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Sweepstakes suit brings award

A Tampa woman will receive more than $1,000 as part of a settlement with American Family Publishers.

A 79-year-old Tampa woman who poured hundreds of dollars into American Family Publishers sweepstakes will share in a $32-million class-action settlement approved in New Jersey last week, her lawyers said Monday.

Ina Brown received AFP mailings in 1997 telling her that either she or one other person had won millions, said her attorney, Guy Burns of Tampa.

The settlement, as well as reforms obtained by state and federal officials, means that "the days of outlandish sweepstakes claims and promises are over," Burns said.

Mrs. Brown will get back several hundred dollars she spent on magazines in hopes of winning the sweepstakes, Burns said.

She also will receive $1,000 for serving as one of a half-dozen lead plaintiffs in the nationwide class-action lawsuit.

Burns and members of his firm, Johnson, Blakely, Pope, Bokor, Ruppel & Burns, and more than 30 other lawyers throughout the country who worked with them, will split an award of $8.7-million for fees and costs. The total value of the settlement, with all costs included, is nearly $50-million.

Investigations of AFP began after the St. Petersburg Times reported in 1997 that a dozen people flew to Tampa to collect sweepstakes prizes they mistakenly thought they had won. One was 88-year-old Richard Lusk of California, who also is a plaintiff in the suit. He and the others who made the trip to Tampa have already been reimbursed for their travel expenses.

The trips prompted a storm of criticism of AFP, Publishers Clearing House, and other direct-mail marketers that use sweepstakes.

Dozens of law firms nationwide received complaints and filed lawsuits, which were consolidated in federal court in New Jersey. AFP subsequently declared bankruptcy there.

More than 140,000 people, who received AFP mailings between 1992 and 1999, qualified for refunds that will average about $500. Claimants' attorneys say that's about 90 cents on the dollar, an unusually high recovery rate. Also as part of the settlement, $1-million has been set aside for a sweepstakes. The court in New Jersey will supervise a drawing for 10 prizes of $100,000. The refund qualifiers will be in the sweepstakes pool.

In agreeing to the terms, AFP denies liability, and says it is settling to put the matter behind it.

_ Larry Dougherty can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or doughertysptimes.com

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