Company racks up complaints
By JENNIFER LIBERTO
Edith Clark never wanted a new air conditioner. Her mind may skip around, but she remembered having declined U.S. Air Conditioning and Heating salesmen at least twice before.
Once, the 88-year-old Clark had stopped two employees from unloading two big brown boxes that contained a new air conditioner from a white van that had pulled onto the driveway of her mobile home in Zephyrhills. Remove the boxes at once, she told them. She didn't need an air conditioner, didn't want one and couldn't afford one.
A few months later she got one anyway. Employees installed the unit, she says, without her permission, while she was out buying groceries.
Clark is one of 40 Pasco, Hernando and Pinellas customers who have complained to government agencies, the court system and the Times about U.S. Air Conditioning.
Under the leadership of Alfred Edward Cox, U.S. Air Conditioning has sold thousands of air conditioners and parts throughout the Tampa Bay area -- a boon that began within months of Cox's November 1999 purchase of a bigger, yet bedeviled company called Toce Air Conditioning.
Toce was already saddled with complaints, lawsuits and several civil judgments when Cox bought its customer lists, hired its owner and moved operations out of his tiny New Port Richey home and into Toce's offices off U.S. 19 in New Port Richey.
Over the last three years, U.S. Air Conditioning employees have pressured and persuaded elderly residents to spend thousands of dollars on new air conditioners, accessories or complicated repairs, which were often unnecessary or cost far beyond what customers could afford, a Times investigation found.
The Hernando County State Attorney's Office began looking at U.S. Air Conditioning earlier this year and so far has filed charges against two company employees. The investigation is ongoing.
And the Hernando investigation has piqued the interest of the state Attorney General's Office. Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Cox (not related to Alfred Edward Cox) said last week that he plans to look into U.S. Air Conditioning's activities.
The company has faced increasing government inquiry:
The Hernando County State Attorney's Office has charged employee Peter Robert Toce with exploitation of the elderly and theft twice since May.
This month, the Hernando State Attorney's Office charged employee Frederick Kiefner with elderly exploitation, theft and unlicensed electrical contracting.
The Pasco County Construction/Licensing Board of Adjustments and Appeals censured U.S. Air Conditioning last month for failing to pull a permit, the paperwork that alerts county inspectors to ensure that work is completed correctly and safely.
The Hernando County Development Department fined Cox twice for failing to pull permits in 2000.
At least 24 customers, most of whom are 65 or older, have filed complaints against the company with either the state or the county consumer affairs or building departments in Hernando, Pasco and Pinellas.
In Clark's case, she says she returned from the grocery store on Oct. 17, 2000, to find another white van parked in her driveway. A U.S. Air Conditioning representative handed her a clipboard to sign some papers, which Clark understood would complete her last service agreement with the company.
Then, the technician turned to her and said, "Come take a look at your new air conditioner," according to a lawsuit she filed against the company.
Soon after, she started receiving bills totaling more than $3,000. She was in such dire financial straits, she couldn't buy groceries, her attorney said. The case is scheduled to be heard in the 2nd District Court of Appeal on Tuesday.
Cox says the lawsuit, complaints and charges are inconsequential, considering the large amount of work his company does -- 25,000 to 27,000 jobs a year. He denied that his employees have ever harassed or taken advantage of a customer.
"We have thousands of customers that grade our service as excellent," Cox said, reading a written answer to a list of questions submitted to him by the Times.
However, many similar-size and larger air conditioning companies have cleaner records and have not been charged with exploitation.
In general, complaints about the sales tactics of air conditioning companies in the Tampa Bay area have decreased over the past decade, investigators and industry experts said. Keane Bismarck, director of the Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Contractors Association in Tampa, estimated that maybe two dozen of about 1,200 companies in the area are practicing what he called "opportunism."
"The senior citizens are the ones they nail because they're fearful, they're persuaded easily and they're very impressed by a tool belt," Bismarck said.
A long history of questionable practices
To fully understand U.S. Air Conditioning, consider the history of the company Cox bought, Toce Air Conditioning.
Incorporated from 1994 to 1999, Toce Air Conditioning operated as a medium-size company, but it is impossible to estimate how much work it did. The company routinely failed to pull permits, state attorney general and Citrus County records show.
In fact, Toce Air Conditioning had been banned from working in Citrus County by 1999, after failing to pull 107 permits there, Citrus license inspector S. Kimberly Corbin said.
In addition, the company's license holder was charged and fined by the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation in 1997 and 1998. The Attorney General's Office charged and fined Toce in connection with economic crimes in 1997. The company was sued by at least four customers, one of whom, Virginia Tambasco of Homosassa, is still waiting for a $5,000 civil judgment awarded to her for fraud and breach of contract.
In 1999, the state arrested and charged a Toce employee with two counts of elderly exploitation in Hernando County; he was eventually fined.
Toce, who is now 47, avoided getting embroiled in the worst of the trouble because he was not the company's license holder, and the company had declared bankruptcy.
In November 1999, Toce sold his remaining assets -- including customer files, computers, Rolodexes and business phone numbers -- for $7,500 to Cox and U.S. Air Conditioning.
Toce did not return calls from the Times seeking comments.
Cox's business career had been no rosier.
In November 1985, the state licensed Cox as a roofer. But less than a year later, the Department of Business and Professional Regulation launched an investigation into his New Port Richey company, Cox Urethane Roofing.
Investigators found that Cox worked roofing jobs before earning his license and failed to pull permits or correct problems found in inspections. One Cox customer's roof still leaked after Cox repaired it with "what appears to be a heavy coat of paint," the Pinellas County Building Department said in 1988.
Cox filed for bankruptcy in 1986, leaving some $241,000 in debt, according to bankruptcy filings. Florida's Construction Industry Licensing Board revoked his roofing license in January 1988, Department of Business and Professional Regulation records show.
When the Times asked him about his revoked license, the 53-year-old Cox said he "can't recall" the licensing board's decision.
In May 1992, Cox was arrested and charged with exploitation of the elderly as an air conditioning salesman. He had sold an Alzheimer's patient in Tarpon Springs a dehumidifier for $1,149, more than five times what dehumidifiers cost then, the arrest affidavit said.
One of the lead witnesses died, and the judge dismissed the case, court records show.
Cox says the charges were unfounded.
Cox earned his air conditioning license in 1994, but his business remained small for about six years. He worked out of his house and never pulled more than a few dozen permits a year in the area, records show. On the side, he ran a restaurant supply store, he said.
In early 2000, after purchasing the remains of Toce Air Conditioning, Cox moved operations out of his living room and into Toce's old headquarters, a salmon stucco building off U.S. 19 in New Port Richey. And he hired Toce as a salesman.
After the two joined, the company quickly grew into a force to be reckoned with among Tampa Bay air conditioning companies.
Using scare tactics to crank up sales
In July 2001, Johnnie Tyner got a phone call and was offered a deal she wishes she had refused.
For $29.95, the telemarketer said, a U.S. Air Conditioning employee would stop by to check and clean her air conditioner.
When a repairman arrived, he pointed out several things that Tyner, an asthmatic who is now 85, would have to pay to repair that day. The cost: more than $3,000, according to receipts.
When she told the repairman she didn't have that kind of money, he asked if she had a credit card, Tyner told the Times. Then he waited nearly a half hour while Tyner searched her house for the card.
"I wished I had never found that card," Tyner said while sitting in her Port Richey home, where the air is thick and stuffy even though she now owns two fancy air filters, which she has yet to pay off.
Tyner said she has not filed a written complaint because she has trouble reading and writing. But Times interviews with 15 customers who have filed written complaints with government agencies revealed that U.S. Air Conditioning often introduces itself through an advertised offer for a clean-and-check service.
Clean-and-checks have been around for decades, investigators say. For $19 to $40, a company offers to scrub and tune up a house's air conditioning unit. Then, once inside, the company representative finds a shocking number of problems or hustles pricey parts that must be installed immediately.
Sometimes, the salesperson signs up the customer for a maintenance contract, giving the company another opportunity to knock on the door in six months.
"These companies can't pay their bills on a $39 service call," said Deborah Berry, a Pinellas County consumer protection investigator who has seen 19 years' worth of clean-and-checks. "They're making their money somewhere."
Some companies, including the now defunct Toce Air Conditioning, encourage employees to push sales by tying their paychecks to commissions, according to attorney general's records.
"There is something in every single house to sell," Steven Sainola, a former manager for Toce, says in a training video produced to teach Toce employees how to increase their commissions.
Cox would not say whether his employees make commissions. He did say his employees are paid regardless of whether they score a sale.
One of the more popular accessories U.S. Air Conditioning and other contractors now sell is an ultraviolet light air treatment system, sometimes referred to as a UV filter, which is wired inside an air conditioner.
In complaints filed with Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties, customers said they felt pressured to buy the devices, which run anywhere from $500 to $2,000 and zap microorganisms before they get into the house, according to manufacturers.
However, no independent scientific research has been done to prove how effective the ultraviolet systems are. While, theoretically, they could work, a cheaper deal, several experts said, would be to buy a quality filter to strain the dust and dirt. Microorganisms tend to stick to dust.
"If you stuck to Lowe's and asked for one of their top-of-the-line filters that lasts three months, you're not paying $5,000," said Phillip Achey, a microbiologist at the University of Florida. "I'm not saying they don't work. But after all, who cares if you have a few germs? We do have an immune system."
Another common complaint against U.S. Air Conditioning is that it uses scare tactics and threats to push sales of new conditioners or filters -- an accusation that Cox flatly denies.
Joan Donofrio said a U.S. Air Conditioning employee tried to scare her into purchasing a new unit in July, after she called the company to fix her air conditioner, which was spewing warm air throughout her New Port Richey condominium.
Within minutes of entering her back yard, the technician started yelling, "Shut off the air conditioner. It might blow." Donofrio, 66, said she turned off the thermostat and threw a worried glance at her friend, Joseph Usher of New Port Richey, who was visiting and witnessed the incident.
The technician told her the compressor was worn out and called her 6-year-old air conditioner "a cheap thing." He then offered to sell her a new unit for $2,400, which could be installed, as a favor to her, the same afternoon. When she asked him to simply install a new compressor, she said, he said no.
She paid him $29.95 and then called another company, which installed a new capacitor, charging $110.
In a written response to her complaint with Pasco County, Cox accused Donofrio of lying and pointed to her compressor as the problem. Still, he returned her money.
Several people, including Alice Ann Saxe of New Port Richey, filed complaints in which they claimed that U.S. Air Conditioning had not extended them a three-day right to cancel, as required by Florida's home solicitation statute.
During a routine checkup last December, Saxe was persuaded to purchase a $1,279 ultraviolet light filter, according to her complaint with Pasco County. An hour after the salesman left, she called the office and asked the company to remove it because she doubted she needed it and discovered its price ran as low as $400 to $500, she told the Times in an interview.
Saxe, 62, was told a return would be impossible and the office was closed until Jan. 2, according to her complaint. She canceled her check, despite what she said were company threats to put a lien against her house.
Cox said he extends the right of cancellation to every one of his customers. He acknowledged that his company has threatened "the necessity of a lawsuit or a lien, when we have not been treated fairly by the customer."
Some arrests, more are expected
The Hernando County State Attorney's Office has been investigating U.S. Air Conditioning for at least eight months.
So far, employees Toce and Frederick Kiefner have been charged with elderly exploitation and grand theft in a case involving an 87-year-old Spring Hill widow. Toce was also arrested and charged in April with exploitation of the elderly and grand theft involving an 82-year-old Brookridge woman.
Glenn Hurst, an investigator in the State Attorney's Office, said he expects more arrests in the coming months.
Hernando's Development Department has also investigated several complaints against the company over the past 21/2 years. Cox paid fines for failing to pull permits in 2000, county records show.
In Pasco County, the Sheriff's Office has investigated several complaints, spokesman Kevin Doll said. But there have been no arrests.
Last month, Cox avoided serious censure by the Pasco County licensing board.
Although building director Tim Moore conceded that U.S. Air Conditioning has drawn an unusual number of complaints, the building department worked out an agreement and dropped two charges against Cox, who had failed to make sure a subcontractor had pulled permits for a job.
Cox agreed to submit to more stringent county monitoring and to attend continuing education classes.
"I feel I acted responsibly and within the scope of my license," Cox said in regard to his recent run-in with the Pasco building department. "I feel I'm innocent in the incidences but financially cannot afford to bring the matter to a higher level."
The state Attorney General's Office said it has received a confidential complaint against the company. The office intends to look into U.S. Air Conditioning, given the recent arrests, said Nicholas Cox, an assistant attorney general.
"We're concerned about what may or may not be going on," he said.
Meanwhile, U.S. Air Conditioning continues to grow and invest in its future. It has bought customer lists of several bankrupt companies. And last December, it bought a $75,000 piece of land on Rowan Road, just south of Massachusetts Avenue in New Port Richey, where a sign marks the future home of U.S. Air Conditioning.
In 1997, about the time Toce Air Conditioning was charged by the attorney general, Toce added a Jacuzzi, an enclosed pool, a brick patio and a four-car garage, among other improvements, to a woodsy New Port Richey house on Casey Drive that is now worth $364,000, property records show.
Last March, Cox bought a $175,000 piece of land on Lonnie Lee Lane, a cul-de-sac surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico on Hudson Beach.
Meanwhile, elderly residents such as Isabel Kasparian, 88, New Port Richey; Edwina McNulty, 89, Holiday; and Salvatore Rotondo, 89, New Port Richey, pretend they are not at home whenever a van pulls up and a man wearing a tool belt rings the doorbell.
All three retirees said they felt pressured into paying U.S. Air Conditioning thousands of dollars they could not afford. All three said U.S. Air Conditioning has continued to visit them, even after they filed complaints with Pasco County Code Compliance/Consumer Affairs Division.
"I refuse to answer the door," said Kasparian, a widow who filed her complaint after she became exhausted from trying to kick the company's employees out of her house.
"It's a shame, honey, a real shame."
-- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which includes information from Times files. Jennifer Liberto can be reached at (352) 848-1434. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org .
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