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After hearing state lawyers compare a Springdale couple to a "two-headed snake" and describe their used-car business practices as "abominable" and "despicable," a Pulaski County circuit judge ordered the pair on Friday to pay $647,053 in fines and restitution for violating the state's Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

Judge Chris Piazza ruled that John Michael VanCuren, 46, and Michelle Nicole VanCuren, 44, violated the law 59 times over a three-year period. The couple owned VanCurens Auto Sales Inc. and Infinity Auto Sales Inc.

The verdict capped a weeklong, nonjury trial in which lawyers for the state attorney general's office called 25 witnesses to testify about their dealings with the VanCurens. Attorney General Leslie Rutledge filed a complaint against the couple in December 2016, alleging that they and their companies had regularly violated the anti-fraud law between June 2013 and October 2016.

"This sort of behavior should not be tolerated by anyone honestly trying to buy a car," Senior Assistant Attorney General Shawn Johnson said in his closing argument.

The corporate defendants, both defunct, and a separate company, Infinite Towing and Recovery Inc., were found responsible for 59 violations of the deceptive-trade law in July after failing to respond to the suit. The companies were ordered to pay $663,002, representing $73,002 in restitution and the maximum fine of $590,000, $10,000 per violation.

On Friday, the judge found the VanCurens had violated the deceptive-trade law 60 times and ordered them to pay $57,000 in restitution. His ruling also bars the couple from further involvement in the used-car trade, including financing, and also puts them on the hook for the bulk of the judgment against their companies. The order further prohibits the VanCurens from retaliating against their accusers.

Together, the VanCurens spent hundreds of thousands of dollars that should have gone to pay off their liens on the trade-ins they'd accepted from customers, Johnson told the judge. He accused John VanCuren of "stiffing customers and creditors [and] offending the laws of the state."

VanCuren "is at the center of the web ... and his wife is right next to him," Johnson told the judge, describing Michelle VanCuren as her husband's "cunning and deceptive lieutenant. She knew everything that was going on."

Among the violations described by Johnson were 17 instances of failure to deliver title, 12 instances of falsifying documents and 11 instances of failure to pay off existing loans on trade-ins. Other violations included seven violations for failure to disclose liens, six instances of taking advantage of consumers unable to protect their interest due to language barriers, three occasions of deceptive conduct by not refunding a car warranty or sending a hot check, and one instance each of failure to disclose salvage title, placing a consumer in multiple loans on a single vehicle without disclosing the loans, and abusing small claims court to obtain a judgment against a consumer.

The VanCurens represented themselves during the course of the litigation, and John VanCuren denounced the lawsuit as lacking in hard evidence.

"There's been no documentation. They've had a year and a half to supply receipts to document their claims," he told the judge in his closing argument. "It's obvious [the attorney general] does not understand the laws of car dealerships. The state has presented nothing for this court."

VanCuren said that neither he nor his wife had done anything wrong. He said the couple were not involved in the daily operations of the car dealerships for the past couple of years because Michelle VanCuren had been seriously ill from a debilitating back injury for all of that time and he had spent a substantial portion of that time taking care of her.

"Just because she's on the paperwork doesn't mean she's doing a car deal," he said. "No one is out any money here ... except John and Michelle VanCuren. We didn't hurt anybody. The only people hurt are me and my wife."

The judge did clear the couple of any wrongdoing related to their towing company.

"All of the allegations involving towing were made up," John VanCuren told the judge. "None of them were legitimate."

In a statement after the verdict, Rutledge said she applauded Piazza's ruling "on behalf of the brave men and women who testified and stood up to John and Michelle VanCuren in court."

"Used car dealers must deliver title according to the law. These types of deceitful actions by an Arkansas business, which harm consumers and the overall business community, must be met with strong consequences."

Metro on 08/18/2018

Print Headline: $647,053 in penalties levied on used-car dealers

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