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Dance studio faces questions from state

In what was described as the first step toward a more intense investigation into a Safety Harbor dance studio, the state Wednesday filed several administrative complaints against Dance Place and issued subpoenas for a variety of business records.

The complaints seek a total of $9,000 in fines. The subpoenas demand business records that could be used to build a case against Dance Place.

Investigators with the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs, which regulates the dance industry, served the notices to owner Michael Pasquarelli at his studio at 550 Main St. Pasquarelli also owns the Dance Place studio at 2135 Drew St., Clearwater.

"The investigation is continuing," said Terence McElroy, a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. "Obviously, this is not the last he has heard from us."

McElroy said the state's investigation was triggered by a Jan. 27 story in the St. Petersburg Times about a Palm Harbor widow who claims she was pressured into spending $257,000 at the Safety Harbor studio during a three-week period in December.

Since then, local and state law enforcement officials have received about 30 complaints from current and former students of the Dance Place and other studios.

The subpoenas served Wednesday demand that Pasquarelli produce business records that include accounts, receipts, transcripts of verbal sales presentations, all dance lesson sales contracts, cancellation requests and any correspondence from customers. The deadline for production is Wednesday.

"If anyone was exploited by these facilities, we want to know," state Agriculture and Consumer Services commissioner Charles H. Bronson said in a written statement. "And if that's the case, we are committed to taking whatever action is necessary to make sure that no one else is taken advantage of."

Pasquarelli said Wednesday that he did not intend to run afoul of state regulations. The state is "jumping on the bandwagon with everyone else" investigating his studios, he said.

Pasquarelli said that he anticipated Wednesday's actions and that the staff at Dance Place has been copying records for about two weeks.

Bronson said investigation into the dance studios is likely to continue for at least several more weeks. It involves the Florida Attorney General's Office, Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and the county Department of Consumer Protection.

The administrative complaints allege that Pasquarelli operates Dance Place without the required security bond. The state also alleged that Pasquarelli "knowingly made a false representation" that the studio was exempt from filing the security because it had been in business under the same ownership for more than three years. In fact, McElroy said, Pasquarelli reformed the business Oct. 13, 2000, and therefore was required to post a bond.

The state wants to fine Dance Place $3,500 for the security bond violation. It also demands that the studio submit the required $25,000 in security or quit doing business.

"This may ultimately put the studio out of business," McElroy said.

Pasquarelli also received a notice to appear in court to answer to a misdemeanor charge that he made a false statement about the bond requirement.

Pasquarelli said he was assured by state regulators that he did not need to post the bond because, although he formed a new corporation, it was under the same ownership.

Another complaint stems from a visit that a state undercover agent made to Dance Place within the last month, McElroy said. It alleges that Pasquarelli offered to sell the agent an opportunity to set up a similar dance business. Offering to sell such a business opportunity requires a disclosure filing with the state, McElroy said. The state proposes a $2,000 fine.

Pasquarelli said he didn't know anything about that.

The administrative complaints also seek to shut down the World Wide Dancing Federation, a venture Pasquarelli has said was aimed at developing an Internet presence for his dance business, but which had not yet gotten off the ground.

When the corporation was formed, David B. "Vic Andrews was listed as a corporate officer. In 1995, Andrews was convicted of fraud and grand theft while acting as a manager Aragon World Dance Studio in Port Richey. Andrews, who served a five-year prison sentence, now works at Dance Place.

According to the action taken Wednesday by the state, Andrews' criminal history makes the studio ineligible for a registration certificate from the state. The settlement offered by the state is a $3,500 fine and the closure of World Wide Dancing Federation.

Pasquarelli said Andrews is no longer an officer of the corporation. Pasquarelli said he formed the World Wide Dancing Federation while in the midst of a divorce and put Andrews' name on it as an officer. He said he did not recall even doing it or even whether he told Andrews about it.

"I did it as kind of a nice gesture," Pasquarelli said. "Obviously, it was a mistake. When we found out, we took him off."

Pasquarelli can appeal and ask for an administrative hearing on all the complaints.

Pasquarelli said Dance Place isn't a fly-by-night dance operation that sells lengthy dance packages and then closes, leaving customers in the lurch. But with the recent publicity about complaints, he said, the studio has been inundated with requests for refunds.

"At this time, people are jumping on the bandwagon and asking for refunds for services already taken," he said.

The Dance Place studio in Clearwater is closed for "renovations, remodeling and restructuring," he said. Students there can take lessons at the Safety Harbor studio instead, he said, or wait a month for the Clearwater studio to reopen.

_ Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or farleysptimes.com.

To file a complaint

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services asks that any customers with complaints about either location of Dance Place or any other dance studio call the department's toll-free helpline at 1-800-435-7352 to obtain a complaint form.

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