Take It for a Ride!

The hearing has dragged on for two days of testimony from police officers, a special-education teacher and Division of Motor Vehicles investigators. Now it's time for yet another expert witness: a forensic document examiner who's been trained by the FBI. He explains how to use infrared lasers to analyze handwriting, and he proudly mentions that he's worked on the JonBenet Ramsey murder investigation.

Outside, a young lawyer in a black trench coat talks frantically on his cell phone, trying to reach an out-of-court settlement in an upcoming case. Every few minutes an assistant attorney general steps outside to check on his progress.

Back on the stand, the handwriting expert finishes his testimony and the prosecution and defense give their closing statements. The man presiding over the case looks tired. His reading glasses perch precariously on the end of his nose, the top of the frame underlining the dark circles under his eyes. Dwayne Dodd raps his gavel on the table and excuses both parties so deliberations can begin.

It may look and sound like a courtroom, but--can it be?--the "judge" is really a used-car dealer from Grand Junction. Is this justice? Some people say so. It's a hearing conducted by the Colorado Motor Vehicle Dealer Board.

Sitting around the conference table nestled deep in a warren of Department of Revenue offices are five other car dealers besides Dodd, along with two members of the public. It's up to them to decide whether Tri-State Auto Leasing of Denver forged Brush resident Tyrone Whipple's signature on a promissory note for a 1995 Mitsubishi.

Tri-State's rather unbelievable defense is that Whipple intentionally disguised his signature when he bought the car so as to extort the dealer at a later date. Whipple, represented by an assistant attorney general who works with the board to provide consumers with legal counsel, claims that Tri-State forged his signature so as to get the deal done at a higher percentage rate, necessary because of Whipple's abysmal credit history. Whipple testifies that when he confronted Tri-State with the alleged forgery, the dealership tried to buy him off with $4,000, part of which was to be paid in cash. Tri-State says it offered the four grand as an act of "goodwill."

After the lawyers and witnesses have cleared the room, the board holds a roundtable discussion. Ron Rakowsky, who occupies one of the board's "used-car dealer" spots as general manager of CU Leasing Corporation, is skep-tical about Tri-State's defense. "Goodwill?" scoffs Rakowsky, a newcomer to the board. "That's awfully big money for goodwill. And how many times have you or I paid out in cash? That sort of behavior puts me on notice."

Harry Dowson of Empire Oldsmobile/Honda agrees. "No dealer in his right mind would offer anyone $4,000 to sign an affidavit saying a document wasn't forged," says Dowson, who bears a striking resemblance to legendary basketball coach John Wooden.

After a few more minutes of discussion, Rakowsky motions for Tri-State's dealer license to be revoked. That would put the dealer out of business. Clair Villano, who fills one of the board's "public" spots, seconds the motion. Some of the dealers, however, balk at this death sentence. In the end, they hand down one of the stiffest sentences the board has ever doled out--they decide to close down Tri-State for two consecutive working days, give it two years' probation and slap the dealership with a $20,000 fine. Whipple, the board decides, can try to recoup his financial losses in his pending civil trial or by making a claim on the $30,000 bond required by the board of all licensed dealerships.

The nine-member board consists of six dealers and three public members. However, one of the public members is a politician, Jefferson County Clerk and Recorder Joan Fitz-Gerald, and one of the public seats has been vacant for seven months.

When consumers feel they've been used and abused by dealers, they are referred to the dealer board by the board's newspaper advertisements and by local consumer-assistance agencies. Despite this, the board insists that its main function is not to sort through consumer complaints.

"Our jurisdiction is to make dealers function within the State of Colorado's laws," says Fitz-Gerald, "not give redress to consumers."

And that's one of the things that burns people who think that the board isn't doing its job. Despite the fact that disgruntled consumers are pointed in the board's direction with their complaints (vehicle repair gripes are handled by district attorneys), the board contends that its role is geared more to "maintaining order" among dealers.

"It's like the fox guarding the chicken coop--it is totally non-consumer-oriented," says Robert Marquardt, an attorney who has brought a consumer grievance before the board in the past. He represents two people who are peppering the board with faxes and phone calls complaining that the board is screwing consumers. The situation has become so intense that the Attorney General's Office has warned one of Marquardt's clients to stop sending the faxes and lay off the phone calls or face harassment charges.

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Tony Perez-Giese