Telecom Bills Forgiven

Does the name Norvergence Inc. ring a bell?

Federal and state regulators have accused the New Jersey-based telecommunications company of defrauding thousands of businesses nationwide.

But relief might be in sight for nearly 300 Norvergence customers in Maryland, including at least a dozen in Howard County.

In November, the Federal Trade Commission charged Norvergence with falsely promising huge savings to small businesses on their monthly telephone, cellular and Internet bills. The purported source of the savings: a black box that the FTC said was nothing more than a standard telephone router.

Norvergence would rent the boxes at inflated prices -- $400 to $5,700 a month -- and then sell the rental contracts at a discount to third-party finance companies for quick cash.

"Norvergence was able to provide a few early customers with 'discounted' services only because it used the proceeds of contracts from new customers," the FTC said.

Norvergence shut down in July, leaving more than 11,000 businesses without service. Even so, the finance companies that bought the rental contracts kept billing those businesses. Debts piled up. Customers complained.

Enter Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. (D).

Under a recent settlement with Curran's office, four finance companies agreed to forgive $5.7 million in debt amassed by 278 Norvergence customers in Maryland. One of the finance companies has about a dozen Howard County customers, Curran's spokesman said. Addresses could not be immediately obtained from the other finance companies.

CIT Technology Financing Services Inc., General Electric Capital Corp. and U.S. Bancorp Business Equipment Finance Group will forgive 85 percent of the outstanding balances. Wells Fargo Financial Leasing Co. will forgive 86 percent.

Maryland businesses eligible to participate in the settlement will be notified by mail in about a month.

Explorers' Den Opens

Paul and Betty Jones collect owls -- of ceramic, wood and anything else they can find.

While in Ecuador last fall, the couple spotted one carved out of "vegetable ivory," the dried-up seed of a coconut-type fruit that grows there. Intrigued, they pressed for details. The store manager told them that she bought the owl from local artisans in a village. The conversation led to more conversations, and soon the couple tapped into a network of brokers around the world who distribute such items as blown-glass pieces from Brazil and soapstone from Indonesia. Those brokers now supply handmade crafts to the Explorers' Den, which opened in Savage Mill in February.

"We buy from nine countries," Paul Jones said. "We wanted to buy from brokers who took care of the natives. That was our whole thrust."

New Faces at W.R. Grace

Richard C. Brown was named president of Grace Performance Chemicals, a subsidiary of Columbia-based W.R. Grace, which has 3,000 employees in 39 countries and $1.1 billion in sales.

Brown joins the company after 19 years at General Electric Co., where he most recently served as president of GE Silicones-Core Products. He succeeds Robert J. Bettacchi, who stepped down in April. Brown was also elected a vice president of Grace and works in Cambridge, Mass.

In Columbia, Mark A. Shelnitz was promoted to general counsel of Grace and continues to serve as its corporate secretary. Shelnitz, who was elected vice president, has been with Grace since 1983, most recently as associate general counsel. He replaces David B. Siegel, who retired in April.

-- DINA ELBOGHDADY

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