Judge denies feds' request to take over Utah companies
A federal judge on Thursday turned down a request by federal regulators to take over a string of Utah companies that had been accused of defrauding U.S. consumers out of millions of dollars.
U.S. District Judge Dee Benson said he wasn't persuaded by arguments from the Federal Trade Commission that all assets should be frozen and a receiver appointed to take over the companies and seize all related funds.
Benson made that decision from the bench at the end of a court hearing as part of the lawsuit filed by the FTC against Apply Knowledge and 13 other companies as well as nine people who owned or operated them. Apply Knowledge provides coaching services to people who want to learn to operate a web-based businesses.
In a lawsuit filed last month, the FTC accused Apply Knowledge and the other defendants of running a common enterprise in which consumers were fraudulently promised high earnings and then also sold pricey services in follow-up phone calls by telemarketers.
"It might be fraud. It might not be," said Benson, who added the issues "can be sorted out at trial" and indicated he didn't accept the FTC argument the businesses operated as single enterprise in which all operations involved fraud.
Attorney Jonathan Hafen, who represented Apply Knowledge and its owners, Ken and Babata Sonnenberg, said his clients made no claims about how much a customer could earn with an online business and that appointing a receiver would strip them of the assets need to live on and defend themselves.
"If there's no access to capital, then for all intents and purposes, this case is over," he said.
Attorney Brett Tolman, representing Phillip Edward Gannuscia and companies associated with him, said the FTC had identified only 107 out of 511,000 customers who had complained about the products and services they received ÂÂ or just .02 percent.
His clients should be able to use funds for reasonable personal and business expenses, including attorneys fees, said Tolman, who said the receivership system is "fraught with conflicts of interest."
"They have come with a shoot-first [attitude] and then worry about aiming and whether they have the right target," he said.
One of defendants, Gregory David Bevan, had agreed to a preliminary injunction and an asset freeze, though the status of that was uncertain with Benson's dissolution of the receivership.
An FTC attorney, Svetlana Gans, had told Benson all the companies had operated as a common enterprise that used deceptive claims to lure tens of thousands of consumers to try the coaching services and then used telemarketers to sell them even more questionable services, while few of them actually prospered.
The case likely will now proceed toward a trial unless the parties reach a settlement.
Defendants in Apply Knowledge case
Names of defendants and companies represented:
Apply Knowledge, Babata Sonnenberg, Ken Sonnenberg, Supplier Source and eVertex Solutions; Phillip Edward Gannuscia, 365DailyFit; Jessica Bjarnson, Dahm International, Dominion of Virgo Investments, EVI LLC and Essent Media; Chad Huntsman, Richard Nemrow, Nemrow Consulting; Jeffrey Nicol, Novus North amd Purple Buffalo; Thomas J. Riskas III, VI Education, Vensure International and eCommerce Support; David Gregory Bevan (no company listed).