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Officials Search Huntington Beach Car Dealership : Data Taken From Wilson Ford As Part of Fraud Investigation

Times Staff Writer

State and local law enforcement investigators and Department of Motor Vehicles officials spent several hours Sunday night searching the Wilson Ford automobile dealership in Huntington Beach as part of an investigation into alleged fraudulent car sales, state officials said Monday.

When the investigators left the dealership on Beach Boulevard near Ellis Avenue, they took with them computer data and other records, DMV spokesman Gary Quinliven said.

“It is an investigation of allegations of fraud in the sale of vehicles,” he said.

Neither Quinliven nor officials of the state Justice Department, the Orange County district attorney’s office and the Huntington Beach Police Department would divulge details about the allegations, the scope of the investigation or when it began.

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Representatives of all four agencies took part in the search, which began at about 7:30 p.m. Sunday and was still in progress more than 5 hours later. The group included 11 investigators from the DMV alone.

A Justice Department spokesman said Navy personnel were also on the scene, but only because some of the alleged fraudulent sales were to Navy people. The Justice Department referred questions about the investigation to the DMV.

Wilson Ford, which closed nearly 4 hours earlier than normal Sunday because of the search, was open Monday. Officials at the dealership would not speak to reporters. In response to queries, they handed out copies of a press release that said little more than business was being conducted as usual.

Marshall G. Mintz, an attorney for the dealership, said he does not know the reason for the search, what the investigators were looking for or what they took.

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“We have always complied with requests for information,” Mintz said, adding that investigators were on the scene until 1 a.m. Monday.

The Wilson Ford investigation is among several reviews of county car dealerships. In January, the district attorney’s office filed a civil lawsuit against the Fairway dealership group, which has four showrooms in Fullerton and Placentia. The suit alleges that Fairway sales people failed to tell customers in 29 separate instances when they were being sold cars that had once been in rental car fleets. Those cases were found in a registration and sales check conducted by the DMV.

Last week, as part of that suit, a Superior Court judge ordered Fairway to cease the practice and explicitly tell customers of the histories of cars they buy. Investigators said then that at least four other dealerships were suspected of the same offense, which is a violation of state consumer protection laws.

It could not be determined Monday whether Wilson Ford is one of the four.

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Wilson Ford is one of the better-known auto dealerships in Southern California because of its ubiquitous, late-night TV ads featuring Ralph Williams, a well-known former auto dealership owner who has had troubles with authorities in two states.

In Washington state, Williams was accused of fraud and ordered to pay restitution to consumers in connection with a dealership he once owned in Seattle. In California, Williams twice had his DMV dealer license suspended and was at one point denied a sales license.

Williams has a valid California sales license at present, said Quinliven, the DMV spokesman.

Quinliven said he does not know whether Williams is a target of the current investigation. Williams could not be reached for comment.

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