About 10,000 Georgia car owners received what appeared to be an alarming flier from General Motors last fall. "Urgent Potential Recall Notice," the mailing announced in large, bold type.
In fact, there was no recall. The flier wasn't even from GM. Instead, state regulators now say, it was the latest in a 16-year pattern of deceptive sales pitches by the largest car dealer based in Georgia: Bill Heard Chevrolet.
In a lawsuit filed Friday, the first of its kind in 32 years, the Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs alleged the October mailing was intended to trick car owners into believing their vehicles were unsafe. Heard was trying to sell new cars or service plans on old autos, the lawsuit said.
The Columbus-based dealer disputes the suit's claim that any violation was "willful," J. Matthew Maguire, one of the dealer's lawyers, said Monday. Company executives admit the mailing was "not appropriate," he said, but contend the blame lies with an advertising firm.
In the past, the dealership has alleged that the agency selectively enforces the law in a way that benefits its competitors.
The lawsuit is the first filed by the consumer agency against a car dealer since 1975. The agency — long criticized for tepid enforcement of Georgia's consumer protection laws — hasn't sued anyone in seven years.
The overwhelming majority of complaints to the agency result in a relatively small fine and a promise by the accused firm to stop using deceptive trade practices.
Bill Heard has made 15 such promises in the past 16 years, according to the suit.
In five cases, it paid fines and administrative penalties totaling $279,000. No other company has paid more, the consumer agency says.
The agency's lawsuit proposes civil fines of $5,000 for each of the mailings, or a theoretical maximum of as much as $50 million. It also seeks a judge's approval to bring future allegations directly into court, bypassing the administrative process.
Administrative fines, the suit said, have not deterred Heard from "repeated, continuous and willful violations" of Georgia's Fair Business Practices Act.
"We've got a pattern that has existed over a number of years," said J. Randolph Evans, a lawyer who represents the consumer agency.
Heard — which operates 14 Chevrolet outlets, including four in metro Atlanta — has battled the consumer agency for years. Bill Heard Jr., the company's chief executive, has often accused officials of selective enforcement of consumer laws that favored his competitors.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in 2005 that Heard executives had asked aides of Gov. Sonny Perdue to intervene with consumer regulators on the company's behalf.
They also suggested that Perdue, who had received campaign contributions from the company and its executives, fire the head of the consumer agency. The governor dismissed the agency head months later, but officials in his office denied a connection to Heard's request.
To settle earlier cases, Heard promised to drop ads that falsely suggested the dealer had a special relationship with GM or financing companies that would benefit car buyers. The dealer's October mailing, however, appeared to be recalling cars on the manufacturer's behalf, the lawsuit said.
"In fact, the ten thousand persons receiving the recall notice were chosen solely because they had previously done business with Bill Heard, and not because General Motors Corp. had authorized a recall — urgent, potential or otherwise — affecting the motor vehicles they owned," the lawsuit said.
It added: "The recall notice was intended and designed to mislead recipients into believing that their automobiles were subject to an urgent recall, so that the recipients would call Bill Heard's sales staff and be solicited for an automobile purchase or service contract."
As the consumer agency pursues its case against Heard, the dealer will be pressing its own lawsuit — against the agency.
Heard has filed a request for documents naming people who filed complaints about the dealer with the consumer agency.
"It's almost always competing dealerships that file the complaints," said Maguire, the lawyer for Heard. "We wanted to know who they are."