CLEARWATER — A Clearwater marketing firm that offers free gas cards agreed to a state takeover Friday in response to a lawsuit by the state and thousands of complaints across the country.
Tidewater Marketing Global Consultants is now in the hands of state-appointed receiver Charles Stutts, an expert in securities and banking law with the firm Holland & Knight, under an agreement approved by a Pinellas circuit judge during a hearing Friday.
Stutts assumes control over a troubled company saddled with consumer complaints, lawsuits and criminal inquiries. Within the next 10 business days, Stutts is expected to give his first report on the business' operations, which could help determine whether disaffected employees and consumers will receive any of what they are due.
Meanwhile, retailers that distributed Tidewater's free gas offer have been scrambling to calm a storm of complaints from customers who say they were duped into making purchases with a questionable incentive program.
At least one of Tidewater's major clients, Tire Kingdom, has posted a notice on its Web site that it soon will offer customers a different program.
"Tidewater is failing to live up to its obligations," said Bob Crostarosa, senior vice president for marketing of the TBC Retail Group, which owns Tire Kingdom. "We're not pleased with the way Tidewater has treated our customers."
One of the TBC's brands, Big O Tires, has been named in a class action lawsuit over the gas vouchers, which the company gave to consumers who bought tires.
Tidewater's gas vouchers were sold to retailers, which used them as incentives for customers to buy cars, furniture, tires, electronics and other products or even to simply visit a store.
The retailers paid as little as $7 dollars for a $500 voucher and then gave it to their customers.
Consumers had to register their vouchers by paying $5, then send $100 worth of gas receipts each month. Tidewater promised to send a $25 gas card in exchange for the receipts each month until the total amount of the voucher was reached — a process that could take as long as 20 months for a $500 voucher.
The state sued Tidewater and its president, Crystal M. Clark, for deceptive and unfair business practices and called for an emergency injunction hearing Friday to stop the distribution of the gas vouchers.
The state Attorney General's Office and Tidewater reached an agreement prior to the hearing. As a result, neither Clark nor her lawyer, Thomas Little, appeared in court Friday.
Anxious former employees who attended the hearing had hoped to hear something about payment of the benefits they have not been receiving and the fate of the company that terminated them this week.
But they heard little about the company or their future.
"It is my understanding from Mr. Tom Little that (Clark) has closed the doors, which is of her own volition," Robert Follis, of the state Attorney General's Office, told the judge.
The employees huddled around news cameras to voice their frustrations about being told they no longer had jobs in an economy that continues to sour.
"It was very hard," Vanessa Wiscombe, who had worked for Tidewater for a year, said of the company's decision to close this week. "It was very unexpected."
But Wiscombe and others said they increasingly saw that Tidewater was deeply troubled.
"Our checks were bouncing, or we didn't get paid," Wiscombe said.
In addition, Tidewater and Clark are under criminal investigation by the Pinellas County Department of Justice and Consumer Services.
Clark also goes to court next week on a drug trafficking charge. Police say she sold 20 Oxycontin pills to a confidential informant and undercover police detective for $500.
Ivan Penn can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2332.