Shoe settlement benefits needy Md. women

Groups reap windfall from Nine West case

March 13, 2001|By Kimberly A. C. Wilson | Kimberly A. C. Wilson,SUN STAFF

Organizations serving some of Maryland's neediest women began receiving a $600,000 windfall yesterday as part of a national antitrust settlement over the price of a popular brand of shoes.

Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. delivered the first check, for $48,700, to the Caroline Center, a 4 1/2 -year- old faith-based vocational and education center in the Johnston Square neighborhood of Baltimore.

The check is part of Maryland's share of a $36 million national settlement of a suit against Nine West Group Inc. Curran joined attorneys general from the 49 other states in filing a lawsuit last year, alleging that the New York-based shoe manufacturer engaged in price fixing by prohibiting shoe retailers from discounting certain shoes between 1998 and 1999.

The practice allowed Nine West stores and other retailers that sold the manufacturer's brands to discount the shoes only twice a year and at the same time. That meant consumers who shopped for Nine West shoes found the same prices year-round, store to store and state to state.

The Nine West Group, which was purchased by the Jones Apparel Group last year, agreed to end the practice and settle the case but without admitting wrongdoing.

"This was a scheme to prevent women from getting bargains on shoes," Curran said in explaining the settlement to a roomful of women at the Caroline Center.

Sister Patricia McLaughlin, the Caroline Center's executive director, said her group would use its share of the settlement to continue its mission of helping low-income and unemployed women prepare for jobs in computers, child care and nursing.

"These are people who would normally not be able to purchase the shoes, so it seems fitting that they should be the recipients of this distribution," said McLaughlin.

Thirty other nonprofit groups received checks totaling $556,515. The Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault in Arnold received $83,000, the largest individual settlement.

Monique Williams, 19, a patron of the Caroline Center, was happy to see that single mothers such as herself will benefit from the settlement. Williams, the mother of two children, started attending classes in child care and studying for her high school equivalency diploma last fall. She hopes to open a day care center.

Williams lives on a fixed income, and periodic sales offer her a chance to afford brand-name shoes, such as the Nine West Group's lines.

"I like to wear nice shoes -- at a reasonable price," Williams said.

The shoe settlement resembles a 1998 antitrust case against four toy manufacturers. In that case, Maryland and 43 other states accused Hasbro, Toys 'R Us stores and two other manufacturers of manipulating the sale of toys by restricting distribution of the merchandise.

The settlement included $240,000 for literacy programs and more than $1 million worth of toys for needy children.

In the shoe settlement, Curran again opted to give money to nonprofit groups rather than distributing hundreds of thousands of refund checks for small amounts to affected consumers.

"We decided to distribute to charities because that seems to give us the best bang for our buck," Curran said.

Among the nonprofit groups that received sums from the shoe settlement were the Women Entrepreneurs of Baltimore Inc., $50,000; the Laurence G. Paquin School for Expectant and Parenting Adolescents, $25,000; the Domestic Violence Center of Howard County, $13,000; and the YWCA of Annapolis and Anne Arundel County, $10,000.

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