HELENA — A Montana family accused of tacking $70 million in unauthorized charges onto phone bills nationwide is asking a judge to delay court proceedings while they try to negotiate a settlement in both a civil lawsuit and in a criminal investigation against them.
The Federal Trade Commission is suing Steven Sann, his wife, Terry, son Nathan and accountant Robert Braach, saying companies run by the Sanns engaged in cramming, or tacking on unauthorized phone charges, starting in 2008.
In May, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen stayed proceedings until July 8 after the Sanns said a parallel criminal investigation was underway by the U.S. attorney's office. No criminal charges have been filed.
The nine companies run by the Sanns are voice mail and electronic fax services that charge a customer's phone bill through an intermediary called a bill aggregator. Of the $70 million billed since 2008, the Sanns' companies have returned more than $40 million after customer challenges, according to the FTC complaint.
But data collected by the federal agency show many more don't know that they're being charged.
The Sanns and Braach have said they used "clear and unambiguous marketing practices" to sign up customers and a "robust validation process" to ensure there were no false charges. Nathan Sann said in a previous court filing they stopped charging customers in April 2012 and don't intend to start again.
The Sanns' attorneys on Friday asked Christensen to extend his stay by another 60 days, and to refer the case to a magistrate judge for a settlement conference.
The Sanns plan to invite to the conference not only the FTC's representatives, but the federal prosecutor leading the criminal investigation in hopes of resolving both the civil and criminal cases, according to court documents filed by the Sanns' and FTC's attorneys.
The FTC opposes extending the stay. The agency is open to negotiating a settlement, but a conference may be premature at this point, the documents said.
Braach took no position on whether the stay should be extended, but agreed with the FTC that it is too early for a settlement conference.