Duane Overholt is declaring war -- in court -- on many of the nation's largest dealership groups.
The self-styled whistle-blower who gave "Dateline NBC" its ammunition last year says he is working with trial lawyers to bring at least 33 lawsuits. Some of them are class-action suits.
Their proposed targets are four of the six biggest public groups and the second largest private group.
The lawsuits allege illegal conduct at the groups' dealerships, he says. Dealers are helping fund his litigation activities, he adds.
The first of the lawsuits was filed in Tulsa, Okla., last month against Sonic Automotive Inc. and a Chevrolet dealership it owns in Broken Arrow, Okla.
To his champions, such as the consumer group Public Citizen, Overholt courageously exposes dealers' shady finance and insurance practices that rip off customers.
But some dealers and other critics call Overholt a smear artist who lacks credibility. They say the blitz of threatened litigation is a ploy by Overholt and trial lawyers to extract big payoffs from deep-pocketed retailers.
Overholt, 52, spent two decades working for various dealerships as a salesman, sales manager, F&I manager and used-car lot owner. He estimates he cheated customers out of $33 million.
Now, after what he describes as a religious conversion, he makes a living as a consultant to law firms that target dealerships. His claims were the subject of an hour-long "Dateline NBC" broadcast last December.
Overholt sued Sonic for wrongful termination and won an undisclosed settlement in 2001. He says a Clearwater, Fla., Mitsubishi dealership then owned by Sonic fired him in 1999, ostensibly for forging a document.
Overholt says he could have won a larger settlement from Sonic if he had agreed to keep quiet about alleged fraud at the dealership. Sonic denies that assertion. Now Overholt says he is encouraging other whistle-blowers to expose deceptive practices at dealerships. He asserts abuses are widespread, especially at high-volume stores owned by big chains.
"We are going to hit them," he says, "and we are going to hit them hard."
Overholt says he has interviewed more than 150 would-be whistle-blowers among former dealership employees. He says he is helping some of them find lawyers who won't charge them.