tampabay.com

Old case of Crist's resurfaces

It involves campaign donations and a settlement with Kane’s Furniture.

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published September 25, 2006


TALLAHASSEE — Attorney General Charlie Crist considers himself a consumer watchdog in the style of his predecessor, Bob Butterworth. But the two men used very different approaches in dealing with the same stack of complaints against a major Tampa Bay area business.

When Crist replaced Butterworth in January 2003, one of the most volatile cases he inherited was a lawsuit against Kane’s Furniture, a chain of 17 stores throughout Central Florida headquartered in Pinellas Park.

Butterworth, whose office had already fined Kane’s $80,000 over its advertising practices, wanted to impose hundreds of thousands of dollars in new fines for what his office called unfair and deceptive trade practices by the 58-year-old retailer.

Kane’s was no stranger to Charlie Crist. The company’s chief executive, Irwin Novack, personally donated $1,500 to Crist’s campaigns and gave $25,000 to the Republican Party of Florida in 2002 when Crist was the Republican nominee for attorney general.

“We pursued the case in spite of that,” Crist said. “Maybe not to the satisfaction of everybody on the planet, but I rely a lot on what our lawyers recommend.”

Shortly after Crist took office, the Kane’s dispute came to a close, and now the case has become grist for Crist’s Web-based critics, who mix old news articles with innuendo to attack the integrity of the Republican nominee for governor.

Over a four-year period, Kane’s had been the subject of more than 1,950 consumer complaints, according to the lawsuit filed by Butterworth in 2002.

Kane’s customers complained of waiting months for “immediate delivery” items, and then receiving couches without legs or cushions, records show. A Web site fueled the fire, giving disgruntled customers a place to compare notes and unify their voice.

Kane’s denied the charges and sued the state, arguing that the Attorney General’s Office had overstepped its authority and was interfering in Kane’s business. It rejected an offer to settle the matter for $400,000.

“It was a case that never should have been filed,” said Leonard Englander, Kane’s attorney. “This was absurd litigation.”

Crist took over the case in 2003 after winning the election and, prodded by a circuit judge, settled it in 2004. The resolution came after extensive court-ordered mediation that dismissed the state’s lawsuit and required Kane’s to use its “best efforts” to protect consumers. No fines were imposed against the company. Kane’s suit against the state also had been dismissed.

A manufacturer named as a co-defendant agreed to donate $100,000 to Goodwill Industries of Broward County.

The Web site was shut down, though that happened separately, just before Crist took office. At the time, attorneys for the state called shutting down www.kanes-furniture.net, which used the Kane’s logo, “outrageous.”

Once in office, Crist’s attorneys didn’t seek to reverse the injunction shutting down the site. The attorney who initially fought the injunction, Assistant Attorney General Angie Sheridan, declined to comment.

The site was maintained by Manny Gonzalez, a Pasco County resident whose lawyer, David Farash of Tampa, declined to discuss whether his client agreed to a confidential settlement in the case.

“I can’t comment on it,” Farash said.

Since the settlement, the attorney general and the Better Business Bureau of West Florida say complaints against Kane’s have dropped significantly.

“Kane’s has worked extremely hard to give customers what they’re looking for, in a timely and efficient manner,” said Karen Nalven, president of the BBB of West Florida.

Kane’s once faced so many complaints, Nalven said, that it was dropped from BBB membership. But the company rejoined the bureau last year.

Nalven added that the BBB has resolved or closed all but one of the 144 complaints it received against Kane’s in the past three years.

Crist’s office also gives Kane’s positive reviews.

Assistant Attorney General Victoria Butler, a member of the Economic Crimes Unit who worked on the Kane’s case in both administrations, estimated that Crist’s office has received about 20 complaints since the case was settled two-and-a-half years ago.

“Our understanding is the company has been very good about responding to consumer complaints,” Butler said.
Butterworth, a Democrat who supports Crist’s opponent, Jim Davis, defended his decision to sue the company, but said it would be misleading to interpret too much from a single case.

“We settled a lot of cases, also,” Butterworth said. “Anybody can always be a Monday morning quarterback.”

Kane’s Furniture donated $25,000 to the Republican Party of Florida on Oct. 1, 2002, within weeks of Crist winning the GOP nomination for attorney general. The money could have been used for another candidate, or for general get-out-the-vote efforts.

Novack, the chief executive of Kane’s, made two $500 contributions to Crist’s bid for attorney general that year and $500 to his 2000 campaign for education commissioner.

Englander, Kane’s attorney, said it was absurd to suggest that campaign contributions played any role in the outcome of the case.

“It was very acrimonious, very nasty litigation,” Englander said. “If I could have figured out a way to depose Charlie Crist, I would have.”

A spokeswoman for Kane’s, Lisa Brock, said Novack did not give interviews.

 

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (800) 333-7505.