JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Former employees of Riverside Chevrolet, the Jacksonville dealership under fire for unethical and possibly illegal business practices, said it is the worst company they've ever worked for and hundreds of people have been ripped off.
Three former employees reached out to the News4Jax I-TEAM to describe what they say really goes on at Riverside Chevrolet after we uncovered dozens of complaints from upset customers over the last two weeks.
The dealership said it's fixing the problems, and we've asked for details, but reports of unhappy customers keep coming into the newsroom.
"Most of the time, I can get them to calm down, just talked them off the ledge and promised that I would do what I can," said Cindy Ray, who was the title clerk for Riverside Chevrolet. "I hated going to work."
The dealership on Philips Highway was recently given an F rating from the Better Business Bureau after dozens of customers complained the company failed to pay off the loans on their trade-ins, causing their credit to nose dive.
Now, the state of Florida’s Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles is investigating, saying the dealership faces hefty fines and could potentially lose its license to sell cars.
Three people who used to work at Riverside Chevrolet said the I-TEAM has only reached the tip of the iceberg.
"Behind closed doors, the phones were ringing off the hook with angry customers," said Michelle Spears, who was the office manager. "I do think this is just the beginning. And there is more going on than I even know."
Henry, who asked us to hide his identity for his career's sake, was the finance manager.
"It is a revolving door for people because it is horrible," he said.
Last week, the I-TEAM first began reporting about those problems -- dozens of complaints from customers who said they traded in their former vehicles for new ones at the dealership, but the company did not pay off the money on the remaining loans like it agreed to in the contract.
The result: customers' credit scores dropping, some by as many as 73 points. One woman said she lost her VA loan for a mortgage on a home because of it.
The former employees said they weren't surprised to see the story on the news when the I-TEAM broke it.
"I don't think anybody was," Henry said. "I think I gave a lot of people the opportunity to come out and speak out. A lot of customers thought they were the only ones."
According to the three former employees, the problem lies with the ownership -- all members of the same family.
Damon Ferguson is the owner and general manager. His brother, Dwayne, is the operation manager. Their father, Andrew, is listed as another owner.
"What is their incentive?" the I-TEAM asked.
Ray replied, "They've got money in the bank. They've got their bills paid. During that time, I'm waiting on getting my payoff done. I overnighted a check to daddy Ferguson for $30,000."
The I-TEAM found the Fergusons have owned dealerships in Orange Park and St. Augustine, as well as the New Orleans area. The Louisiana Secretary of State listed those businesses as in bad standing because they didn't disclose their financials.
"Working for them went against everything I grew up believing in, every value I have ever been taught, all of my morals, basic human instinct," Spears said. "It was wrong. I left work crying many days."
Ray said that when she would get angry customers, "I took it personally. Many days I would walk out and cry. Like, now, I take it personally."
"It is not right," she said, pausing.
Ray was emotional because of the customers who were hurt -- damage to their credit and their livelihood.
But it's personal, too. Ray said she bought two trucks from the dealership. Henry bought a car, as well. But they said the owners didn't pay off their trade-ins, causing the employees' credits to dive.
"It’s not just my personal credit that they have ruined, but friends and a lot of referrals, people that again are in the business or friends of ours will never do business with me going forward," Henry said.
Ray said "it's illegal."
"They're not keeping up their end of the contract," she added. "It's unethical to be living the luxury life that you are, and the common working, paycheck-to-paycheck customers that we dealt with were getting screwed."
All three former employees said the Fergusons live a life of luxury. Spears knows because she personally wrote the checks and handled the financials.
They had a private plane that cost $35,000 a month.
They live in expensive homes and condos on Jacksonville’s riverfront, in Miami and Orlando.
All meals, travel and mileage were paid by the company.
And the father gets a $30,000 allowance check every month, even if employees and trade-ins aren't paid.
"Everything was expensed through the company," Spears said.
The former office manager also said money was always a problem.
"Probably about four months in is when I noticed that it was more than just a late payment. When I started getting calls from the other dealership, said they had recently closed -- angry customers from them," Spears said. "I just knew that it was going to be inevitable that it was going to be a big fiasco for us, too."
The I-TEAM has heard from several former workers who say they're still owed commission checks, including the former new and used car manager, who said he was shorted $8,000.
Henry said the company owes him $5,000.
"Everybody promised me that I would have a check, that I would have a check," he said. "And a month later, they mail me a bill saying that I owe them $900."
Henry left for another job. So did Ray. Spears was fired.
"I left because I couldn't continue doing business like this," Henry said. "I've been in the business for over 17 years and this was not going to be my reputation."
They feel for the current employees still working at Riverside Chevrolet.
"I still talk to a few of them," Ray said. "But they need a job. They're looking. But some positions are not just easy to get."
The I-TEAM has been trying to get the Fergusons’ side to the story since May 2, asking for comments every day. We’ve only gotten written responses.
At 9:01 p.m. May 3, hours after broadcasting the results of the I-TEAM's first investigation, Damon Ferguson sent the following statement:
"At Riverside Chevrolet we are committed to serving our customers and in particular those who serve in our military. While we cannot speak to any individual customers credit or financing situation due to privacy laws we can tell you that every effort is made complete every customer transaction in the most professional manner. If in fact there is any error that has been made on our part we will do everything in our power to rectify the situation as quickly as possible. We regret any unintended consequences that this may have caused."
The next day, the dealership's general manager promised to make things right. An email Friday to the I-TEAM from Damon Ferguson, titled "Plan of Action," reads:
"We have designated a specific individual Natalie Batissa to personally assist our customers with any information concerning vehicle payoffs.
"In addition, we have created an email address to where customers can more easily communicate with us as well. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
"Any customer that has had any issue with erroneous credit reporting caused by us, our assigned agent will provide a correction letter on the customers behalf to correct the issue.
"Other Internal actions will include more staff training during the sales process as to ascertain the correct information from the customer as well as orientation.
"I will also be writing personal apology letters to customers as well for the inconvenience we may have caused."
Management also told the I-TEAM that it had an action plan to correct the problems, but didn't go into many more details.
"Should this dealership still be in operation?" the I-TEAM asked the three former employees.
Spears: "Not at all."
Henry: "Not at all."
The three former employees said they feel like there are hundreds of victims, many people who don’t even know yet that their credit scores dropped.
They also believe there are dozens of refund checks for people who overpaid for their tags and titles that still have not been signed or returned to the customers.
If you’ve been affected by Riverside Chevrolet, the state of Florida wants to hear from you. The state is asking anyone with a problem to file an official complaint.