SIERRA VISTA, Ariz. — In her decade as spokeswoman for Fort Huachuca, Tanja Linton says, the Army base here has declared some rowdy bars off-limits to soldiers.
But this spring, base officers ordered military personnel not to do business with two auto dealerships here and one in nearby Tucson, all owned and run by Rick Johnston and his two sons.
Linton says the base felt the need to "protect" its soldiers — as many as 80 percent of whom are sent to Iraq or Afghanistan — from abuse by the dealerships.
"We were concerned that our service members are being taken advantage of," she told Automotive News. Linton and others cite complaints that the dealerships cheated or at least misled soldier customers and threatened them with arrest or a tarnished credit history when they complained. Linton says many soldiers who complained asked not to be identified out of "fear of retribution" by the dealerships.
The dealerships — Wildcat Mitsubishi in Tucson and Ideal Automotive, which operates Mitsubishi and Suzuki stores here in Sierra Vista — also are under civilian scrutiny. The state of Arizona is investigating the dealerships' practices, after the local Better Business Bureau fielded 30 complaints about them over the past three years.
In an interview here, dealer Rick Johnston, 59, and his sons, Heath, 37, and Beau, 34, who manage the dealerships, concede mistakes.
They admit selling vehicles with improperly recorded identification numbers — a clerical error, Beau Johnston says. And they acknowledge financing some deals without a needed state license — a bureaucratic mix-up, Rick Johnston claims.
But Rick Johnston insists: "We're not bad people. We're just a family trying to make a living."
The three dealerships sold about 2,000 new cars and trucks last year. The Johnstons say bad publicity and other effects of the military ban could cut that business in half.
Last month, Rick Johnston's company filed for bankruptcy, looking for breathing space to reorganize. In a court filing, the company reported owing its 20 largest unsecured creditors more than $2.1 million.