JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Florida’s top prosecutor is coming down hard against the former owners of a Jacksonville Chevrolet dealership – charging them nearly $1.5 million in restitution, fines and fees.
This comes after a yearlong I-TEAM investigation of the Philips Highway dealership for taking vehicles in trade, but not paying off loans on those vehicles, ruining the credit of dozens of customers.
Attorney General Ashley Moody announced a restitution settlement against the owners of Riverside Chevrolet. Moody is taking action against the former owners under the Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices act. The official complaint was filed on Aug 2.
"We are shifting into high gear to protect Florida drivers from all types of automotive fraud," Moody said Monday morning. "Today, we announced more than a million dollars in restitution for Florida drivers who were sold cars with outstanding liens, and all week long we will be reaching out directly to drivers via social media to let them know how to avoid automotive fraud and what to do if they fall victim to deceptive practices.”
The I-TEAM exposed the Philips Highway dealership in May 2018 after talking with several customers who said they traded in their vehicles, but the management did not pay off their liens. They also accused the owners of charging them for warranties that they never fulfilled.
Former employees accused the dealership of fraud and failing to pay workers.
Days after News4Jax began investigating the dealership, several vehicles mysteriously caught fire on the lot. The drama caught the attention of local and state authorities, who launched several investigations after seeing the I-TEAM's reports.
After the I-TEAM turned records over to authorities, officials with the Attorney General’s Office, the Office of Financial Regulation and the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles launched investigations.
More than a year later, Moody’s team announced that Riverside Chevrolet LLC has agreed to pay restitution of $1,215,219, which is the number of outstanding liens on vehicles traded into Riverside Chevrolet LLC by consumers between August 2017 and August 2018 that were not promptly paid off by the dealership.
“This was an example of motor fraud at its worst,” Moody told reporters.
Riverside Chevrolet must also pay $235,000 in civil penalties to the state, as well as $15,000 for the Attorney General’s attorney’s fees.
"For those who did not have their liens paid off, clearly that has been taken care of," Moody said. "And as far as the fines, that will go back to further efforts to stop this type of activity."
At least 17 of the victims were senior citizens, who received a total of $295,000 in restitution. The I-TEAM found the former owners also preyed on military members, using supposed military discounts to reel them in.
“Oftentimes this happened to our seniors and in instances military personnel where it affected their security clearance,” Moody added.
The dealership was owned by Andrew Ferguson, of Montverde, Florida, and his sons Damon and Dwayne Ferguson.
Monday morning’s news conference included representatives from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles as well as customers who claimed to have been duped.
“I filed all sorts of things. State, local, Better Business Bureau,” said Janie Buckman, who bought a truck from Riverside with her husband, Bert. They said the management failed to pay off the lien on their trade-in, leaving them on the hook for two vehicles.
“I think they should face criminal charges,” Bert Buckman added. “You don’t do people like that. It’s wrong.”
73-year-old Burt Watson also shared his story after the conference. He said he and his late wife traded their vehicle in at Riverside Chevrolet.
“The dealership, I should have never walked in there. We walked in on the last day of their promotion.”
Watson said he was still missing about $1,600, which he paid management for a maintenance plan and gap insurance that he doesn’t believe ever existed.
"My credit dropped by at least 30 points. My husband’s dropped a little more than that," Navy veteran Marie Wright said after claiming the company ripped her off when she traded in her vehicle.
She said the “bad deal” caused her family to lose a contract on a home they were trying to buy.
“That’s a big deal for me, for anybody," said active-duty Navy personnel Ryan Gary. "I feel pretty taken advantage of."
Former employees also complained they were cheated out of paychecks and company benefits after Riverside didn’t make payroll. They blamed the owners, the Ferguson family, which owned a private jet, a riverfront condo, and a multi-million dollar home.
The I-TEAM also discovered the dealership owed the state $450,000 in unpaid taxes.
Months after the I-TEAM investigation, sources said Chevrolet’s corporate office froze the company’s assets. Andrew Ferguson, who owned Riverside Chevrolet for about two years, sold the embattled dealership in June 2018 to Beaver Automotive Group during the scandal.
The site is now run as Beaver Chevrolet.
The Ferguson family members, who live in Central Florida but also operated businesses in Louisiana, never commented to News4Jax.
As part of the agreement, state officials said Andrew Ferguson was barred from owning, operating or managing a car dealership in Florida ever again.
The new owners fully cooperated with the Attorney General’s investigation, according to a state spokesman.
So far, the complaints are only civil. No criminal charges have been filed against the Ferguson family.