked, 'Will we get paid on Tuesday? (Clark) said, 'Yes, in cash.' "
But when Tuesday came, Wiscombe, who said she worked for the company about a year, said she and dozens of others were told they no longer had jobs.
"We were to take our belongings and get out immediately," Wiscombe said.
The employees said that like retailers and consumers, they believed the company was legitimate. They saw some gas cards go out to customers, and they saw Tidewater's clients included major national retailers. Then Clark leased the 10,000-square-foot facility on U.S. 19, and the employees thought the company was growing fast.
But then they said they saw few cards going out and mail piling up, and they said they were given a script to read to callers to explain where their cards were.
Then they learned that the company's owner, Clark, was arrested on a charge of trafficking OxyContin.
Davis, a 30-year-old who said he worked for Tidewater the past six months, said he was filing complaints with every agency he could think of.
"We're going to take it as far as we can take it — to the end," he said.
Ivan Penn can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2332.