- Associated Press - Thursday, July 28, 2016

EVERETT, Wash. (AP) - A Snohomish County used car company will pay $250,000 in restitution over a pattern of discrimination against Spanish-language speakers, according to the state attorney general’s office.

As part of the settlement, Zein Automobiles Inc. of Everett, which operates Best Bet Auto Sales and Independence Auto Center, will pay for misrepresenting loan terms, interest rates, title branding issues and warranties in violation of the Washington Law Against Discrimination and the state Consumer Protection Act, Attorney General Bob Ferguson said Thursday.

The office estimates that as many as 3,000 customers may be eligible to receive money from the settlement.

Ferguson says people who speak Spanish were lured into the dealerships through ads in Spanish that promised financing for those without a credit history.

Spanish-speaking customers were told they could have one set of terms but were presented a different set of terms in documents written in English, officials said.

Ferguson said in one example, all documents signed by one customer for the car he bought were in English and he relied on the salesperson to tell him what he was signing. He believed his interest rate was 3 percent, when it was nearly 30 percent, which Ferguson said the customer didn’t find out until later.

The Wing Luke Civil Rights Unit of the attorney general’s office began investigating the company in 2015 after advocates from the Northwest Justice Project referred complaints.

The company said in a statement Thursday that it opposes any form of discrimination and disagrees with the attorney general’s decision to do what it describes as imposing new regulations on Washington auto dealers without input from the Washington Legislature or Washington Department of Licensing.

“Zein Automobiles continues to believe it has not violated any law and that it has provided fair and accurate disclosures relating to its vehicle sales,” the company said. “Zein Automobiles does, however, share the attorney general’s commitment to non-discrimination and transparency in vehicle sales.”

As part of the settlement, Zein Automobiles also agreed to make Spanish language contracts available, cease any deceptive or misleading practices and honor warranties promised in ads.

In 2013, Zein Automobiles agreed to forfeit $1.5 million and pay a $250,000 fine over the way it handled cash transactions.

In that case, the company pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to a charge of failing to file a monetary transaction report with the IRS.

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