Carl Monday Investigation: Online auto dealer takes RTA and taxpayers for a ride

Taxpayers taken for a ride, a Carl Monday investigation
Autos Direct Online at Pearl and State in Cleveland. (Source: WOIO)
Autos Direct Online at Pearl and State in Cleveland. (Source: WOIO)

A Carl Monday investigation may have saved taxpayers a half million bucks. The story involves RTA, an old bus garage and Ohio's largest online auto dealer that stuck taxpayers with a hefty bill and some car buyers without their vehicles.

Until just a couple weeks ago, Autos On-Line Direct was selling and leasing some 300 vehicles a month out of an old RTA facility on Pearl Road. Everything from economy cars to big ticket rides, like a $100,000 Fisker and a $150,000 used Maybach.

In January 2013, Autos Direct began leasing the 118,000 square feet facility from RTA, a five-year deal at nearly $10,000 a month, along with a one-time $150 occupancy fee.

One problem. Monday learned that each month, for the next 17 months, RTA mistakenly billed the dealer for the $150, not the $9,808 it was supposed to.

"You brought an issue to our attention and I want to thank you for that," RTA CEO & General manager Joe Calabrese told Monday. "We'd been under billing Autos Direct for a number of months."

Calabrese investigated Monday's tip and discovered a data processing error is to blame. A costly error at that. 19 Action News calculated that Autos Direct underpaid their rent by $160,000 over the past 17 months. If the mistake wasn't caught, RTA and taxpayers faced a potential loss of almost $600,000.

Vince Hugo and Shawn Payne are co-owners of Autos Direct. Is it possible they didn't realize their rent was only 150 bucks?

"As the owner, how could you not know that?" Monday asked Hugo.

"We're looking into it," he replied.

Calabrese is convinced Autos Direct had to know about it. But still, RTA did agree to a payment plan, in which Autos Direct would double up on payments over the next year.

But as 19 Action News hidden cameras discovered, Autos Direct was telling RTA one thing and doing another, capturing truckloads of cars and equipment leaving the building.

"What really upsets me," says Calabrese, "while we were working with them on an agreement, they were apparently selling off their assets."

Less than two weeks ago, Autos Direct packed up and closed its doors.

When RTA caught wind, it countered with a court injunction, seizing the facility, and the 75 mostly luxury vehicles inside.

Many of those vehicles have already been leased or purchased, leaving customers in the lurch. Many customers who have their vehicles don't have proper titles to drive them.

Autos Direct has a history of customer complaints with the Ohio Attorney General and BBB.

RTA says no one at RTA has been disciplined for the error. The three employees in charge of the billing already left for reasons unrelated to the mistake.

"The key now is to recover the taxpayers' money," insisted Calabrese. "We are making every legal effort to do that."

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