ST. PETERSBURG — Karen Forcade was a nationally recognized expert on marketing to teenagers. She also became president of a St. Petersburg company that tested the child safety features of cigarette lighters.
Now Forcade has pleaded guilty in federal court to hiding the dangers of a cigarette lighter from federal regulators, and of falsifying other tests. Prosecutors say she did it to get paid by the companies that hired her.
Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, called it an "egregious" case of fraud. If it had not been stopped, an unsafe type of lighter "possibly could have made its way into the marketplace," he said.
Forcade, 66, pleaded guilty to fraud earlier this month and will be sentenced at a later date. Her company, Youth Research, is now out of business, and last listed an address on Sunset Drive N in St. Petersburg.
Lighters sold in the United States must have certain features that make it harder for young children to accidentally start fires. The industry hires testing companies to prove a lighter's safety.
In one 2003 case, Forcade's company tested a lighter that had been imported by a New Jersey company. Ten children managed to get the lighter to work, meaning it should have failed the test, court records state.
But the company falsely told the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission that the lighter passed the test, according to court records.
Forcade and co-conspirators falsified other tests and "knew that if the tests did not appear to have been conducted pursuant to (Consumer Product Safety Commission) regulations, Forcade would not be paid by the manufacturer or importer, and in turn, the co-conspirators would not receive payment," federal court records state.
"This was very surprising, I was shocked when I first heard it," said David Baker, general counsel of the Lighter Association, an industry group. "No one envisioned that anyone would do something like this."
Forcade's attorney, Jack Fernandez of Tampa, declined to comment.
Forcade once had a national reputation for her work with children. She was featured in a 1989 story in the New York Times, which described her as a child psychologist and former Montessori educator.
Baker said revelations of the fraud, which have been known in the industry for a few years, did result in re-testing of some lighters that previously had been approved by Youth Research. But he did not know of any case in which unsafe lighters actually made it to store shelves.
He also said he's confident in the current testing procedures, and said lighters sold in the United States "are the safest lighters in the world."
Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report.