HAMMOND, LA (WAFB) - Several teens and parents in Tangipahoa Parish are frustrated with a driver’s ed school that took their money, then abruptly closed without giving them a refund.
The school is Elite Driving Academy located in downtown Hammond, or at least it was located there until just before school let out for the summer. The privately owned company run by Fred and Connie Martinell was, until recently, licensed by the state to provide third-party instruction and testing services to student drivers.
The Martinells were certified driving instructors with five years of experience, they said. They even boasted two additional campus locations: one in Denham Springs and another in Ponchatoula. The business seemed to be doing fine, and the couple had just moved the school into a new building in Hammond as they prepared for the rush of students seeking to earn their driver permits this summer.
“They were good with my grandchildren,” customer Dianna Martin said. “So I decided I would use them with my son.”
But on June 1, the Louisiana Office of Motor Vehicles (OMV) sent them a 10-page certified letter, officially revoking their third party instructor license. And as of Thursday, Elite Driving Academy still was not a state-certified driving instruction facility. The phone numbers listed for the company are out of service, and the once positive reviews online have become overshadowed by rants from angry customers.
Dianna registered her son for a 38-hour course back in April and paid a deposit for a class that was to begin May 29, but when they showed up that day, owner Fred Martinell told her the class was cancelled.
The school then gave them a new start date of July 16, so Dianna and her son waited.
But just one day before that class was set to start, she received another email from the school saying class was cancelled again. Dianna soon learned she was among a larger group of similarly frustrated parents.
At that point, the Martinells posted a letter on Elite’s Facebook page, notifying their customers all classes were cancelled and that the OMV was refusing to validate their school’s license. The post drew several irate comments from customers, many of whom had very similar experiences with the company.
Rebecca Bonura wrote: “Buyer beware!!” ... "When I arrived 20 minutes prior to my appointment time on July 10, no one was on the premise [sic], the phone numbers were disconnected” … “Once I did receive a response the owner promised me a refund immediately which now 10 days later I still do not have.”
Jennifer Howes wrote: “Terrible business! Classes have been cancelled since the end of May & customers are told they can reschedule or get a refund, yet no one ever receives their refund! They write bad checks to customers too. Then when the customer expresses a complaint, they block them on Facebook so they don’t look bad.”
Miriam Sanchez wrote: “We were scheduled on May 29th, June 11th and July 16th. ALL three classes were cancelled!!” … “Apparently there is an issue and OMV hasn’t issued license. It would have been so much better to tell us the truth!”
The frustrated parents paid several hundred dollars upfront, and the refunds promised by the Martinells were either delayed or never processed at all.
Dianna Martin showed the 9News Investigators copies of receipts for a $104 deposit and a subsequent $300 payment she made on what was supposed to be the first day of class for her son back in May. During her interview with WAFB in late August, she said she still had not heard back from the school or received any refunds.
So what happened? How did a driver’s ed school operate for five years without interruption, then suddenly lose its license right after moving into a new building?
The Martinells said the OMV shut down their school in retaliation for a heated dispute Fred had with two employees from the OMV’s Training and Certification Unit back in February.
“This is nothing more than a personal vendetta the OMV TCU has against myself and our institution,” Fred said.
The dispute is detailed in the OMV’s official revocation letter dated June 1.
It describes an on-site compliance audit on Feb. 28, during which two OMV officials visited Elite to monitor the instructors and inspect the school’s internal records.
One of those employees accompanied Fred Martinell on a road skills test he was administering to a student. During the test, according to the OMV record, Fred apparently instructed the student to perform an illegal turn that forced the student to swerve around a pickup truck into a lane already occupied by another car.
When Fred gave the student a passing grade, the two OMV officials asked for an explanation, “at which point Mr. Martinell became very agitated and hostile.” The letter stated Fred “proceeded to yell and belittle” the officials, saying “this was bull**** and [they] had no idea what [they] were talking about.”
He eventually left the room, at which point the officials decided to end the inspection and prepare to leave, but as they were gathering their belongings, Fred came back into the room “arguing and yelling” at them again, “followed later by an apology.”
Fred, who noted he is a retired state police officer, maintained he did nothing wrong during the road test. He said he tried showing the officials a section in the OMV manual that proved he was correct, but the officials, he said, refused to look at it.
But the argument was not the only reason listed in the revocation letter. One of the primary reasons, among several others, had to do with the liability insurance the school maintained on its four vehicles.
The OMV claimed the school submitted documents from Progressive indicating the vehicles were covered with the required $500,000 liability limit with a policy effective from March 30 to Sept. 30. However, when officials contacted Progressive to confirm this, they said they discovered the vehicles were actually covered with only a $30,000 liability limit from March 30 until May 22. The proper $500,000 coverage only went into effect after May 22, according to the OMV letter.
But Fred disputed this finding too, saying it was just a typo and a misinterpretation of the information Progressive gave to the OMV.
The Martinells are now hashing out their differences with the OMV in court. Meanwhile, customers still want to know when they’ll see their money returned.
“All I can say is I apologize and I want to get them their money back,” Connie said. “As soon as I can get all this straightened out with the state, I will get them their money back.”
The OMV is telling Elite’s customers to file claims through the OMV bond process.
“We’ve gotten into a bind,” Fred said. “We’ve literally… We don’t have lights. We can’t pay our lease. We have been cut off.”
In the middle of their interview in front of the now closed school, the Martinells’ landlord came outside and asked the couple when they were moving out. The landlord has already filed for an eviction.
But many customers want to know why they kept accepting students and their money after the school’s license was revoked. Connie said it was because different people at the OMV were telling them different things and they believed they would regain their license after proving they had the correct insurance policy.
The Martinells said they are getting things in order and even claimed they’ve already refunded most of their customers.
“We had over 304 people that we had refunded,” Connie said.
But when asked to provide documentation of the refunds, the couple would not. They would also not provide contact information for anyone who has received a refund.
OMV officials declined to be interviewed but said customers who file a claim with their office should receive a refund in two to three weeks.
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