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LAWYER DENIES WRONGDOING BY REFERRAL FIRM

The attorney representing a professional practice management and development company under investigation by the FBI says complaints against his client are unfounded.

Attorney Mark Stringer said that as a result of the federal probe, more than 70 research, marketing and administrative employees have lost their jobs at Professional Excellence Institute, or PEI.Federal agents seized records and computer equipment last month from the offices of the Huntington Group, an umbrella firm for several companies under investigation, including the Provo-based PEI.

PEI refers patients to more than 300 dentists nationwide, but not in Utah. States participating in the program include California, Texas, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

The FBI action follows hundreds of complaints from dentists and orthodontists to the American Dental Association, the Utah Division of Consumer Protection and state dental boards.

The dentists claim PEI took thousands of dollars from them without delivering on promises. But Stringer denied any wrongdoing and said he doesn't think the dentists have any evidence.

Stringer added the seizure of company records and equipment has made it impossible for PEI to fulfill its contracts. He also questions the legality of the action.

"They haven't got an indictment, nor do they have - nor could they probably get - a cease-and-desist order. This is more of a practical action, not a legal one."

An FBI official in Salt Lake City declined to talk about the case, saying he could neither confirm nor deny an investigation.

Because of complaints against the company, however, the American Dental Association demanded PEI not use the association's name.

But Stringer said the referral company didn't even ask to use the dental association's name.

The California Dental Board denied PEI's application to become a registered referral agency and then informed dentists that it was illegal for them to do business with an unregistered agency.

In reaction, Stringer wrote to the state's board in April, accusing them of strong-arming dentists not to participate in the program.

"This type of scare tactic - and irresponsible misrepresentation of fact - has unfairly impacted on the institute and its participating dentists, forcing the cessation of marketing in California," he wrote.

Stringer says that according to California laws and regulations, PEI was a legal and registered program in the state.

More complaints came about when dentists accused the company of withdrawing money from their bank accounts. Stringer said all transactions were authorized through compliance calls and that when problems arise, debiting is usually suspended until the problem can be addressed.

The dentists contend they were promised 400 to 600 new clients a year and in return were to pay nearly $6,500 for the 12-month-long Dental Practice Growth and Management program.

"Right off the bat, I was very skeptical," said California dentist Dean Brown, who signed up anyway, then tried to quit when he found out PEI did not have a permit to operate in California.

When he tried to get his $2,000 back, he was given the runaround, he said.

A representative "kept telling me, `Well, it's in committee meeting. We're investigating it. We're meeting, checking into this.' Every time I'd call, he'd say, `Call me back in 10 more days.' "

Dr. Nushin Mohamadi said she got referrals but none turned into patients.

PEI and its parent company, American Research and Educational Systems, has been in operation since about 1986. The companies offer programs in other areas of professional (medical and non-medical) practice management, marketing, business advisory and personal improvement.