Two United States senators have asked the Federal Trade Commission to open a full, nationwide investigation into whether the leading maker of artificial sports fields, FieldTurf, defrauded taxpayers across the country.
In a letter sent Sunday to the commission’s chairwoman, and obtained by NJ Advance Media, Sens. Cory Booker and Robert Menendez (both D-New Jersey) said the government must be “vigilant against deception and misuse of taxpayer dollars.”
The senators cited the news organization’s recent special report that detailed how FieldTurf made millions selling a high-end brand of turf, known as Duraspine, to towns and schools for years after executives became aware it was falling apart.
Many of the fields have since failed and been replaced.
“Official court records and findings published by New Jersey Advance Media indicate that FieldTurf may have engaged in unfair and deceptive trade practices in violation of federal law in their marketing and sale of the now-discontinued Duraspine turf,” the senators wrote to the commission’s chairwoman, Edith Ramirez.
They added, “We respectfully request a full investigation of this matter and urge the FTC to take any appropriate actions necessary.”
A federal investigation would dramatically widen the scope of inquiries already facing the company, which include preliminary reviews by the attorneys general in New York and New Jersey, as well as a planned hearing by the New Jersey Legislature.
Last week, the Newark school system filed the first class-action lawsuit in the U.S. over Duraspine’s failures, accusing the company of defrauding the public by failing to disclose a pattern of problems with the turf, and failing to change sales pitches.
FieldTurf also faces lawsuits in California and Texas alleging fraud.
Company officials have said they stand by their products and customers, and will cooperate with any government inquiry. But they strongly deny allegations of fraud and deception, and have said the facts will show their customers were well-served.
The officials maintain Duraspine’s problems did not affect player safety.
Booker, who is leading the effort and sits on the Senate subcommittee for consumer affairs, and Menendez said the FTC’s investigation should cover all 1,428 U.S. sales of Duraspine from when the turf made its debut in 2005 until it was discontinued in 2012.
“Given the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) mandate to protect consumers from unfair and deceptive advertising practices, it is imperative that the commission thoroughly investigate FieldTurf’s sales and marketing of their Duraspine product,” the senators said in the letter.
For most of the eight years Duraspine was sold, company records show, Montreal-based FieldTurf — a division of French flooring maker Tarkett, a publicly traded company — touted its revolutionary qualities, including “unmatched durability” and far greater resistance to ultraviolet light and foot traffic, the two main enemies of any artificial sports field.
Though it cost more than anything else on the market — about $1 per square foot extra, or about $85,000 for an average field — FieldTurf told customers Duraspine would pay off in the long run because it would outlast other turf products, including those of competitors, and even its own previous generation technology.
Soon after sales began, however, key FieldTurf executives became aware Duraspine was cracking, splitting and breaking apart after only a few years of use, records show, far sooner than the decade or more customers were told it would last in advertising. Despite growing signs of a major problem, sales continued across the country, and the company never changed its sales pitches for Duraspine.
All told, FieldTurf earned an estimated $570 million in revenue from the turf, most of which came from taxpayers through towns and school districts.
The company contends it was the victim of a bait-and-switch by its supplier, which changed the chemical formulation of Duraspine, making it more susceptible to ultraviolet radiation. The supplier has denied the allegations.
As part of its investigation, NJ Advance Media contacted 15 experienced consumer attorneys in the six states with the most Duraspine fields. All 15 of those attorneys said FieldTurf likely violated laws against false or misleading advertising.
Richard Newman, an advertising lawyer in New York City with more than 15 years of experience, said the FTC would look to determine if the company’s marketing and advertising contained statements, or omitted information, that likely misled customers, or that a reasonable customer would want to know before a purchase.
Newman said a review would include not only FieldTurf’s written materials, but also the “overall net impression” of what it conveyed to its customers.
“To the extent that Duraspine’s performance standards were inconsistent with express and implied marketing claims made to consumers, the intentional or reckless failure to clearly, conspicuously and prominently disclose the product’s alleged susceptibility to cracking, splitting and breaking apart could materially impact the direction of an FTC investigation or enforcement action,” he said.
Newman said potential penalties for those who engage in deceptive advertising could include civil penalties and consumer restitution.