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Ex-sweepstakes worker may talk to state

By PAUL WILBORN

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 22, 1998


TAMPA -- A Hillsborough Circuit judge cleared the way Tuesday for a former sweepstakes executive to talk about her experiences with entrants who flew to Tampa under the mistaken belief they were million-dollar winners.

Judge Greg Holder last week barred Anne Curran, former customer service manager for Time Customer Service, from talking to state investigators and reporters about her experiences. The company requested the injunction.

But on Tuesday, Holder lifted most of his order at Curran's and the state's request. Curran still can't talk about trade secrets or her conversations with company attorneys. Holder is reviewing 200 electronic messages Curran obtained to determine if they can be released.

The ruling clears the way for the Florida attorney general's office to interview Curran. Attorney General Bob Butterworth has accused American Family Publishers of deceptive trade practices.

Time Customer Service handles mail and telephone inquiries for American Family Publishers. Time Customer Service is owned by Time Warner, which also owns 50 percent of American Family Publishers. The other 50 percent is owned by the Pritzker Family, which owns hotels and other properties.

American Family's lawyers are hindering the 7-month-old investigation, said Gary Betz, a special counsel for Butterworth.

"They have been stonewalling us and not producing documents," Betz said. "They are trying to cover up their fraudulent practices."

Betz said the company has failed to produce documents the state requested. Hillsborough Circuit Judge Gaspar Ficcarotta is expected to hear arguments in that dispute next week.

Joseph Shaheen, attorney for Time Customer Service, said the company is trying to protect its trade secrets.

Company officials denied all of Curran's accusations and filed suit against her, seeking the return of materials the company said she removed without permission.

Holder denied Shaheen's motion to close Tuesday's hearing.

Curran, 41, sued her former employer last week, citing the emotional distress she suffered in dealing with dozens of people who traveled to Tampa to claim sweepstakes prizes they hadn't actually won. Curran was responsible for breaking that news to them.

Before Holder granted the injunction, Curran talked with the Times about her experiences with American Family and Time Customer Service, where she worked for eight years.

Curran said American Family intentionally misled consumers in an effort to boost magazines sales. And when those entrants arrived in Tampa thinking they were winners, Curran had to deal with them.

Those meetings often ended in anger and tears, she said. Curran also received telephone death threats from disgruntled customers, she said.

She also claimed the company routinely double-billed customers, creating a flood of customer service complaints that she and her staff were required to handle.

Company lawyers said Curran demanded $2-million not to reveal what she knew about the company's practices. Shaheen told Holder that Curran had transmitted some 200 e-mails to her husband's home computer without permission. Curran's lawyer, Stan Padgett, said all those electronic messages had been sent to Curran at work. Padgett also said Curran had not revealed any information obtained during conversations with company lawyers.

American Family is facing about 45 lawsuits around the country, all filed since the Times documented problems with the company's sweepstakes. Those contests are promoted nationally by celebrities Ed McMahon and Dick Clark, who have been named in some of the lawsuits. Some of the federal cases seek class-action status.

A three-judge federal panel in Virginia will hear arguments Friday on the class-action suits. The judges will determine if the cases deserve class-action status and where the case will be heard. Tampa, where Time Customer Service is located and where entrants flew, is one venue being considered. The other is in New Jersey, the corporate home of American Family Publishers.


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