Cleaning House

At first glance, the group assembled at the pizza joint in a Mesa strip mall seems as docile and diverse as a citizenship class. Clustered in groups of twos and threes at bright blue Formica tables, they glance around the room conversing quietly in Albanian, Spanish, Vietnamese and English.

From a table by the window, Rosario Alvarez watches the unlikely crowd assemble; more than a dozen disgruntled franchise holders have come together to discuss their grievances with ProForce USA, the janitorial business they signed on with, and its president, Howard Gardner. To Alvarez's left sit two ProForce employees, backs to the wall, here to defend Gardner and their company.

The sound of sizzling chicken wings drifts lazily from the kitchen as what has until now been a war of glares and wills erupts into enraged allegations of fraud and deceit. This is the first time the angry franchise owners have vented their frustrations at representatives of ProForce, and they are so eager to voice their anger they drown each other out.

They accuse Gardner of lying and defrauding them not only out of a steady income for the next 20 years, but out of sums of money ranging from $500 to more than $23,000. They say he promised them success, cashed their checks, then drove them to failure. Carlos Bejarano, Gardner's right-hand man and operations manager for the company, sits undaunted as franchise owners hurtle grenades of accusation from every corner of the room.

Then he holds up his hands. "Wait a minute," he says. "Whoever is in charge of this meeting needs to take control."

Alvarez stands up and paces, watching the face of the man she calls "the Mexican Judas." Her lips are pursed, jaw clenched, left foot tapping a furious rhythm. She can't contain herself any longer.

"It is so hard for me to stand here and keep my mouth shut," she shouts in a trembling voice. "You took my money, you took food from my kids and it is so fucking hard to keep control. I'm angry! All these people are angry!"

The room erupts again. Bejarano tries to defend his employer. "Listen, we are obligated to offer. We cannot obligate anyone to take an account. We cannot obligate anyone to do a good job."

No one wants to listen.

Arnett Brice, a minister, has been eyeing Bejarano throughout the meeting. His wife is a franchise holder, and Brice says Bejarano spoke rudely to her on the telephone. He stands slowly, rising to well over six feet tall, and takes a few steps toward Bejarano. The room grows quiet.

"I wanted to whip your butt when you walked in that door," he booms, pointing his finger at Bejarano. "Next time you talk to my wife, you remember I've got a size 12 with your name on it. . . . I'll hurt you, boy! Do you hear me? I'll hurt you!"

The angry janitors start yelling again.

"God will punish you and your family!" a woman shouts. "You are selling yourself, you are selling your soul!"

"You would make a really good politician in Mexico," someone snaps.

"If you have anything human in you, you will leave this company and pray to God for forgiveness!" another man yells.

"Wait, you're not letting me talk," protests Bejarano. "You're listening to what 50 people are telling you but you're not listening to what I'm telling you."

The preacher takes another step in his direction.

"I have to leave now because I am concerned for my security," Bejarano says, pushing past them.

"Shame on you!" the preacher's wife scolds as the door slams shut.

Bejarano's boss, Howard Gardner, is in the business of cleaning up messes, but the one he finds himself involved in today baffles him.

Gardner's troubles began last fall, when Alvarez began seeking out other franchise owners and they began comparing stories. "I thought I was the only one, and then I began calling people and found we all have had the same experiences," she says. "I was like, 'Oh my God.' I couldn't believe it at first. I thought I was the only one."

Their experiences have since been detailed in 23 complaints submitted to the state Attorney General's Office. While not accusing Gardner of any criminal behavior, the complaints allege that he promised revenue to the franchisees that they never received, and offered accounts to clean buildings that he never actually had. They say he regularly underbid contracts, lied about potential earnings, provided inadequate training, and that once he took their money, it was impossible to reach him on the phone.

Gardner says they just don't understand how to run a business. He says they're lying.

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Susy Buchanan