FL broker arrested for scamming owner-operators

| 10/24/2002

The Grain Valley, MO-based Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) plays pivotal role leading to the arrest of Byron Hunt of Haines City, FL, for not paying owner-operators and others for trips brokered by Imperial Transportation Group Inc.

By Dick Larsen

Byron Hunt, a Haines City, FL truck broker who was charged Oct. 15 for defrauding owner-operators and others over a two-year period.

Florida authorities Oct. 15 charged Florida truck broker Byron Hunt, 53, with scheming to defraud owner-operators and 30 trucking companies in excess of $50,000.

"To our knowledge, this is the first time a truck broker is facing criminal charges for failing to compensate owner-operators and using fraudulent means to avoid paying for loads," said Mary Johnston, supervisor, OOIDA's Business Services department. "The state attorney's office should be commended for their aggressive follow through in this positive and precedent-setting action."

The arrest comes after nearly three years of documentation and effort by OOIDA's Business Services unit to get Imperial to pay owner-operators for trips Imperial arranged.

Hunt was ordered to Florida's Polk County Jail Oct. 21 and later released after posting a $15,000 bond. If found guilty, the maximum penalty is up to 30 years in prison.

Imperial's phone number has been disconnected. However, Hunt told investigators the nation's slow economy was the primary reason for Imperial's failure to pay numerous carriers and owner-operators the last two years.

The arrest stems from a combination of alleged offenses outlined by 14 OOIDA members and other firms doing business with Imperial. Most of the affected companies and owner-operators are from states other than Florida.

On Dec. 6, 2001, OOIDA hired Alabama Private Investigations, Andalusia, AL, to look into possible criminal activity and to inform prosecutors in Bartow, FL. Investigator Bob Stamper and Assistant State Attorney Angela Cowden, both assigned to the economic crime unit, conducted the investigation.

According to a 20-page complaint filed by the 10 Judicial Circuit State Attorney's Office, Hunt was general manager and broker for Imperial Group Inc., a truck brokerage firm, at the time of the offense.

"While in this position, the defendant entered into a systematic ongoing course of conduct with intent to defraud small independent trucking companies by refusing to pay for the services rendered.

"The total loss represented in this complaint is in excess of $50,000... About 30 trucking companies...have provided freight transportation to Imperial Group and not been paid for their services," the complaint says.

Excuses, excuses
Using a seemingly endless number of "the-check's-in-the-mail-type" excuses, Imperial for months put off OOIDA members who had requested payment for unpaid bills ranging from $1,500 to $5,000.

Over time, responses to phone calls asking for payment took on a familiar and annoying ring. Some typical responses from Imperial: "I'm busy, call me back Friday." "I'll call you back in 30 minutes." "My fax machine isn't working." "We don't have money today, call tomorrow," and "Ask me about that next week."

OOIDA member Bob Shelhorn, Mt. Vernon, OH, a driver for 15 years: "After hauling orange juice to Indianapolis from Florida, I returned to (Imperial's) office and asked for payment. I was told to wait for an hour and that I might go get some breakfast.

"When I returned, I was told the company accountant wasn't in - so I sat there for two hours, and then I began to smell a rat. After waiting, they actually offered me another trip, this one to Cleveland, and I said no.

"They said I'd never make any money with an attitude like that, and I said, 'I'm not making money when I don't get paid.' It's ridiculous when people expect you to work for nothing." Shelhorn made the trip for Imperial more than a year ago, and has not been paid the $1,100 he is owed.

OOIDA member Larry Sanders, Sugar Grove, OH, a trucker since 1978, said he was not familiar with Imperial or its business practices when he saw a March 2001 Internet job posting to haul tomatoes to Edison, NJ. For that reason, he asked for half his money up front, and got it.

However, he's been trying to collect $1,144 for two years for the New Jersey trip and for a return trip to Florida. "When I tried to collect, it was just one lie after another," Sanders said.

"First, they told me the check was in the mail, then they said I didn't give him the correct address. Can you imagine not putting down the right address when someone is going to mail you money? Then another time he told me that all his girls were busy, and no one could write me the check. Eventually, he (Byron Hunt) made himself unavailable to my name."

Bad checks
The complaint provides details from several carriers itemizing a two-year history of bad check writing on Imperial's part. Don Frazier of D&F Transport, Commercial Point, OH, said his company pulled several loads of freight brokered by Imperial.

Payment for those loads was in the form of a check mailed to his home office in Ohio. Before that check could clear, several more loads were hauled. It was after these loads that Grazier learned the original check was returned for insufficient funds.

"A second worthless check was also received by D&F from Imperial," the complaint says. After several phone calls, Frazier said Hunt met him at the Haines City Truck Stop and gave him yet another check to cover the two bad checks that he previously issued. This check, in the amount of $3,275 was drawn in the name of Imperial Group Inc. at the Bank of America. It was returned marked, "insufficient funds."

In a sworn statement, Wayne Huey of Ski-Way Farms Inc., Big Rapids, MI, said his company transported landscape plants brokered through Imperial Group from Sebring, FL, to an Alabama Department of Transportation job site on Interstate 10. The load was to pay $600.

Huey said he called Hunt, who identified himself as the owner of Imperial, "numerous" times in an attempt to collect. Imperial paid the $600 in the form of a bad check drawn off an account at First National Bank of Polk County.