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Georgia Consumer Agency Sues Bill Heard

September 3, 2008

Bill Heard Enterprises is in trouble again, but this time it's not just about the company's advertising practices.

A day after the 88-year-old dealer group learned GMAC Financial Services cut off its floorplanning line of credit, the company learned that a Georgia consumer watchdog agency filed claims that the company participated in deceptive and misleading business practices, reported Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. The court filings stems from two lawsuits filed in an Atlanta court last year.

The Columbus, Ga.-based company, which has five dealerships in Georgia and nine dealerships in six other states, denied the new allegations made by the Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs (OCA) in an Aug. 22 court filing in Fulton County Superior Court.

The state agency charges various Bill Heard dealerships in Georgia with failing to pay off loans or trade-ins, making the consumer liable for the bank note on both vehicles; misrepresenting a vehicle's value to third-party lenders to secure financing for customers by saying options and extra features were added to a vehicle when they were not; and forging customer signatures.

Shawn Conroy, spokesperson for the OCA, said a new judge has been assigned to the case and that a conference will be held between the new judge and the two parties. Conroy could not say when that conference would occur. From there, the case will enter a period of discovery between the two parties.

Bill Heard had filed a lawsuit against the OCA in May 2007 under the Georgia Open Records Act to obtain the names of people and dealerships who had filed complaints against the company regarding flyers the company mailed out last October. The state, which had notified the dealer group of the complaints last November, filed a counterclaim in July 2007. It charged the company with using misleading advertising that looked like a vehicle recall notice, and charged the company with violating the Georgia Fair Business Practices Act of 1975.

Conroy said his office and the dealer group were close to reaching a settlement two weeks ago. It would have included penalties, fines and an injunction barring questionable business practices. This was the second time the two sides were close to a settlement.

"Our door is still open," Conroy said today. "We've come close to two settlements, but the company walked away."

The dispute between Bill Heard and the OCA isn't the first one to occur. The dealer has had to answer to the consumer agency at least 15 times in the last 16 years. And in five of those cases, Bill Heard paid fines and administrative penalties totaling $279,000. The company has also faced complaints about its business practices in Tennessee, Arizona and Florida, and recently had its accreditation revoked by the Atlanta Better Business Bureau on June 12.

The most recent complaints also come after GMAC discontinued credit for new-car inventory to some of the company's 14 dealerships. The Ledger-Enquirer reported that the company declined to say which or how many dealerships are impacted by the GMAC decision, but the company's dealerships remain open.

The Ledger-Enquirer reported that the dealer has been working to secure new financing. Bill Heard said in a statement that its current financial difficulties are a result of a "very challenging but surmountable business environment" caused by "adverse economic conditions, high gasoline prices and our traditional product mix."

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