Albertina Bruce, a registered nurse and mother of three, had been carefully looking through furniture stores in Prince George's County just four days after she moved here from Massachusetts last August.
Before she decided to buy from the Warehouse Outlet store on Stamp Road in Marlow Heights, she checked with the Better Business Bureau. There were no complaints on file against Warehouse so she purchased a dinette set, a sofa bed and a swivel rocker for $555.21, she said. Delivery was promised for the next day but the truck never came. A promised refund never came either, she added, and when she returned to the store after Labor Day she found a sign on the door saying, "closed for inventory."
Bruce was one of nine Prince George's residents who testified before the county Consumer Protection Commission that a chain of three discount furniture stores called Warehouse Outlet took deposits and lay-away payments from them, then closed down without delivering the furniture. l
After the 3 1/2-hour hearing last week, three of the five commission members hearing the case ruled that owners of Warehouse Outlet, Wallace Lane of Silver Spring and Eugene Hodge of Edgewater, must return $1,708 to the complaining customers, and pay civil fines of $1,000 each and $600 in commission costs. In addition, the commission ordered Lane and Hodge to stop selling furniture and asked the county department of licenses and permits to revoke all business licenses issued to the parent company, Seaboard Traders Inc.
Only Lane appeared at the hearing.He said he had sold his interest in the business last June. He told the commission that his name was being used by Hodge and other partners without his permission, and that he sold out because he did not like their business practices. Hodge could not be reached at his Edgewater address.
Lane and Hodge have 30 days either to comply with the commission's order or appeal the decision to the county circuit court. If they do not take either action, the case will be turned over to the county attorney's office for enforcement.
Montgomery County consumer-affairs investigators also have served Lane with a summons to appear in their offices on June 16 to discuss 18 similar charges, involving merchandise worth a total of $1,400, stemming from complaints about two discount furniture stores in Rockville and Wheaton.
Albert Wynn, executive director of the Prince George's commission and its prosecuting attorney, said that in similar cases in the past, complaining customers have gotten their money back in only about half the cases. He blamed the slowness of the administrative-law procedure used in consumer protection cases, which is slowed further by the consumer commission's small budget and staff.