A Clearwater company that has distributed gas vouchers nationwide has engaged in unfair and deceptive business practices, according to a lawsuit announced Friday by the Florida attorney general.
Meanwhile, the Pinellas Department of Justice and Consumer Services has opened a criminal investigation into the company, Tidewater Marketing Global Consultants Inc., and its president, Crystal Marie Clark.
Clark, through a Tidewater official, declined to comment Friday. She has said that computer and phone problems delayed distribution of the gas cards but that her business at 17900 U.S. 19 in Clearwater is legitimate.
Attorney General Bill McCollum has asked for an injunction against Tidewater to prevent the company from continuing operations; the lawsuit also demands restitution to consumers for the gas cards they were to receive as incentives from various retailers, including tire dealers, car dealers, furniture and electronics stores and vacation clubs.
"Defendants have engaged in a pattern of inefficiency and incompetency and have practiced continuous stalling and evasion of legal obligations to the consumers participating in the gasoline voucher program,'' the lawsuit states.
"Defendants have committed and are committing acts or practices in trade or commerce which shock the conscience … and have engaged in acts or practices in trade or commerce which offend established public policy and are unethical, oppressive, unscrupulous or substantially injurious to consumers."
Tidewater sold the vouchers to retailers for as little as $7, and the retailers gave consumers vouchers in denominations as high as $500 when they made a purchase, test drove a car or visited a retailer.
To redeem the vouchers, a $5 registration fee was required. Once enrolled, the consumer was required to send $100 worth of gas receipts each month, for which they would receive a $25 gift card until the full value of the voucher was reached.
Though the attorney general said hundreds of thousands of consumers participated, "few, if any, consumers have received all the gas coupons.''
McCollum's office said unresolved complaints known to the attorney general exceed 1,800.
The Attorney General's Office and other consumer agencies have increasingly become overwhelmed with complaints as the program has unfolded.
Concerns about the program first reached the attorney general in January 2008, when Steve Rosenfeld, of Wellington in Palm Beach County, questioned the office about whether the voucher program was legitimate.
By spring, consumers began complaining that they were not receiving their gas cards.
Internet Web sites began lighting up with complaints, which also were coming in to the Better Business Bureau, attorneys general in more than two dozen states and local consumer protection agencies.
Clark and the Attorney General's Office reached an agreement signed Jan. 16 that Tidewater would cease attempts to acquire new business via the sale or distribution of gasoline redemption vouchers until all current consumer obligations are fulfilled.
But by Jan. 30, Nicola Cox, of the attorney general's Tampa office, noted in an e-mail that Jim Barnes, a manager for Tidewater, seemed to be ignoring complaints. "I believe he has stopped even responding to them," she said.
In a letter to the attorney general, Clark's lawyer, Thomas C. Little, said that Tidewater had been "professional, diligent and honest." He said Clark had operated the business continuously since its inception for 17 years.
The Better Business Bureau has given Tidewater an "F'' rating, the agency's lowest grade.
Clark, 36, of Seminole, also faces drug trafficking charges in Pinellas/Pasco Circuit Court, with her next court date Feb. 27. Police say she sold 20 oxycontin pills to an confidential informer and an undercover detective for $500.
Ivan Penn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2332.