Company exchanges gifts for purchases

Associated Press

DAYTONA BEACH — A company that failed as a concert promoter finally found its riches in a business authorities say illegally targeted government employees willing to risk their jobs in exchange for baseball jerseys, gift certificates and hunting equipment.

Nine managers and employees of Stone Cold Chemicals were facing felony charges Thursday as government employees across Florida were facing unemployment and potential prison time after being charged with accepting gifts that came with their purchases of high-priced cleaners.

“What really is sad about the whole thing is they jeopardized their jobs for $50 and $100 gift certificates,” said David Donaway, head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement Daytona Beach office.

The company did about 70 to 80 percent of its business with government agencies, seeking out low-level employees who were authorized to buy cleaning products, befriending them and offering them gifts in exchange for buying products, Donaway said.

It concentrated on public workers because few private employers would pay such exorbitant prices for common products, he said.

“Two rolls of what they call Wipe Outs that were basically paper towels cost $290,” Donaway said. “People in the private sector are not going to spend $290 on paper towels that are in a fancy container with a fancy name.”

And when government workers thought better about the purchase and tried to return products, the company would refuse and threaten to play back tapes of the orders and the gift offers, Donaway said.

“Once they made that purchase and accepted the gift or the kickback, they were kind of on the hook and had to go along with it,” Donaway said.

While no public workers were getting rich off the deals– gifts accepted by the nine employees charged ranged in value from $185 to $1,275 — many were being placed on leave or resigning for getting involved. Purchase orders ranged from $1,970 to $14,190.

Dozens of other public employees around the state also did business with the company, but likely won’t be charged because they only made one or two purchases and the gifts were not as significant. Donaway said their agencies will be notified and the employees may be disciplined.

Three state Department of Transportation employees from Jacksonville, DeFuniak Springs and Gainesville were placed on leave and could be fired if found guilty of felony unlawful compensation charges.

“You’re talking about nearly 70 years of service to the state of Florida that these folks had,” said department spokesman Dick Kane. “It looks like they’re giving up an awful lot for very little.”

And in Highlands County, sheriff’s Sgt. Sherell Lee Collins, 56, resigned after buying cleaning supplies and accepting gift certificates to Bath and Body Works and Wal-Mart totaling $430, said Lt. David Paeplow. She had worked 18 years at the department. A phone number could not be found for Collins.

A Bradford County sheriffs’ employee, park department workers in Clearwater and Altamonte Springs, a Punta Gorda public works employee and a Department of Corrections worker in Gulf County were also charged.