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Entries in Consumer Protection (2)

Wednesday
Apr102013

Florist Sued for Refusing to Provide Flowers for Same-Sex Wedding

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(RICHLAND, Wash.) -- A florist who reportedly refused to provide flowers for a gay wedding because of her religious beliefs is being sued by the Washington State Attorney General.

The lawsuit, which was filed on Tuesday in Benton County, came almost two weeks after Attorney General Bob Ferguson said he sent a letter to Barronelle Stutzman, the owner of Arlene's Flowers and Gifts in Richland, Wash., asking her to reconsider her decision.

Stutzman is accused of violating the state's Consumer Protection Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in a public place.

When ABC News reached Stuztman at her flower shop on Wednesday, she declined to comment on the lawsuit.

On March 1, Robert Ingersoll, a longtime customer, visited the shop and told Stutzman he wanted to order flowers for his upcoming wedding, according to the complaint.

Stutzman told Ingersoll she was unable to provide flowers for his wedding "because of [her] relationship with Jesus Christ," according to the complaint.

At the time of the alleged denial, Stutzman was aware Ingersoll's "upcoming wedding for which he was seeking to purchase flowers would be to another man," the complaint stated.

"The fact that Mr. Ingersoll, a gay man, was seeking to purchase flowers for his wedding to another man was a substantial factor in [Stutzman's] refusal to sell him flowers," the complaint said.

Ferguson is seeking a permanent injunction that would require the store to comply with Washington's consumer protection laws and pay at least $2,000 in fines.

It was the second case in recent months in which a same-sex couple said they were denied service while planning their wedding.

A lesbian couple went to Sweet Cakes, a Gresham, Ore., bakery on Jan. 17 to order their wedding cake, but said they were told the bakery didn't serve same-sex marriages.

Aaron Klein, who owns Sweet Cakes with his wife, Melissa, told ABC News affiliate KATU-TV he was living in accordance with his religious beliefs when he refused to make the couple a wedding cake.

"I honestly did not mean to hurt anybody, didn't mean to make anybody upset, [it's] just something I believe in very strongly," he said.

A complaint was filed with the Oregon Department of Justice; however a spokesman told ABC News that the couple said last month they planned to move the complaint to the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries.

Ace of Cakes star Duff Goldman heard about the plight of the brides-to-be and said he would bake them a wedding cake free of charge.

"I want to give them a big hug and say congratulations," he told ABC News in February. "It involves cake, it involves love, marriage, all things I'm a big fan of."

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

Tuesday
Nov012011

Execs at Precious Metals Firm Charged with Fraud

Ablestock.com/Thinkstock(SANTA MONICA, Calif.) -- Goldline, a company that used endorsements from Glenn Beck and other conservative icons to sell hundreds of millions of dollars in gold to consumers, has been charged with theft and fraud in a 19-count criminal complaint filed Tuesday by local officials in California.

The criminal complaint filed Tuesday by the Santa Monica City Attorney's consumer protection unit marks the latest in a series of allegations it has leveled against the gold dealer, which pioneered the practice of weaving its sales pitches into broadcasts by popular conservative political personalities -- including two former presidential candidates -- to sell hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of gold every year.

The complaint alleges that Goldline "runs a bait and switch operation in which customers, seeking to invest in gold bullion, are switched to highly overpriced coins by using false and misleading claims," according to a statement released by the consumer affairs division of the Santa Monica City Attorney's office.

The company has been charged in the court filing with misdemeanors that include theft by false pretenses, false advertising and conspiracy, the city attorney's office said. In addition to the charges against the company, the complaint accuses former CEO Mark Albarian, executives Robert Fazio and Luis Beeli, and salespeople Charles Boratgis and Stephanie Howard of defrauding customers. Current CEO Scott Carter is accused of making false or misleading statements. Each of the charged offenses carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and maximum fines of between $1,000 and $10,000 per offense.

Carter, who is frequently featured in Goldline commercials, told ABC News Tuesday that he was withholding comment until he has had time to review the court filing.

The launch of an investigation into Goldline was first reported by ABC News more than a year ago, when Santa Monica officials first said they were looking into allegations they said were leveled against the company by unhappy customers.

"There are two main types of complaints we're seeing," Adam Radinsky of the Santa Monica City Attorney's office said at the time. "One is that customers say that they were lied to and misled in entering into their purchases of gold coins. And the other group is saying that they received something different from what they had ordered."

Goldline officials said at the time that customer complaints were infrequent and that it responded immediately to address them. The proof of the company's commitment to customer satisfaction, they said, is Goldline's top rating from the Better Business Bureau. "When we learn that customers have not received the experience they deserve, we investigate and take action," said Carter, then Goldline's executive vice president, in a letter to ABC News sent last year.

The criminal complaint lays out a series of allegations that it contends add up to a conspiracy to trick customers into overpaying for an investment in gold.

For instance, the complaint alleges that the company trains salespeople to "get the money in" from customers on the promise of delivering gold bullion, with the intent to later switch the sale to far more overpriced collectable gold coins. It alleges that the company trains its employees "to disguise the more than 50 percent markup on the overpriced coins," and alleges that Goldline reprimands its salespeople if they fail to convince the customer to buy the overpriced coins.

At the heart of the complaint is the suggestion that Goldline profits not so much by selling pure gold bullion, but by persuading customers who want to capitalize on the rising value of gold to purchase collectable coins. The coins are subject to a significant mark-up in price, and several Goldline customers told ABC News that they found it difficult or impossible to resell those coins without taking a loss.

One of the customers was 63-year-old Joe Kismartin of suburban Detroit. He says what he heard on TV about gold and the Goldline company made a lot of sense.

"They got the commercials on TV and the way the economy's going I was figuring well, maybe I'll just do it for a little bit, save it for inflation, you know, in case something happens to the economy, it bottoms out and I've got something to fall back on, gold, rather than money," he said.

But Kismartin says he ended up losing almost half of the $5,000 he spent, because, he says, the Goldline salesman pressured him to buy overpriced gold coins, not the gold bullion he had seen in the commercials.

"I wanted to go bullion, I didn't want coins," he said. "I told the gentleman I don't want coins. He said I got the deal here, the special deal, I got Swiss coins. He more or less talked me into buying the coins."

When Kismartin took the coins to a local coin shop, he was told the $5,000 worth of gold coins he bought from Goldline five months earlier was worth just over $2,900, a loss of $2,100. "You know, I'm living month to month, that's a big loss."

Goldline disputes Kismartin's allegations against the company, saying it sells "a variety of products ranging from the most common bullion coins to exceptionally rare certified coins." Goldline said it looked into each case ABC News reported on last year and found that while both customers had initially complained, the company believed they wound up satisfied. And one of them -- Goldline did not identify which one -- was provided "a number of written disclosures at the time of purchase that went even further than Goldline's ordinary written disclosures," and yet went ahead with the purchase anyway.

In filing the complaint, officials have opened a new front in a long-running and very public dispute over the way Goldline has turned the sale of gold into a massive retail operation that capitalizes on popular conservative figures -- most notably Glenn Beck. The marriage of conservative talk and gold sales appears to make sense -- both have traditionally targeted an audience that is skeptical of the government, concerned about the nation's economic future, and uneasy about inflation and the stability of American currency. Neither Beck nor any of the other celebrity endorsers are accused of any wrongdoing.

The promotional strategy appears to have been beneficial both to Goldline, which boasts $500 million in sales, and to such conservative figures as Beck and former presidential hopefuls Fred Thompson and Mike Huckabee, all of whom have, at various times, coupled their television or radio appearances with Goldline advertisements.

When contacted last year, a spokesman for Beck noted that Goldline has an A plus rating from the Better Business Bureau.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio







ABC News Radio