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Van crash's legal wheels still turning


By Sid Schwartz/Gazette Staff

One year after a van crash killed seven young magazine sellers near Janesville, federal legislation to regulate the industry is in the hopper.

Lawsuits are pending.

Investigations grind on.

Families continue to mourn their losses.

Others celebrate their luck.

One of the survivors, Staci Beck, now 23, is having a rebirth party today.

"Instead of dwelling on the past and things that have happened, we want her to know we're glad she's here," said Staci's mother, Vicki Jacobovitz.

Staci spent a month at Mercy Hospital in Janesville after the crash, more time in a hospital in Fort Collins, Colo., and now lives in Loveland, Colo.

"It's been a tough year, but I've made it through," Staci said. "Physically I'm all the way back to normal, but I'm mentally scarred for life."

She was awake when the driver of the van, Jeremy Holmes, tried to switch places with the front-seat passenger while traveling down Interstate 90 at more than 80 mph.

"I remember right before we started rolling, them trying to change places and everything," she said. "I remember being really scared and feeling like I was being pulled out of my body."

She still suffers from flashbacks and nightmares.

"After the accident all I wanted to do was die. My friends were in that van, and they died. I felt for a long time there was nothing else I could live for. But I found a whole new life now--new people, new boyfriend, everything."

Holmes pleaded guilty to 12 felonies and was sentenced to seven years in prison. He is locked up at the Racine Youthful Offender Correctional Facility. He declined to speak with The Janesville Gazette.

Holmes and the 13 others in the van that night were on their way back from the Appleton area, where they'd spent the day hawking magazine subscriptions. They were part of YES, one of several crews that sold subscriptions door-to-door. The orders were processed by Subscriptions Plus, an Oklahoma-based clearinghouse.

Staci, the other survivors and the families of the dead have filed at least four lawsuits in Wisconsin and federal courts against the people for whom they worked.

"We're now at the point where we're in the meat of these cases," said Lee Atterbury, a Madison attorney involved in two of the lawsuits. "Hopefully we'll get some straight answers."

A dozen attorneys are traveling to Oklahoma City next week to depose Kay Hillery, the owner of Subscriptions Plus.

"We want to find out who else is in this chain, who else is making money, who is financially responsible," Atterbury said. "If this ever is going to get stopped, you have to whack the people who are in control.

"All the parents I've talked to are very concerned that this be stopped."

Staci agrees.

"I would get the people off the streets, first of all," she said. "I think the publishers need to find other ways to distribute their magazines."

The lawsuits are only part of the trouble for Subscriptions Plus and the door-to-door magazine sales industry.

Eight months after the van crash, Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., introduced the Traveling Sales Crew Protection Act. The bill is intended to "crack down on abuses in the traveling sales crew industry," according to a bill summary sheet.

The legislation has been referred to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, but it has no co-sponsors and no action has been taken on it.

"Sen. Kohl is in the process of seeking co-sponsors right now," said Lynn Becker, Kohl's communications director.

If the bill doesn't move on its own, it could be attached as an amendment to "some larger legislative vehicle," Becker said.

Kohl's bill would:

--Prohibit children younger than 18 from selling door-to-door as part of a sales crew that takes employees away from their homes for more than 24 hours.

--Define the workers as employees, rather than independent contractors, to extend the protection of a 40-hour work week, eight-hour day, overtime, minimum wage and other provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

--Require employers and supervisors in the industry to be licensed by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Andy Hortatsos Sr., president of the National Field Selling Association, said he agrees that minors should not be on the road selling door-to-door.

"I believe that anyone who chooses to involve himself in that line of work--being an outside sales agent, traveling with a crew--they should be by legal definition an adult," Hortatsos said. "I have a pretty fair hunch that the NFSA will adopt that position."

But he opposes defining sales workers as employees rather than outside sales agents or independent contractors.

"I think we're on a very scary trend," Hortatsos said. "A lot of these independent contractors are small-business people. The people they work with are a little bit larger-business people. I don't like private-enterprise-limiting legislation."

He also opposes requiring employers and supervisors to get licenses from the Department of Labor.

"We can't keep putting layer of law on top of layer of law," Hortatsos said.

"I say grab the offenders and deal with them as the law provides," Hortatsos said. "We can't go out and take a broad brush and say everybody in this business is a scoundrel."

State and federal authorities still are investigating whether Subscriptions Plus or others violated the law before the fatal van crash.

The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection concluded a month after the crash that young people selling for YES or Subscriptions Plus had committed 229 violations of state consumer codes and laws. The violations could carry fines of more than $2 million.

The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development in July said YES had committed 49 labor law violations.

The investigations from both agencies are now in the hands of the Wisconsin Department of Justice, which will fold the information in with results from its own investigation, said Jim Haney, spokesman for the department of justice.

"Our investigation is in the very final stage," Haney said. "I suspect we will have conclusions to announce within several weeks."

Haney said both civil and criminal actions are possible.

The Department of Labor in Oklahoma, where Subscriptions Plus was based at the time of the van crash, also investigated and already has entered a plea deal with the company, said Trey Davis, deputy commissioner.

"They paid a $10,000 fine and agreed to cease and desist operations in Oklahoma," he said.

The department issued 83 citations for not providing workers compensation insurance. As part of the settlement, Subscriptions Plus admitted to the allegations as they related to eight members of the office staff in Oklahoma.

The $10,000 was the maximum allowed under Oklahoma law, Davis said.

The seven deaths in Janesville apparently haven't changed the industry, Davis said.

"Overall, the impact was minimal, sadly. To date, nothing has changed as far as this industry is concerned.

"There's no organized vigilance with this kind of operation. We tend to take a cautious approach when it comes to regulation, but in instances where you have young people exploited, being lied to and manipulated, then state government and federal government should take an active role in protecting the rights of those individuals," Davis said.

"I think we need the U.S. Department of Labor to create a rule or regulation which prohibits this kind of indentured servitude or slavery," Davis said.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Labor dumped a $15,050 fine on Subscriptions Plus for federal child labor law violations.

Monica Forgues of Madison was among those injured in the van crash. She was 15 at the time.

"This young woman should not, by law, have been in that van at that hour," said U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman in a statement.

Department investigators said they also found a 14-year-old working for Subscriptions Plus under similar circumstances with another crew.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Labor told the Gazette that the department still is investigating whether Subscriptions Plus violated the minimum-wage and overtime requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

"I think our investigation showed that they were employees," the spokeswoman said. "That part of the case is still open."

Hortatsos said the National Field Selling Association hopes government does not paint the door-to-door sales industry with a broad brush.

"We relentlessly seek the improvement of industry practices. We do education programs and seminars. We do all the right things. A lot of people listen to the right things, and a small percentage don't," he said.

"Let's find a way of getting after them without getting after everybody else."

Earlene Williams, who founded the industry watchdog group Parent Watch, provided information to Kohl's office when his bill to regulate the industry was being written. She wants it passed without dilution.

"I want my bill," she said from her New York, N.Y., home. "I've waited 18 years for this. The worst thing in the world would be if something goes through that's inadequate or useless."

Parent Watch members are sending hundreds of letters to the Magazine Publishers of America.

"They are the trade group for this industry, and years ago their then-president declared on the record that he would investigate this and vowed the industry would deal with this problem," Williams said.

"Of course, it didn't happen."

Staci Beck didn't want to predict her future.

"I'm taking it one day at a time," she said.

"It's been a hard year.

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