Selling Empty Space 

Oakland's National Expo Group peddles nonexistent trade shows, fails to pay employees, and yet manages to keep chugging along.

When Bill Gluth saw the work-from-home sales job with steady salary and generous commissions listed on Monster.com, he could scarcely believe his good fortune. With his entrepreneurial efforts flagging and four-year marriage increasingly strained by his unpredictable income, the 56-year-old figured a reliable paycheck would be his ticket to stability.

And so, in late October, Gluth signed on with National Expo Group, a self-described "major tradeshow company" run by an Oakland woman named Kristen Yvette Martin, who goes by various aliases. National Expo boasts on its Web site of staging 250 events a year. Gluth, who lives just outside Phoenix, was hired to sell exhibitor packages to colleges and universities for National College Day, a show "designed to connect College-Bound High School Students with schools of their interest," the event's Web site states.

"More than 100,000 Students will attend Fair 2007 in 8 Major US cities," it boasts. The Web site describes the day as "a collaborative venture between National Expo Group and US Department of Education." In addition to students, parents, and high-school guidance counselors in attendance, the company also promises appearances by Raven Symone, the Cheetah Girls, and a keynote address by US Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. The mid-November kickoff at the Sands Expo Center in Las Vegas seemed to have all the hallmarks of a fine event, with one caveat: It never happened.

Three additional events — the National Real Estate Expo, the National Home Expo, and the US Computer Expo — were all scheduled to launch the same November weekend at the Sands. They didn't happen either.

Some college recruiters found this out the hard way. "I got a call from two clients who flew from Phoenix to Las Vegas and the venue was dark, and no venue in Las Vegas was holding the event," Gluth said of National College Day.

The two were Rebekah Dubina of Southwestern College and Erica Brown of Grand Canyon University, each of whose employers paid $495 for booth space at the Vegas nonevent, plus travel expenses. Neither could be reached by press time, but a colleague confirmed that Dubina had flown to Las Vegas to attend, and that National Expo had not yet refunded the college for its expenses, as Gluth says it promised. At least two other schools in Texas bought booth space from another National Expo saleswoman, Debra Neil-Terrell, for the March event in Dallas.

If buyers have concerns about the company, so do its salespeople. At least a dozen National Expo employees report that the company has stiffed them for thousands of dollars owed for their work. Yet as of last week, National Expo Group was still enthusiastically peddling the National Real Estate Expo and the National Home Expo out of its makeshift office on MacArthur Boulevard. In an on-site interview, a man who identified himself as Scott McNally, Northern California regional sales manager, said the real-estate and home shows have been combined, and that his staff of six has sold 80 percent of the booths for the January 27-28 show at San Francisco's Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. McNally said he has been with the company for a year, and that he was not familiar with National College Day.

The facilities manager of Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, who asked that his name not be used, said he first learned of National Expo Group and its purported shows about three weeks ago, when at least two companies that had been contacted by National Expo Group called him to verify the event. "No one said they'd spent any money," he said. "We investigated, and we found that we were listed along with other venues." He called to complain. "I spoke to a receptionist type who said the manager wasn't in," he said. "I called back to say to take our name off [their materials]. The message box was full."

Next, he contacted the San Francisco Police Department and filed a complaint with Lieutenant Kenwade Lee, who called several other convention centers listed on National Expo's schedule. None reported any events planned with National Expo Group. Because the case concerned an Oakland-based company, Lee immediately transferred it to the Oakland Police Department. Contacted by the Express this week, Lieutenant Fred Mestas of the OPD said his department has no open case on National Expo, but added that he would open one and assign it to an officer who returns from vacation next week.

According to an employee-hiring contract obtained by the Express, National Expo Group is a subsidiary of National Sales Expo Inc., which, according to state records, was created in 2000. Its business license was suspended in 2002 by the Franchise Tax Board, which typically takes that action for nonpayment of business taxes.

On October 20, Kristen Yvette Martin filed updated papers with the secretary of state listing the company's officers and directors. She is listed as CEO and as one of four company directors. Kristen Y. Martin, with a different address, is listed as the company secretary. Despite this filing, the secretary of state's office lists the company's status as suspended, meaning it cannot operate legally in California.

Gluth and several other former salespeople interviewed say they dealt primarily with a woman who identified herself alternately as Kristen Jones, Lisa Jones, and Kristen Lisa Jones. All three iterations appear on company documents. National Expo's McNally said Lisa Jones is CEO of National Expo Group and Kristen Jones runs human resources, and that they are two different people. But Home Expo sales manager Cosette Jurkovic said Kristen Jones told her she sometimes goes by her middle name, Lisa, and that she sometimes uses her maiden name, Martin.

Following a reporter's visit to the National Expo Group office on Friday, a woman identifying herself as Diane Jones called the Express, accusing the reporter of trespassing on company property, and threatening to sue. "I had several employees quit their jobs today because of what he did," she told an editor. "There is an issue with regard to the training program that is being handled by labor, by the state of California labor," she added. "We don't have anything to hide."

Dean Fryer, spokesman for the state's Department of Industrial Relations, said his agency has no record of any investigation, past or present, of the company's labor practices. When this reporter attempted to return Jones' call, no one answered at either of the numbers she provided, and both had full mailboxes.

It is unclear what, if any, official action might be taken. The OPD is getting a late start in the case, and Tom Dresslar, a spokesman for State Attorney General Bill Lockyer, would not say whether the AG's office is investigating. Dresslar said the state generally does not get involved unless there are "significant consumer protection issues." IRS spokeswoman Arlette Lee deemed it unlikely that her agency would pursue such a case unless it proved to be larger in scope than presently known.

Unpaid National Expo workers, meanwhile, are accepting their fate with varying degrees of resignation. Jurkovic said she has discussed legal action with other employees, but nothing has been decided.

Evangeline Allen, a single mother who lives in Louisville, Kentucky, worked to sell National Home Expo booths for about three weeks in October and November. Before contacting the Express, she filed a complaint online at RipoffReport.com. Because she has not been paid, she said, she has been unable to buy Christmas presents for her daughter. And although she sold no booths during that time, she sees her former employer as a threat to any potential customers. "She is really running a scam out of this office," Allen says of the woman she knows as Kristen Jones. "She is misleading businesses, getting them to buy booths. I don't want her to keep victimizing people."

Neil-Terrell, who sold two National College Day packages, says the missing paycheck is frustrating, but the damage to her good name is worse. "My reputation means a lot to me," the Houston-area saleswoman said. "I'm calling in Texas. I called 360 schools. I'm glad that I didn't sign up more schools than I did. I don't want to be a part of that."

Gluth, meanwhile, has started a new business, a consultancy called Creating Words That Sell. The lost income from his National Expo stint, he says, put him behind on his mortgage and his bills. It has also had more personal ramifications. "I took this job to solidify," he said. "When it fell through, it was the straw that broke the camel's back. I lost my marriage over it."

For more information, visit NationalRealEstateExpo.com , NationalCollegeDay.com , NationalHomeExpoUSA.com , and NationalComputerExpo.com

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