Kittery nonprofit's customers to get refunds

Portland Press Herald/August 15, 2006
By Gregory D. Kesich

A Kittery-based nonprofit that sold "healing instruments" purportedly designed in the "spirit world" has agreed to stop doing business in Maine and turn over all of its assets to the state to resolve a civil lawsuit filed by the Attorney General's Office.

In a consent decree filed in York County Superior Court last week, the directors of the Gentle Wind Project admitted that they made false claims about their products, which they said could cure anything from alcoholism to paralysis. They admitted making false claims on their Web site, at public appearances and in written literature that the instruments had been scientifically proven to be effective.

Board members also admitted that they breached their fiduciary duty as officers of a charity by using donations for the purchase and upkeep of houses purchased in their own names and for other illegal transactions.

Once the consent decree is approved by a judge, the houses and all other assets will be sold by a receiver, with the money used to provide refunds to any Gentle Wind customer who bought a healing instrument since 2003. After six months, any money not distributed will be donated to a charity that provides services to people with mental disabilities.

"We believe that this is a just resolution to the violations of law committed by the defendants," said Attorney General Steven Rowe in a written statement. "This charity damaged the public trust and should not be allowed to continue."

The consent decree could also affect a defamation lawsuit filed by the organization against two of its former members, Judy Garvey and James Bergin, a married couple from Blue Hill who published Internet accounts of their 17-year involvement with the group, said their attorney, Jerroll Crouter.

In the consent decree, Gentle Wind's board members admit the truth of most of the statements they call defamatory in their lawsuit, Crouter said. There is also a question whether a court-appointed receiver would allow the organization to spend assets on legal fees.

The group's lawyer, Daniel Rosenthal of Verrill Dana, has filed a motion asking permission to withdraw from the defamation case.

Garvey said she hopes Gentle Wind will withdraw as well.

"There have been so many twists and turns in this that we don't know what will happen at this point," she said. "We just hope they would find productive lives for themselves now and just go away and let us be."

Mary Miller, identified in court documents as Gentle Wind's president, said the case against Bergin and Garvey will go forward, however. She said the organization would continue to distribute its products outside of Maine.

"We have a very large group of volunteers all around the world," she said.

Assistant Attorney General Carolyn Silsby, who signed the agreement for the state, said Maine authorities can only control the group's activities in Maine. But she said by signing the consent decree, the group gives up all of its assets anywhere in the country, including a house in Durham, N.H., listed for sale at more than $1 million.

"We would love to see Gentle Wind stop making their claims everywhere, but we can only enforce the laws of the state of Maine," she said.

According to the group, the instruments were designed by entities in the "spirit world" and manufactured to restore people's damaged energy structure. The group claimed they distributed them for free, but users were asked to donate to the organization.

The business was lucrative. Suggested donations ranged from $250 to $7,800, and the group collected more than $1 million a year before the bad publicity hit, Miller said.

Crouter said Gentle Wind will now have trouble proving that Bergin and Garvey are responsible for its problems.

"They claim that Jim and Judy damaged their business, leading to a drop in their donations," he said. "Now we see the Gentle Wind Project has admitted that claims about the healing instruments are false. The damage to their reputation was caused by their own misrepresentations. We believe the defamation claims should be dismissed."

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