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Judge okays interviews in sweepstakes case

The Attorney General's Office can talk to former employees of Time Customer Service, a judge says.

By PAUL WILBORN

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 29, 1998


TAMPA -- A Hillsborough judge Tuesday cleared the way for the Florida Attorney General's Office to interview former employees of Time Customer Service as part of the agency's investigation into the American Family Publishers sweepstakes.

More coverage of the sweepstakes controversy
Lawyers for American Family and Time Customer Service had asked Circuit Judge Gaspar Ficarrotta to prevent or restrict interviews with former employees, saying those meetings could reveal trade secrets and confidential attorney-client information.

Ficarrotta denied the motion, though he did ask the Attorney General's Office to avoid questions that might involve trade secrets and other privileged information.

Gary Betz, special counsel to Attorney General Bob Butterworth, said the decision was a victory for his investigation.

"They were basically trying to prevent us from talking to former employees," Betz said. "We've already talked to some former employees, and none of them are aware of any trade secrets. The company is trying to make everything a trade secret."

The Attorney General's Office filed suit against American Family and Time Customer Service last January after a series of stories in the Times revealed how dozens of sweepstakes customers were flying to Tampa trying to claim prizes they hadn't won.

Others were spending hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars on magazines and other products, thinking that increased their chances of winning.

Though the judge denied the motion Tuesday, Peter Costiglio, a spokesman for the sweepstakes companies, praised Ficarrotta for "favorably addressing some of our most significant concerns."

Costiglio said the judge's ruling will help protect the company's trade secrets, attorney-client conversations and "other proprietary material."

Even before the ruling, the Attorney General's Office had interviewed about 20 former employees of Time Customer Service, which handles sweepstakes mailings and telephone services for American Family Publishers. Both companies fall under the ownership umbrella of Time Warner.

One former employee, Anne Curran, a top manager at Time Customer Service, said the companies deliberately deceived consumers into thinking they were winners and routinely double-billed magazine subscribers.

Curran made those claims in a lawsuit filed July 17. The company sued Curran and her husband the same day, saying the she took company electronic mail without permission.

Judge Gregory Holder is holding those materials and is expected to rule this Friday on whether they can be used in Curran's lawsuit.

Holder already has cleared the way for Curran to be interviewed by the Attorney General's Office.

Betz said the investigation would not stop with former employees.

"We're going to be talking to (magazine) publishers, advertisers, former employees and anyone who has knowledge of how this operated," Betz said. "We're going to be looking into all allegations of deceptive practices."


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