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Heat rises on Orkin business practices

By ANITA KUMAR

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 7, 2000


The Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office is investigating whether Orkin performed shoddy work on public schools by incorrectly applying chemicals and allowing termites to return weeks after treatment.

The nation's largest pest control company also is being investigated by the Federal Trade Commission and the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The Florida Attorney General's Office is continuing its inquiry into the company.

A group of Tampa Bay area residents who sued Orkin last year have asked a judge to let other disgruntled Florida customers join the lawsuit over subterranean termites, which cause more damage to U.S. homes than storms and fires combined. A Hillsborough judge will rule in December.

Area customers say Orkin provided inadequate inspections and treatments, failed to return to homes with lifetime guarantees and did not keep promises made in ads. Some even say company employees forged signatures to cover up their deceit.

"Termites happen in Florida, but not like with me," said Maria Garcia, one of the latest residents to join the suit. "They never went away. I was surprised. But I'm really more worried because I don't want to have my house gone."

Mrs. Garcia, 52, who lives in Temple Terrace with her husband and daughter, first called Orkin in 1992 after termites swarmed the family's 5,000 square foot Mediterranean-style villa on the Hillsborough River. She said the termites have returned each spring. Her husband, Mario Garcia, teaches graphics and design as a visiting instructor at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. Poynter owns controlling stock in Times Publishing Co., the owner of the St. Petersburg Times.

Daniel Clark, Mrs. Garcia's attorney, said he has spoken to hundreds of customers who have had problems with Orkin. Clark said he also is working with two condominium associations.

Martha May, Orkin's director of public relations, said the company is aware of the four investigations and is cooperating with authorities. She said she did not know the specifics of the cases and could not comment further.

The Atlanta-based company, which touts itself as the "leading provider of pest and termite control services throughout the United States," has more than 400 branches across the nation, serving more than 1.6-million customers.

The 99-year-old company has been investigated in other states and has been challenged in court several times in Florida. Here are some of the latest investigations involving the Tampa Bay area:

The Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office began an inquiry after the county school district turned over its Orkin records, said Mark Hart, a district spokesman.

The company has worked on 19 county schools since 1989, including Hillsborough High School this school year.

As early as 1992, the district considered severing business ties with Orkin because termites returned after just a couple of months, Hart said. There also was a question about whether the company falsified gas readings and only used some of the gas needed to kill termites.

School officials were told that their bid process did not allow them to exclude Orkin, Hart said. The company continued to work for the school system, but the last time they were forced to sign a contract that they would do the work right the first time.

Craig Clendinen, a Hillsborough County assistant state attorney who heads the office's Special Prosecutions Unit, confirmed that Orkin is under investigation, but he would not give specifics of the case.

The Florida Attorney General's Office is investigating whether Orkin has instituted a policy to prevent customers from receiving the warranties they paid for, said Bob Buchner of the Attorney General's Office.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is looking into whether Orkin employees falsified inspection reports in Tampa, Sarasota, Orlando and Gainesville, said Terry McElroy, department spokesman.

McElroy said the department is trying to determine whether employees failed to follow through on inspections and then forged signatures of homeowners indicating they had. He said he expects the investigation should wrap up in a few weeks.

FTC officials would not comment about their investigation but May, of Orkin, said the inquiry focuses on the company's advertisements.

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