BROWN COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) - A large-scale investigation into possible fraud and theft at car dealerships in Brown and Outagamie counties has inspired an effort to change state law.
Standard Pre-Owned, a vehicle consignment business with former locations in Suamico and Kaukauna, is the subject of dozens of customer complaints over several years.
Target 2 broke the story in May of 2016 after investigators served a search warrant at the Brown County location. Brown County investigators told us John Solberg owned the business.
The warrant says Solberg would contact people trying to sell cars on Craigslist and offer to do it for them.
Investigators say Solberg “refused to pay… the owners… after the sale." They also accused him of selling vehicles for a lower price or refusing to return cars to their owners.
The case started with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation in 2011. The Brown County Sheriff's Office started their investigation in 2016. It is now in the hands of federal authorities.
No charges have been filed.
The FBI tells Action 2 News there is an ongoing investigation.
Now, state legislators are trying to make it faster and easier for the DOT to suspend or revoke a business license if complaints start rolling in.
"It gives the Department of Transportation the ability to revoke a license sooner when you know that there's fraudulent behavior that's been occurring," says Rep. Andre Jacque, (R-De Pere).
Rep. Jacque and State Sen. Rob Cowles (R-Green Bay) introduced a bill that would give the DOT more authority--and allow it to suspend, revoke, or deny licenses quickly--if the agency suspects there is fraud.
Currently, the process goes before the Division of Hearings and Appeals, which can take three-to-six months, or longer, according to Jacque.
This new bill allows the DOT to act immediately if there is a "license violation in a consignment sale, a sale without a dealer license, or intentional fraud."
After seeing what victims have endured while attempting to get money back from Standard Pre-Owned, Jacque felt the law needed revision.
"This is something where, after the department became aware of the activity that was occurring, they weren't able to shut it down as quickly as what I think a normal person would expect that they could," Jacque says.
On Thursday, Target 2 spoke with John Solberg by phone. He says he was not the owner of Standard Pre-Owned but just an employee. He thinks the bill "sounds great, but it goes deeper than that."
Solberg says lawmakers are missing the point. He believe more victims would get hurt and would not get paid if a business was shut down immediately.
The lawmakers argue it would stop more people from falling victim to a fraud.
Solberg tells Target 2 three victims from Standard Pre-Owned have been paid. He says some of them were paid in "creative ways."
Target 2 dug through online records with the Division of Hearings and Appeals and found 25 victims were paid from a $50,000 surety bond. Standard Pre-Owned was required by law to have one of these bonds.
The money the victims lost far exceeded that $50,000. Their settlements were pro-rated with each victim receiving about 18 cents for every dollar lost.
Court records show another lawsuit filed by victims is scheduled for trial later this year.
A case in Forest County involving a victim from the Suamico location was settled in 2017. A judge said, "Solberg owned the Suamico business ... [he] owes the claim for money."
The judge continued, "court finds that John Solberg is not credible and feels all testimony by him is untrue."
We asked Solberg about the case. He says they do online court records differently in Forest County and he doesn't know who said that.
After we talked over the phone, we received a text from Solberg saying he would call the lawmakers to talk about their proposal.
Target 2 learned late Thursday that a hearing on the bill will go before a legislative committee in late January.
Target 2 will continue to follow those developments and the FBI's ongoing investigation.
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