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Friday, April 4, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Feds investigating local movers

Seattle Times consumer affairs reporter

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Seattle is participating in a criminal investigation of a Woodinville-based moving company that has drawn consumer complaints for allegedly jacking up prices and holding possessions hostage.

The office confirmed the investigation late yesterday.

Two Nationwide Moving Systems customers who reported bad experiences with the company said they were recently interviewed by Melanie Jaimerson, a Seattle-based special agent with the Department of Transportation's Office of the Inspector General.

One of the customers contacted by Jaimerson was John Jennings, a former Issaquah resident who said his move to Florida last September was spoiled by Nationwide. Jennings said the company revised the price upward from $3,000 to $16,000 — and then refused his request to unload his possessions after he objected. Ultimately, the total cost of his move, after hiring a different company to retrieve, move and re-store his possessions, exceeded $11,000.

He was forced to live without his belongings for about two months, and last week he received $3,000 in a judgment he won against Nationwide in small-claims court here.

Jaimerson told Jennings he probably would be subpoenaed to testify against Nationwide, he said. Jaimerson was interested in the difference between the price Nationwide originally quoted and the amount it tried to collect.

Jaimerson yesterday declined comment.

Nationwide vice president Erik Deri, asked about the investigation and other matters in a brief phone interview yesterday, said, "Everything I have to say is going through my lawyer."

Asked for the attorney's name, Deri said, "It's not your business."

In a related action, another Department of Transportation (DOT) branch, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) — the agency that regulates interstate movers — last week charged Nationwide with six violations, including operating a vehicle without insurance, failing to maintain qualification files on each driver and operating a vehicle without the required registration.

The agency disclosed details of its civil-enforcement action under a Freedom of Information Act request filed by The Seattle Times. Documents show the agency assessed fines against Nationwide totaling $4,080, although the company may request a hearing.

FMCSA spokesman Dave Longo could not say how often his agency undertakes such compliance reviews. But he said, "We target our household-goods enforcement activity on carriers that have exhibited a pattern of egregious behavior."

He added: "The information that we collect regarding these egregious carriers ... is a springboard for (federal criminal investigators) to get involved."

Longo noted that his agency's primary mission is safety and has limited resources to police household-goods movers.

In another Nationwide development, the Washington state Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) last week dismissed the company's application for a permit to operate as an in-state mover. The UTC cited Nationwide's failure to communicate and complete its paperwork.

All the civil, criminal and administrative actions took place after a story on Nationwide was published last month. The Times article reviewed a number of cases in which customers said they felt cheated by Nationwide.

In some cases, customers said they shopped online or turned to the Yellow Pages for a mover. Nationwide arrived instead of the company with which they contracted, and often used rental trucks and day-labor hires.

In one case, a customer reported he watched in disbelief last fall as a Nationwide truck drove off with his 55-year-old father hanging from the side, arguing over the escalated price of delivery.

Complaints about Nationwide are similar to allegations outlined in indictments made public in Miami last month, in a federal criminal trial now underway in Brooklyn, N.Y., and in a California case that ended last year with four federal convictions. One thing all those cases have in common is that Israeli nationals ran and worked for the companies.

In an interview in February, Deri said he was a 31-year-old Israeli national.

Corporate papers on file in Olympia show that Nationwide started operating last April or May. The company never received authorization from state or federal regulators to operate as an in-state or interstate mover, officials say.

In the interview, Deri said he was "in (the) process" of getting the required permits and registrations.

Some corporate documents list him as vice president, others as president. Deri said in February that on the advice of associates who taught him the moving business, he swapped titles with his wife, Tanya Deri, an American.

Deri would not name his associates but said he had business dealings with two moving companies in Florida. One of them, Elite Van Lines Moving & Storage, was among the companies indicted in Miami on federal fraud charges. The other, Flux Transportation, took over three loads from Elite before the indictment, according to Miami FBI spokeswoman Judy Orihuela. Flux delivered them to the customers without raising the price — under pressure from the FBI, she said.

Of the 74 people charged in the Florida indictments, 60 are Israeli nationals, Orihuela said.

David Barnes, a spokesman in Washington, D.C., for the DOT's Office of the Inspector General, said his agency has noticed the pattern involving Israeli nationals. "We haven't established a particular reason for that," he added.

In the meantime, his agency is looking at Nationwide.

Sarah DeLassus, who hired Nationwide to move from Seattle to Antioch, Ill., in February, said her belongings arrived two weeks later than promised. Virtually everything she owns was broken, shredded, soiled, splintered or otherwise mutilated, she and her mother said.

DeLassus estimates the loss at between $4,000 and $5,000. In addition, several boxes of her belongings never arrived, she said.

But that's not what concerned special agent Jaimerson, DeLassus said. Rather, Jaimerson focused on the original price Nationwide quoted — $800 — versus the $964 she was forced to pay, DeLassus said.

Peter Lewis: 206-464-2217 or plewis@seattletimes.com

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