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November 23, 2002

Lawsuits target socialite Baskin

From: Akron Beacon Journal, OH
Nov. 23, 2002

Retired businessman from Bath accused of taking large sums
By Jim Mackinnon and John Russell
Beacon Journal business writers

The businesses are closed. The home is up for sale. Lawsuits are flying.

And two of the Akron community's best known socialites are lying low amid allegations that one of them, Bruce Baskin, took large sums of money belonging to as many as 400 hearing-aid and related businesses around the nation.

How much, if any, money is missing remains a mystery.

But two lawsuits have been filed against Baskin.

Business associates say the 59-year-old retired businessman owes them large amounts of money. And brokerage firm Merrill Lynch is accusing him of trying to transfer business funds to personal accounts and planning to move to Switzerland without his wife, Barbara, and asking for a letter of introduction for a bank in St. Martin, West Indies.

No one on either side of the lawsuits is saying much. The Baskins did not respond to a message left at their home in Bath Township. Bruce Baskin's lawyer said he will be removing himself from the case because of a conflict of interest, but said his client intends to remain in the area.

The lawsuits in Summit County and U.S. District courts have flabbergasted friends and business associates of the Baskins.

``This came as a complete, complete shock to me,'' said Gerald Castor, a former business partner of Bruce Baskin who now lives in Sarasota, Fla. Twenty-two years ago in Akron, Baskin, Castor and others founded Audiology Companies, a buying and marketing group that bought hearing instruments and related products at discounts for its members in 47 states. The firm served hearing-care professionals.

``I thought the company was always well-run. If there were missing funds, it's a total mystery to me.... Bruce hasn't talked to me in about two years,'' Castor said. Castor served as vice president of the company for several years, negotiating prices with hearing-aid manufacturers. He said the company in 1998 hit sales of $18 million and had never run into financial difficulties.

The Audiology Companies recently closed its doors and auctioned off its contents.

Longtime employee Carol Burger, who was promoted to chief executive when Baskin retired in July, declined to comment. She now works for another company in Copley Township.

But just four months ago, she had high hopes for the company. ``We wish Bruce a fond farewell and look forward to a continued blending of strong member services,'' she said in a company press release in July. ``We are very excited about the new changes taking place and anticipate much growth in the near future.''

Castor described Baskin as ``very opinionated'' and in complete control of the company for years.

``He ran the company,'' Castor said. ``He was the primary stockholder, the manager, everything. He literally ran the company since 1981.''

Mark Schindewolf worked briefly for one of the Baskin-run companies, Audiology Marketing, starting in 2000. He said he didn't know Bruce Baskin well, but described him as authoritative.

``He was the guy who always wanted to hand you the paycheck so he could hear you say `Thank you,' '' Schindewolf said. Baskin also engendered strong employee loyalty because he was the kind of person who would help employees' families if they were having difficulties, the Copley resident said.

``All in all, I had a generally favorable impression,'' he said. ``He just really wanted you to know he was the boss.''

Schindewolf said Baskin also had a ``goofy'' sense of humor and wouldn't be surprised if he was just making a joke to Merrill Lynch about moving to Switzerland without his wife.

The Merrill Lynch lawsuit said that as of Nov. 15 the Audiology Companies accounts held slightly more than $1 million. The firm declined to say if any money had been withdrawn prior to that. The lawsuit basically seeks to have the federal court tell Merrill Lynch what it should do with those funds, a spokesman said.

As for the original lawsuit involving the former members and clients of Audiology Companies, Bruce Baskin has been ordered to appear in Summit County Common Pleas Court on Monday and Dec. 6 and bring company records with him.

He and his wife have not shied away from publicity.

He once ran for Bath Township trustee and has been a regular letter writer to the Beacon Journal.

The Baskins have been involved in Akron community events for years, particularly the Akron Civic Theatre. Barbara Baskin was given the nickname ``Zelda'' and hosted numerous cast parties at their ranch home, where there was a running gag about how many people could fit into their large shower. One newspaper account from 1995 reported 26 people squeezed inside during a party.

``She's a wonderful, wonderful woman,'' said Mary Ann Jackson, former board president for the theater.

© 2002 Akron Beacon Journal