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Some car owners stuck in neutral

February 20, 2004|by JULIE E. GREENE

julieg@herald-mail.com

James Jenkins is frustrated.

He and his wife are paying $440 a month for her new Isuzu Axiom that sits in their Chambersburg, Pa., driveway because, legally, it can't be driven with an expired temporary tag.

Jenkins is one of more than 37 people who have filed complaints with the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration since Power Automotive of Hagerstown closed its doors in January, Jenkins and MVA spokesman Jeff Tosi said.

Tosi said a number of the complaints have been satisfied, but he would not say how many.

MVA officials would not reveal the nature of the complaints because the investigation is ongoing. The Herald-Mail filed a Maryland Public Information Act request with the MVA on Feb. 12 to get copies of all 2003 and 2004 complaints against Power Automotive, which also trades as Harbarlorjac Inc.

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In the Jenkins' case, the couple paid the Isuzu-Suzuki dealership at 701 Frederick St. more than $1,000 for taxes, title and tag fees. The check was cashed, but the paperwork wasn't processed and the Axiom's temporary tags expired in January, James Jenkins said.

In addition to the MVA complaints, at least five people had filed written complaints with the Maryland Attorney General Consumer Protection Division as of Thursday, said Larry Munson, coordinator of the Western Maryland office in Hagerstown.

"There's an internal investigation going on to find out exactly what happened," Power Automotive General Manager John Spagnolo said Thursday during a telephone interview.

Power Automotive owners Harold and Barbara Gill of Silver Spring, Md., did not return messages left on their home answering machine on Wednesday and Thursday.

"For the record, the Gills are wonderful people. You wouldn't want to do business with finer people than the Gills, and they are extremely upset about this, besides losing hundreds of thousands of dollars. We're not talking a small loss here," Spagnolo said.

Spagnolo said he could not explain the money loss.

He said the company has begun selling its assets, including selling the cars on the lot at auction, to raise cash to pay creditors and customers.

Harold Gill also is owner of Power Automotive of Hagerstown's Power Truck Stop at 17703 Virginia Ave., which closed Jan. 12, the same day as the other dealership, said Spagnolo and Charles Schaub, manager of business licensing and consumer services for the MVA in Glen Burnie, Md.

If the MVA substantiates there's been a violation of state law, customers can file a claims against the company's insurance bond, Schaub said.

Power Automotive has a $75,000 insurance bond and a $25,000 insurance bond, Schaub said. Power Truck Stop has a $75,000 insurance bond, he said.

The car dealer licenses for both businesses expired Feb. 1, Schaub said.

The dealership accepted voluntary termination of its Isuzu franchise in December after Isuzu Motors America found out about Power Automotive's troubles, Isuzu spokesman Chip Letzgus said. Isuzu will honor customers' warranties, Letzgus said.

Spagnolo said he has not been ducking peoples' phone calls and has been at the Frederick Street dealership almost every day to cooperate with the MVA investigator. The two of them have taken care of approximately 50 to 60 problems concerning tag work that had not been completed, Spagnolo said.

"All of the Maryland customers that we're aware of, their title work has been done. The out-of-state customers, their title work has been sent to their lien holder, whoever financed the vehicle," Spagnolo said.

Spagnolo said company officials are "forced" to let the lien holders take care of out-of-state customers' title work.

Spagnolo said some customers traded in vehicles to Power Automotive and the loans on those vehicles were not paid off.

He said he expected to begin mailing keys back to the owners of the trade-in vehicles as soon as today so they could pick up those vehicles.

Hagerstown couple Sharon and Harvey Smith traded in their 1997 Dodge Ram truck to Power Automotive last fall for a used 2001 Hyundai Santa Fe, Sharon Smith said. They later took back the Santa Fe and got a 1999 Ford Ranger pickup.

Smith said loans for the Dodge and Santa Fe haven't been paid off by Power Automotive. Their bank wants them to make payments on those vehicles.

The Jenkins got a 30-day extension on their temporary tag for the Axiom, but that expired Monday and the MVA has told them they can't get a second extension, James Jenkins said.

Tosi said Maryland law only allows one 30-day extension.

"It makes you feel like they can get away ... the people that sell the cars can get away with murder and the consumer's got to bite the bullet," James Jenkins said.

"She loves the car, but it's not worth the hassle. We can't trade it in because nobody owns it," Jenkins said.

Jenkins and Smith said they are becoming frustrated with the speed of the investigation.

"Well, I'd like to get more results, but as it is, I'm not sure what else I can do," Smith said.

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