North Huntingdon businessman charged with new crime
A North Huntingdon businessman ordered by a Westmoreland County judge to stop operating Electra Lighting and Electric Co. has been arrested for alleged deceptive business practices, the same type of offense that netted him a one-year probation term in late December.
Michael J. Free, 65, was arrested in 2015 after he allegedly took $11,550 in payments for items at Electra Lighting from 31 customers. He paid restitution to those customers as part of a plea bargain entered Dec. 29, but now North Huntingdon police allege he committed the same crime in November.
Detective Kirk Youngstead alleges in a criminal complaint that Free met on Nov. 19 with an Electra Lighting customer who placed an $80 deposit on a $500 light fixture she ordered for her home. After weeks of alleged excuses from Free, the customer told police that she paid $242 more and received on Jan. 12 a different fixture than the one she ordered in November, according to court paper.
“The victim, now highly upset because of what appeared to them as fraud, requested a refund from Electra Lighting/Michael Free,” Youngstead wrote in the complaint.
The victim got $240 back, but Youngstead alleges that Free kept $82 as a “restocking fee,” according to the complaint.
“They wanted their money back,” Youngstead told the Tribune-Review on Friday.
Free's attorney could not be reached late Friday afternoon. A message left at a number listed for Free was not immediately returned.
Free isn't even supposed to be operating his store, officials said. Westmoreland County Judge Anthony Marsili ordered in February 2015 that Free “immediately cease the operation” of his Center Highway store and refrain from owning or operating a similar business in the future, after finding Free in violation of specific measures required in order for him to comply with the Consumer Protection Law.
“He's prohibited from the retail sale of residential furnishings,” according to Jesse Harvey, senior deputy attorney general with the Bureau of Consumer Protection in Pittsburgh, which filed the civil complaint against Free.
His legal woes don't end in county court — Free was sentenced on Jan. 26 to two years in a federal prison followed by three years of probation for hiding about $1 million worth of assets when he declared bankruptcy. He was ordered to report on March 15 to begin his prison term. Federal prosecutors said he failed to disclose $350,000 in cash, a Fayette County chalet, a 1932 Ford hot rod and more than 75 items in his collection of World War II machine guns and rifles. He was ordered to pay a $35,000 fine.
Westmoreland County Assistant District Attorney Pete Flanigan said Free pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of theft in the 2015 case.
“We were very pleased to get the restitution in full for all of the victims,” Flanigan said.
Free is free on $10,000 unsecured bond in the new case. A preliminary hearing on charges of deceptive business practices and theft is set for March 22.
Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-837-5374 or firstname.lastname@example.org.