(ran SS edition of METRO & 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.
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 complaints include an allegation that the studio failed to post the required security bond and that Pasquarelli improperly attempted to sell an undercover agent an opportunity to set up a similar dance business. They could lead to the closure of the studios, said Terence McElroy of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
The subpoenas require Pasquarelli to produce records that include accounts, records and receipts of the business, transcripts of verbal sales presentations, all contracts related to the sale of dance lessons, 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."
Serving the administrative actions allowed the state to go in immediately and force the business to comply with the law, or shut it down, and to compel the studio to hand over documents that will allow investigators to "get ready to build this case," McElroy said.
"The investigation is continuing," McElroy said. "Obviously this is not the last he has heard from us."
Pasquarelli said on Wednesday that he did not intend to run afoul of state regulations and that the state was simply "jumping on the bandwagon with everyone else" investigating his studios.
McElroy said the state's investigation was triggered by a 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.
Bronson said investigation into the dance studios is likely to continue for at least several more weeks and involves the Florida Attorney General's Office, Pinellas-Pasco State Attorneys Office, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and the county Department of Consumer Protection.
The administrative complaints allege Pasquarelli was operating Dance Place without the required security bond, and "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 on Oct. 13, 2000, and therefore was required to post a bond.
The settlement offered by the state gives Pasquarelli the option of a $3,500 fine and the submission of $25,000 in security; or a $3,500 fine and an agreement to quit doing business as a dance studio.
"This may ultimately put the studio out of business," McElroy said.
That allegation also led to a summons requiring Pasquarelli 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 alleges Pasquarelli offered to sell an undercover agent an opportunity to set up a similar dance business, McElroy said. 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. Andrews was convicted of fraud and grand theft while acting as a manager at 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.
"We do so many things throughout the day," Pasquarelli said. "I did it as kind of a nice gesture. 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 on complaints about the studio, he said, the studio has been inundated with refund requests.
"At this time, people are jumping on the bandwagon and asking for refunds for services already taken," he said.
Pasquarelli said he was anticipating Wednesday's actions, and the staff at Dance Place has been photocopying records for about two weeks.
The Clearwater studio is currently 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.