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Kane's silences critical Web site

Kane's says it's simply trademark infringement. State investigators are outraged.

By JEFF HARRINGTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 7, 2003


Kane's Furniture has won a temporary injunction shutting down a consumer-oriented Web site that had steered hundreds of complaints to state regulators over the past three years.

The Web site, www.kanes-furniture.net, helped the Florida attorney general's office forge a rare civil suit against the Pinellas Park retailer in November.

The Web site shut down with little fanfare after an injunction was issued by Pinellas County Circuit Judge Walt Logan on Dec. 19. But state investigators, who only recently found out about the injunction, were angry and ready to retaliate this week.

"We think it's the most outrageous thing," Angie Sheridan, assistant attorney general in the economic crimes unit in Orlando, said Monday. She said the state would file a "friend of the court" brief as soon as today, describing the injunction as both anti-consumer and a violation of free speech.

Lisa Brock, a public relations specialist representing Kane's, said the sole issue is one of trademark infringement.

"It is downright offensive to have false claims aired in such a way, particularly when a trademark that is respected and well-regarded is being unfairly assaulted like this," she said. "That's why we've taken this legal path."

Brock said Kane's has been aware for some time of the site, which was originally registered in Malaysia. She said the retailer went to court as a last resort.

Sheridan of the attorney general's office, however, said the attempt to shut down the Web site was "retaliation against a consumer for warning other consumers and assisting in a government investigation."

The site provided links to the attorney general's office and Better Business Bureau. In the past three years, it steered about 300 consumer complaints to the attorney general's office, Sheridan said. In its suit filed in November, the state accuses Kane's of false advertising, delivery of broken and defective furniture, failure to respond to complaints, sale of worthless warranties, refusal to refund deposits and false charges to credit accounts.

In the separate suit filed by Kane's, the retailer said customers trying to reach its Web site (www.kanesfurniture.com) were confused by the other site. Kane's suit said the rogue Web site was registered by Diane and Robert Gonzalez.

But state officials said the site was actually run by Manuel Gonzalez of Land O'Lakes. Tampa attorney David Farash, who was hired by Manuel Gonzalez on Friday, said his client's wife, Diane, had no involvement in the site and he thought the inclusion of a "Robert" Gonzalez was a mistake. Farash, who said he is still learning about the case, did not offer any insights into why his client launched a cyber-campaign against the furniture chain.

Farash said he would request a hearing today to set aside the injunction.

Manuel Gonzalez could not be reached for comment, and Farash said he has advised his client not to talk publicly until the next court hearing.

-- Jeff Harrington can be reached at harrington@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3407.

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