The Watchdog: Stream Energy target of racketeering class-action lawsuit

One of Texas’ best-known electricity companies has been smacked with a major and quite unexpected setback. Stream Energy and its marketing arm Ignite face a class-action lawsuit in a Houston federal court charging that Stream and Ignite sell through a pyramid scheme in violation of federal racketeering laws.

The recipients of any potential settlement include hundreds of thousands of independent associates who worked for Ignite selling Stream electricity contracts between 2005 and 2011.

Houston lawyer Scott M. Clearman, who filed the case, says in a worst-case scenario, if Stream has to pay a major settlement, “It could close the company.”

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Business experts say the ramifications of this lawsuit are so deep that a Stream loss in the case could wreak havoc across the entire multilevel marketing industry.

Chairman and co-founder Rob Snyder tells The Watchdog the suit is “distressing.” The allegations are untrue, he says.

The company is appealing and several Stream officials tell me they expect an appeals court to dismiss the class-action certification. We’ll see.

Snyder says there is no pyramid scheme because the company sells a true product and uses established multilevel marketing systems to build its massive sales force: “We sell electricity, and we pay for word-of-mouth advertising through our associates,” he says.

Clearman’s 5-year-old lawsuit against Dallas-based Stream tells a different story. The lawyer charges that the company’s sales setup benefits those at the top. He cites federal racketeering laws because, he says, phone and mail were used to perpetrate the fraud in a conspiracy led by Stream and Ignite leaders.

Although promises of big income gains are made to bring sales people in, at least 25 percent of those who invest to get started in the sales program don’t make their money back, his lawsuit claims.

Stream chairman Snyder explains that it’s natural for sales team leaders at the top of a hierarchy to make more money than low-level associates.

“Our leaders build sales organizations, and they get a commission on the sale when our customers use electricity,” Snyder says.

The case has attracted little attention. Even a top-ranking Public Utility Commission of Texas official said the agency was not aware of the class-action certification until informed last week by The Watchdog. But the ramifications go much further than Stream alone.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other sales organizations have weighed in with a legal brief. They argue that if the case is successful, businesses using multilevel marketing could face a series of challenges from participants who lose money.

“A wide range of businesses, from mortgage lenders to for-profit colleges would face the risk of being coerced into extortionate settlements without having a meaningful opportunity to present legitimate defenses,” the brief states.

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Stream’s Snyder says, “All you have to do is allege a pyramid scheme and you’ll be presumptively certified as a class-action. Defendant firms are looking down the barrel of a gun.”

Surprisingly, a staunch critic of pyramid schemes — and someone who once predicted Stream’s selling strategy would collapse under its own weight — now defends the company in this situation.

Southern Methodist University marketing professor Daniel Howard says, “The danger in this lawsuit is that if this goes through, it may ruin an entire industry, and it could bring down some pretty reputable companies as well.

“Once you have a class-action lawsuit like this saying there’s a racketeering and corrupt influence, it gives an ugly veneer to an entire industry, and that’s not necessarily true.”

The lawyer suing Stream and Ignite points to a $329 entry fee to join the sales program and a $29 monthly fee to host a sales website. He says many never make their money back. He cites dozens of sales recruitment meetings in the lawsuit where promises of great wealth were made to hopeful participants.

Until now, Stream has been riding high. The company started in 2005 and now has 350,000 Texas customers and 200,000 more electricity customers in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Georgia.

Its marketing materials describe it as “one of the fastest-growing new enterprises in the history of American business” and “the largest network marketer of energy in the world.” The company claims about $6 billion in revenue since it began.

Most of the time, the company has stayed out of trouble. The Texas attorney general’s office has only two dozen complaints on file about the company. However, the PUC fined the company $94,000 in 2011 for numerous violations relating to contracts, marketing, connections and many other state rules.

Another top Stream executive, president Mark Schiro, tells The Watchdog: “We feel strongly that we will ultimately prevail in this case.” The judge’s decision was wrong, he adds. “And nothing has yet to be proven.”

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More Watchdog Nation News:

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America meets Watchdog Nation/Listen to Fun Radio Interview

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