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The Division of Consumer Protection last month fined a company owning rural Utah gas stations and repair shops $10,000 for what documents describe as pressuring motorists into buying tires they didn't need.
The gas stations one in Scipio and one in Beaver, both Flying J franchises are public rest stops on Interstate 15 in a partnership with the Utah Department of Transportation. At each location, repair shops are adjacent to the Flying J fuel pumps.
The gas stations and repair shops are owned by Mark J. Yardley, according to public documents. Yardley was the mayor of Beaver when Consumer Protection received complaints about the businesses in 2013.
Yardley resigned as Beaver's mayor on March 11, 2014, according to city council minutes. The minutes said Yardley cited personal and family reasons for his resignation. He spent four years as mayor.
Justin Wayment, an attorney representing Yardley and the businesses, sent an email to The Tribune on Friday acknowledging Yardley "paid a penalty [due] to some employee's failure to prepare the proper paperwork at the time of providing services to their customers, which is a technical violation of consumer rules. This has subsequently been rectified, he said.
"However," Wayment continued in his email, his clients "deny that there was ever a scheme or intent by employees to defraud or otherwise unlawfully influence people to purchase unnecessary services from the business."
Wayment also wrote that one episode at the Scipio businesses cited by the state happened under previous ownership.
"Unfortunately, the costs of litigation versus resolution of the matter did not justify continued disputes with the State of Utah, and both time and economics suggested resolution was the best alternative," Wayment wrote.
The settlement Yardley's businesses signed with the state says the businesses failed to obtain and record express authorization for repairs and inspections and failed to provide consumers with an itemized list of repairs.
The businesses, according to the settlement, also "represented to consumers that repairs, inspections, or other services are necessary when such is not the fact" and that the businesses "represented to consumers that goods being inspected or diagnosed are in dangerous condition ... when such is not the fact."
The Tribune obtained consumer complaints, an investigator's report, a copy of the state's settlement with the businesses, and other documents through a records request. The five consumer complaints that Consumer Protection provided from 2013 and 2014 describe the purported tire sales scam as working like this:
• A motorist driving a recreational vehicle or towing a travel trailer would stop for fuel.
• An employee of the repair business would approach the motorist and tell him or her that the tires on the vehicle or the trailer looked worn or at risk for separating.
• The employee would offer to sell new tires. Four of the complainants said employees tried or succeeded in also selling them new shocks or a suspension kit.
Two of the complainants made references to being senior citizens. One man said the $1,710 he paid for four new trailer tires and shocks added up to more than his monthly disability check.
"We cannot afford to be broken down on the highway," that complainant wrote of his experience at the Beaver Flying J. "They have been in my heart six times and I don't need the stress."
That man said he wasn't quoted the full price until his trailer was on jacks and his old tires had been removed
"I was shocked, but caught," he wrote. "I told him to fix my trailer."
Another complainant driving an RV said he paid $3,302 for six tires from the Beaver service station. He later found he could have bought the same six tires from a tire store chain for $2,082. His complaint, which went to the state, asked for reimbursement of the difference.
The business in Beaver adjacent to the Flying J is called Goobers' Service, according to Consumer Protection documents. The Scipio repair business adjacent to the Flying J is called Goobers & Gomers Service, but also has had signage identifying it as Oak Creek Tire.
Documents show Consumer Protection began investigating in 2013, but the complaints continued arriving for another year.
Besides the $10,000 fine, Consumer Protection suspended another $15,000 fine, but could still impose it if the gas and service stations fail to comply with a written agreement to discontinue the sales practices.
Documents from Consumer Protection also show how Beaver County Sheriff Cameron Noel inquired about the investigation.
A report from Daniel O'Bannon, director of the Division of Consumer Protection, describes telephone conversations he had with Noel across four days in September 2013, beginning on the same day that two Consumer Protection investigators visited the Beaver Flying J and "observed conduct related to a nearby service station named Goobers that they found concerning," according to the report.
The report says Mayor Yardley called Noel to get his father's phone number. Noel is the son of state Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab.
In subsequent phone calls, Cameron Noel asked staff at Consumer Protection why he wasn't notified of the investigators' visit, according to the report. He also was concerned that Consumer Protection was conducting a sting operation. The investigators report describes the calls as "heated" at times.
Agency staff members explained they had jurisdiction over consumer complaints and did not have to notify the sheriff. There was no sting operation when investigators visited that day, according to the report.
But Cameron Noel said he heard differently from the gas and repair station employees.
"[Noel] indicated that he may need to do an 'investigation,' " the report says.
O'Bannon told the sheriff it was no longer productive for them to talk. Cameron Noel then made some mention of calling his father, which O'Bannon took as a threat of some kind of legislation, the report says.
O'Bannon said he never heard from Mike Noel, but he did receive a call from state Sen. Evan Vickers, whose district includes Beaver.
In an interview on Wednesday, Vickers said the sheriff called out of concern about not being notified of the Consumer Protection investigation. Vickers called O'Bannon to inquire what had occurred.
When O'Bannon said an investigation of the gas station and repair shops was moving forward, Vickers said he asked only that the agency "be fair and upfront" with the business owner.
"Beyond that I haven't had any more conversation with him," Vickers told The Tribune. Vickers said he did not know Consumer Protection had imposed a fine.
Mike Noel did not return Tribune messages seeking comment.
Neither the Division of Consumer Protection documents nor corporate papers filed with the state show any relationship between Noel and the fuel and repair businesses. Attorney Wayment wrote that it was a store manager, not Yardley, who called Noel, because the manager was confused whether the Consumer Protection investigators were police officers, Wayment said.
Cameron Noel's attorney, Peter Stirba, on Thursday said the sheriff has no financial connection to any gas or repair stations.
"Sheriff Noel is the sheriff of Beaver County and his job is partly to enforcement laws and providing order and providing good service to the people of Beaver County," Stirba said. "It doesn't involve any service stations."
Kevin Kitchen, a spokesman for UDOT, said the agency was aware the gas stations and repair shops were under investigation, but did not know Consumer Protection had taken action.
"Obviously, we want to review whatever Department of Commerce has put out there," Kitchen said Wednesday.
The two gas stations are not paid by UDOT, but the agency does post signs on the freeway advertising the stations as public rest stops. In return, Kitchen said, the gas stations have to be open at all hours, provide restrooms, parking spots and water fountains.
The motorist who spent $3,302 on tires cited the gas station's partnership with the state in encouraging Consumer Protection to take action.
"Considering these travel centers are in partnership with the State of Utah, travelers should be especially able to be protected against unscruplous (sic) operators doing business in those areas," the complainant wrote.