FLEMING TO FIGHT ALLEGATION OF OKLAHOMA OVERCHARGING

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Fleming Cos. here said last week it will "vigorously defend" itself against a lawsuit filed by 15 former Oklahoma customers alleging overcharges over a 25-year period.The allegations are similar to those in a lawsuit filed last month in Utah involving 245 Fleming customers in Utah, Idaho, Nevada and Wyoming and in several previous lawsuits filed against the wholesaler over the last

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Fleming Cos. here said last week it will "vigorously defend" itself against a lawsuit filed by 15 former Oklahoma customers alleging overcharges over a 25-year period.

The allegations are similar to those in a lawsuit filed last month in Utah involving 245 Fleming customers in Utah, Idaho, Nevada and Wyoming and in several previous lawsuits filed against the wholesaler over the last seven years, most of which have been resolved.

The companies that filed the suit operated approximately 40 small stores, including several IGA units, and were Fleming customers between 1969 and 1996.

The suit, filed last month in Muskogee, Okla., accuses Fleming of breach of contract, breach of good faith and fair dealing, fraud and misrepresentation, as well as violations of the Racketeering Influenced and Corruption Organization Act.

The suit says it seeks "to vindicate the rights of the retail grocers when they were deprived of monies as a result of defendants' acts and omissions ... [which] constituted an unlawful scheme to defraud, to cheat, to steal and to convert property and monies belonging to plaintiffs... in order the realize illicit profits at the cost of the retail grocers."

William C. Carmody, the plaintiffs' Dallas-based attorney, said the amount of total damages will not be determined until the amount of those profits can be ascertained; however, he said, the total is likely to run into eight figures.

Defendants include Fleming's current chairman, Mark S. Hansen, and its two former chairmen, Robert E. Stauth and Dean Werries; James E. Stuard, former regional vice president of Fleming's Southwest region; and three former presidents of the company's Oklahoma City division: Jerry Austin, Richard H. Keeney and James Costello.

According to Lenore Graham, Fleming's senior vice president and general counsel, "We take strong exception to these allegations. We believe the claims are without merit and will vigorously defend ourselves."

Kris Sundberg, vice president of communications, told SN Fleming is determined "to get a strong message out to the legal community that we will fight these lawsuits. We don't want to leave the impression that we might be an easy target, because we won't be."

The suit is centered on Fleming's longtime sell plan, under which the wholesaler said it would sell products to its customers at its actual cost, plus a disclosed percentage fee, plus freight. However, the suit says Fleming's customers "were never advised that Fleming was marking up the actual cost of groceries and related products before adding the sell plan fee and freight. Plaintiffs were never advised that Fleming was retaining millions of dollars in trade and quantity discounts... [and] vendor monies that rightfully belonged to the plaintiffs."