Raw Deal

State lags in helping alleged auto fraud victims clear theIr names

Last summer, Gina Clemente, a single mother with two children, decided to trade in her Ford F-150 for a more family-friendly vehicle. She visited Metro Dodge in Snellville. After hours of negotiating, she left with a 2004 Dodge Durango - and the understanding that Metro Dodge would pay off the outstanding loan on her truck as part of the trade-in deal.

But that never happened.

Clemente says that a week after she traded in the truck, her bank notified her that the truck's monthly payment of $538 was past due. She says she immediately called Metro Dodge and visited the dealership to attempt to fix the misunderstanding. But Metro Dodge didn't return her phone calls and wouldn't meet with her, she says. Eight months later, her loan still hasn't been paid, and the dealership's failure to do so has caused her credit score to plummet from the mid-600 range, considered "good," to the low 500s, considered "poor."

Like Clemente, Zakiya Williams traded in her Nissan Altima for a 2004 Dodge Neon at Metro Dodge. She, too, says she received phone calls from her finance company regarding missed payments on the Altima within weeks of her trade-in. Williams says she tried to contact Metro Dodge repeatedly. Four months later, she received a reply from Metro Dodge General Manager James Jones: "We certainly regret that due to [a] clerical error, the loan was not paid in a timely manner." Williams says she later discovered that her Altima had been sold to a woman who is now in Florida - though the title to the car is still in Williams' name. In an attempt to protect her credit, Williams continues to make payments on a car she doesn't have but technically still owns.

Clemente and Williams are suing Metro Dodge and its owner, Ronald Hill, alleging theft and fraud. The two women's cases aren't anomalies. At least 18 lawsuits and 31 complaints - ranging from county police reports to grievances filed with the state Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs - have been filed against the dealership and its top executives, claiming Metro Dodge failed to pay trade-in loans totaling more than $400,000.

And amid the individual claims, a larger question has surfaced regarding the state's ability to protect consumers in a timely manner.

"Where's our money?" Clemente asks. "We've been told so many lies."

Michael Daniel, attorney for Metro Dodge owner Hill, declined comment on specifics of the allegations, stating, "Mr. Hill has not participated in criminal conduct. Nothing in the evidence shows he has."

Metro Dodge and Hill's alleged misdeeds don't stop with the trade-ins. Metro Dodge owes around $1 million to Gwinnett County in tax liens and sales. Its former finance manager, Jerry Evans, is under indictment in DeKalb County for identity theft. And Hill, who in 1998 won $4.6 million in the Georgia Lottery, operates two other dealerships in Athens - where complaints of unpaid loans have also surfaced. He also owes almost $1 million in liens to Athens-Clarke County. In addition, he faces a separate lawsuit alleging failure to pay back a $150,000 personal loan from two women.

"I would love to see [the Metro Dodge executives] locked up," Clemente says. "They're probably sleeping at night. But a lot of us aren't, because we're worried about our financial situation."

While Clemente, Williams and others fight to get their credit back on track and their cars paid off, a more far-reaching concern has risen from the Metro Dodge confusion: the failure of Gwinnett County authorities and state officials to launch timely investigations into the dealership's actions.

Gwinnett police have fielded a dozen incident reports accusing Metro Dodge of auto theft but didn't turn any files over to the Gwinnett district attorney's office, according to Gary Leshaw, Williams' attorney. Dick Hinson, a district attorney's office investigator, confirmed that the office isn't pursuing any Metro Dodge cases.

Clemente says Gwinnett police told her that this kind of auto fraud is a civil matter, not a criminal one, therefore clearing the DA of responsibility. Gwinnett police investigator Ted Conlin told CL the case isn't criminal because of the contracts involved.

"I don't see how this isn't [criminal] fraud," says Karen White, Clemente's attorney. "[Metro Dodge] has stolen money from innocent people."

Even if county law enforcement fails to prosecute Metro Dodge, the state could have stepped in immediately to protect the credit of the alleged fraud victims, White contends. Instead, it took the state months to respond to the series of complaints about Metro Dodge, according to Leshaw.

White and Leshaw attribute the snail's pace of the investigation to the state being ill-equipped to handle white-collar crimes. There are often massive and time-consuming paper trails in consumer fraud investigations, making it particularly difficult for agencies as small as the Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs to investigate. The agency is supposed to protect consumers but is widely considered to be understaffed and overworked. The agency employs 15 investigators to monitor the state's thousands of corporations.

"OCA is basically not good for a whole lot," says Leshaw. "They just don't do the job that they were created to do."

OCA spokesman Bill Cloud says he has no idea how Leshaw could back up such a statement.

"It sounds like a statement of self-interest," Cloud says.

In late January, the OCA entered into a court agreement with Metro Dodge and Hill after investigating some of the complaints. The agreement states that Metro Dodge would pay the outstanding loans by Feb. 28. To date, they haven't been paid.

On March 4, the OCA passed the matter onto the state attorney general's office. Russ Willard, spokesman for the attorney general, says the office has obtained permission from a Fulton County Superior Court judge to seize Hill's or the corporation's assets in anticipation of court action.

Last week, White and Leshaw asked a Gwinnett County Superior Court judge to freeze Hill's personal assets under the state Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act so that there will be something left to seize. The judge deferred ruling until the plaintiffs provide evidence supporting the need to freeze the assets.

While waiting for the judge's order, Clemente is left wondering where her truck is. She doesn't know whether someone is driving the F-150 without a title or if it's sitting in a dealership lot somewhere. But she does know the government organizations set up to help consumers have failed her so far.

"No one has helped us and we're the consumers here," Clemente says. "The government is supposed to work with us. We walk on the right side of the law and don't hear anything back. That's not right."