I-Team: Small business owners say Tampa Bay area consultant did little to get them federal work

Hundreds of complaints await action by Florida AG

OLDSMAR - For a small machine shop, $4,400 is a big chunk of change. But Manatee Tool Inc. Vice President Lehel Dobai says it would have been money well spent, if a consultant had delivered on a promise to help the company get on a preferred list of vendors supplying goods and services to the federal government.

The consultant, GSA 1000 LLC, pledged to assist in getting Manatee Tool on the vendor list of the U.S. General Services Administration, the federal government's civilian contracting agency.

"He was basically going to be our broker, if you will," Dobai recalled of his conversations with a GSA 1000 representative.

GSA 1000 made no guarantees about Manatee Tool getting a federal contract. So what did Manatee Tool get for its $4,400? A sharp-looking marketing flyer, says Dobai, but not a single federal contract.

A couple of months after he signed a contract with GSA 1000, Dobai says the consultant told him that Manatee Tool wouldn't be eligible for a GSA contract.

"Basically, they told us we don't have a GSA contract for you," Dobai said. "You don't qualify for a GSA contract."

The ABC Action News I-Team has discovered Manatee Tool is one of at least 293 businesses around the nation with complaints about GSA 1000 and its corporate affiliates. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi's office has opened an investigation into the complaints, which date back to 2005. And, based on the I-Team's findings, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor has asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate, too.

GSA 1000's general counsel, Gary D. Sizemore, told Dobai that Manatee Tool's contract with the consultant stipulates there will be no refunds. Dobai was told the $4,400 would instead be applied to the cost of a listing in a GSA procurement catalog.

Frustrated, Dobai says he traveled from his Sarasota office to the company's Oldsmar headquarters several times to try to resolve the dispute. "I just wanted to sit down in person with somebody," Dobai said. "And every time they told me, 'sure, I'll go get 'em,' and they never came out."

John W. Zajac, corporate counsel of the Better Business Bureau of West Florida Inc. has heard similar complaints. "Customers are stating that, after a few months have gone by, they are still not approved to be listed on the registry," Zajac told the I-Team.

How much are customers being charged by GSA 1000 and the affiliates? "Customers are paying into the thousands for this company's services," Zajac said.

GSA 1000 and its affiliates have settled the complaints filed with the local Better Business Bureau.

But there are still unhappy customers, such as David Reed of Bradenton-based Shred Quick Inc. Reed says his credit card was charged, long after he stopped using the services of a GSA 1000 affiliate.

"Zero calls," said Reed. "There was zero effort on their part to market my service. Therefore, there was zero -- nada -- results."

Likewise, Roland Feijoo hired a GSA 1000 affiliate to help get federal contracts for his Oldsmar information technology company. Feijoo also says the consultant kept billing him for other services he didn't want.

An attorney for GSA 1000 and the affiliates told us that her client is addressing the concerns of former customers that were brought to its attention by the I-Team.

"It is our commitment to satisfy all of our clients and, if we have been unable to do so, we are equally committed to resolving any concerns," Clearwater attorney Kim Sharpe stated in an email. "We are currently complying with the Florida attorney general's requests to resolve past complaints and we are diligently implementing new processes and procedures that will ensure client satisfaction."

Sharpe added that her clients are confident that any concerns "can and will be resolved to the satisfaction of all parties."

After Manatee Tool's unhappiness was conveyed to Sharpe by the I-Team, Dobai says GSA 1000 has promised to refund half of his $4,400 fee. As of Thursday, however, he says he hadn't seen a check from the company.

Congresswoman Castor was concerned about what she heard about GSA 1000 and the affiliates from the I-Team. "I'm going to talk to the folks at the consumer protection agency, the Federal Trade Commission, and follow up with the attorney general's office," the Tampa Democrat told the I-Team.

Castor has since asked the FTC to join the state attorney general in examining the business practices of GSA 1000 and its affiliates.

Do you have information about government waste, fraud or abuse? A tip about business misconduct that needs to be investigated? Email us at iteam@abcactionnews.com .  

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