A fund-raising company representing the Washington State Council of Fire Fighters has agreed to pay the state $55,000 for giving false information to contributors and harassing people who chose not to give.
The Gehl Group, a Florida-based corporation, has sold concert tickets on behalf of the State Council of Fire Fighters since 1990. The public has been complaining about the company’s methods since 1996, said Owen Clarke, senior assistant attorney general.
After a 1-1/2-year investigation, the state attorney general’s office found that the Gehl Group had been misleading the public, Clarke said.
In a settlement filed Wednesday in Spokane County Superior Court, the Gehl Group agreed to pay the state $55,000 and revamp its practices.
“It got to the point where we needed to have something filed in court,” said Clarke, who has met with Gehl officials several times since 1996. “There had to be some monetary penalties.”
About 50 people called the secretary of state’s office to complain about the telemarketing company. The attorney general’s office interviewed another 125 people who had received phone calls from the company.
Some people were told that half or more of the money made from selling concert tickets would be used to purchase equipment and provide training for firefighters throughout the state.
But reports show otherwise.
Only 17 percent of the funds go to firefighters, according to the attorney general’s office. Of the more than $6 million raised by the Gehl Group in 1996, only $1 million was used for firefighting.
While it’s not against the law to keep that amount, it is unlawful to misrepresent how the money will be used, Clarke said.
In addition to providing false information, the Gehl Group also harassed people for not buying tickets, according to the attorney general’s office.
People were treated rudely on the phone or received threats, state officials said. Some people were told that the fire department would not respond to their emergency calls if they refused to buy tickets.
“I was appalled at their behavior,” said Teresa Juneau, a Spokane resident who picketed the Spokane Fire Fighters Local 29 office for several days last month.
Juneau received 10 phone calls last summer. Despite requests to be put on a “do not call” list, she received two more calls in December. One of the callers also was rude and threatened her, Juneau said.
The Gehl Group has seven locations in Washington state, including Spokane. The company monitors all of its phone calls, said Bryant King, the telemarketing group’s office manager in Spokane.
Gehl is revising its telephone sales presentation, he said.
The State Council of Fire Fighters assisted the attorney general’s office in the investigation, said Kelly Fox, council president. Its contract with the Gehl Group expires in 1999.
In a prepared statement, Fox said: “The state council is taking aggressive steps to ensure that all Gehl Group employees share our commitment to protect contributors from being misled or deceived.”
To sell tickets, the Gehl Group makes nearly 3 million calls statewide. On average, the telemarketing group receives 66 complaints annually, King said.
“That’s a low percentage, and we’re proud of that,” he said, “but if at all possible, we don’t want to get any (complaints).”
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