Archive for Friday, June 4, 2004

Candidate for D.A. wants office to probe consumer complaints

June 4, 2004


A candidate for district attorney says he's found an example of why Douglas County needs a consumer-protection office: A gasoline station on 23rd Street was charging a higher price at the pump than it advertised on signs.

For much of Wednesday and Thursday, the sign at Presto, 1802 W. 23rd St., advertised premium gasoline at $2.16 per gallon, but the price charged at the pump was $2.19. A manager, Teresa Cumpton, said it was an honest mistake and it had since been fixed.

But Democrat Charles Branson said the discrepancy -- brought to his attention this week by a client -- is the kind of incident he would investigate if he were elected. He says the District Attorney's Office needed a specialized consumer-protection division similar to one in Johnson County.

It's an idea rejected by the Republican incumbent and the Democrat Branson will face in an August primary.

"I think the people of Douglas County are getting shortchanged," said Branson, a Lawrence attorney and Eudora city prosecutor.

Branson couldn't come up with a specific example of how someone in Douglas County had been harmed by the lack of a local consumer-protection office. Still, he said Republican incumbent Christine Kenney wasn't doing enough.

Kenney said her office's procedures were more efficient than having a separate consumer-protection division. Her office refers complaints to a specialized consumer-fraud unit in the Kansas Attorney General's Office. Investigators there decide whether to pursue the case with a civil lawsuit.

Consumer-protection law is a specialized area, Kenney said, and it's not easy to prove that a businesses' acts were intentionally deceptive.

"The people whose expertise is in that area are in the best position to look into it," she said.

Branson said the Attorney General's Office only would become involved in large-scale cases, leaving businesses that scam smaller numbers of people unpunished; Kenney said that was not true.

Attorney Martin Miller, who's running against Branson in the Democratic primary, said he didn't see the need for a separate consumer-protection unit here, either. When he was an assistant prosecutor in the mid-1990s, he said, he occasionally handled consumer cases in addition to his regular criminal caseload.

"The volume would not justify having a consumer-protection division," Miller said. "They're few and far between."

Branson said he would create the unit by making better use of resources in the office. He alleged Kenney and her charging attorney, Mark Knight, weren't shouldering enough workload because they didn't regularly appear in court.

But Kenney said that just because they were not in court didn't mean they were not working. For example, she said Knight usually didn't take lunch breaks and reviewed about 4,000 police reports per year.

Kenney said Knight's workload was so high that she recently assigned a different attorney to review police reports on domestic-violence cases.

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