Bully Pulpit: Ripoff Redux

Remember Chuck Kutz, the longtime adaptive van dealer/owner of Adaptive Driving Systems in Southern California, who ripped off more than a dozen people for hundreds of thousands of dollars? Kutz’ customers handed over vans to sell on consignment, substantial sums for new vans, or both, but got nothing in return.

Kutz closed the doors of his business and disappeared, as did the victims’ money, but one man and his son wouldn’t let him get away with it. Bill Fell and his son Bryan, who were ripped off for more than $100,000, urged the Los Angeles district attorney to take action. Nearly three years later Kutz was found guilty of several felony counts and ordered to pay back the victims, at least those who joined the lawsuit.
Now it’s happening all over again. No, not with Kutz. Another adaptive van dealer in California is being investigated for possible criminal business practices.

“I was wondering how long it would take for me to be in contact with you for a situation similar to the … case I was involved in from 2008 through 2011 on behalf of my son Bryan,” wrote Fell in a recent e-mail. “Driving Specialties of Vallejo has closed its doors after taking upwards of $200,000 from a number of customers, most with serious disabilities, and have not provided the vehicles they accepted orders and payment to provide.”

Fell was watching television when the story broke on KOVR Channel 13, a CBS affiliate in Sacramento. A local investigative TV program, Call Kurtis, reported on September 24 that Joyce Henry, whose daughter has cerebral palsy and uses an adaptive van, was out $53,000 after paying that amount to Driving Specialties’ other location in Fresno for a new van that was never delivered. When KOVR sent a reporter to investigate, he was told by the owner that his business location in Fresno does not sell vans, even though its website advertises vans for sale and Henry claims she purchased the undelivered van from that location. KOVR claimed that “at least nine families in cities up and down the state say they, too, were victimized out of more than $203,000.”

The allegations sound eerily similar to the Kutz fiasco. Both adaptive van dealers had good reputations with 30 years’ experience in the business. Both were members of the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association, even displaying logos that said they were part of NMEDA’s quality assurance program. And both did business in California.

If this kind of shady business practice can happen twice in a few years in one state, how many other adaptive van dealers across the nation may be guilty of similar ripoffs?

Perhaps the cruelest twist on this latest story is that Driving Specialties was founded in 1975 by Phil Niles — who used a wheelchair from the age of 15 until he passed away in 2002 — and the company’s website claims that it continues to “embody the ‘Spirit of Phil’ on a daily basis.”

I wonder what those nine families who are out $203,000 would say about that.

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