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For the past few weeks, now reasonably healthy and mobile despite a pronounced limp, McDonald has had little to do while awaiting another surgery on his leg. "I was basically laying around, healing," he says. "Then I got bored a couple of weeks ago and thought, 'Hey, I already put all this time and money in this website. I might as well make sure people know about it. '"
So far, McDonald claims he has invested $10,000 in his anti-AutoNation website. That money has gone to pay for the development of the site, the billboard and trailer, and the dozens of picket signs he's planted.
Matt Santangelo, a 42-year-old registered nurse from Fort Lauderdale, is one of the many people who have seen McDonald's signs and posted a story on the website. Last April, Santangelo received a call from Maroone Dodge in North Miami regarding his 2000 Durango. The dealership had a special going for the purchase or lease of a new Dodge, the salesman told him. They'd give him six months free on a new lease or his current one. "I've got three months left on my lease," Santangelo told him, "and I'm already 2,000 miles over my limit. I'm just going to purchase the car."
"Oh, don't worry about it," Santangelo remembers the Maroone salesman telling him. "We'll take care of the extra miles. You're covered." At the dealership, the salesman told him that Maroone would let him out of his lease early and cover the extra miles if he'd buy a new Durango. And that's exactly what he did.
Then, on June 26, Santangelo received a letter from Chrysler informing him that he owed $2,100 on the old Durango. He called Maroone Dodge, angry as hell. They refused to help him, he contends. Then he called Chrysler. A representative for the carmaker told him that a dealership does not have authority to waive fees for additional mileage on a lease. Maroone Dodge had duped him, he claims. "They don't care anymore," Santangelo says. "The deal's done."
A Maroone Dodge representative did not return calls for comment.
Another person who posted his story on the website identifies himself as Jason from Miami. (In a phone interview, Jason requested that his last name not be used.) Jason claims Maroone hired him under the table to rig car auctions. For $100 a day, Jason would pretend to be an independent car dealer, and when a particular car wasn't fetching a price suitable to Maroone salesmen, the auctioneer would signal to him. Jason would then chime in, he claims. "[The auctioneer] would wave his finger up and down to bring it up $200, $300, maybe even $1,000," Jason recalls. "Nobody would ever get their money's worth."
Other postings about AutoNation and Maroone are just plain mean (and downright funny), such as this one, which parodies a popular commercial for the dealership: "For the biggest scams... in the land... who you gonna call... MAROONE!"
Company executives in the 410-foot-tall AutoNation tower in downtown Fort Lauderdale aren't laughing at McDonald's stunt. "Yeah, I've seen it," Marc Cannon, vice president of corporate communications, says of the website. "It's not worth my time commenting."
But it is worth AutoNation's money. On Friday, McDonald says, the company offered him $10,000 to kill the website. He turned down the offer.
So c'mon, Marc, for this guy to spend so much time and money on a website and then have dozens of other South Floridians complain about similarly poor treatment at AutoNation and Maroone dealerships, there must be some issue here, no? "We've got a tremendous amount of satisfied customers," Cannon answers. "For every person like this gentleman with the website, we have thousands and thousands of satisfied customers who have made us the number one car dealership in South Florida."
And that's probably true, if a bit exaggerated. In addition to nasty comments about crooked car salesmen, McDonald has received other messages that praise AutoNation and Maroone. He deletes them as fast as they come and makes no apologies, explaining that he believes many of those messages come from AutoNation employees. "This isn't a website for people who love Maroone," he says. "This is a website for people who had a problem with Maroone. They can start their own website, ilovemaroone.com. But mine isn't the place for them."
McDonald calls New Times late one afternoon in early October, his voice giddy. "The billboard's back up," he says, laughing. "I took it to an old strip mall at Stirling and Davie Road Extension."
Can you keep it there?
"We'll see," McDonald answers. "If they hit me with code violations, I'll just move it somewhere else. I've got plans. This could be huge. I'm entertaining the thought of doing some cable spots and buying a billboard on I-95. If I can hit the entire tricounty area, this might really be something."
Yeah, and maybe he can get Dan Marino as pitchman.