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Prosecutor accuses Macy's of stalling investigation of tainted jewelry

March 29, 2009|Jeff Gottlieb

Macy's department store has refused to give prosecutors the names of customers who purchased children's jewelry made with potentially toxic lead, according to an official with the Los Angeles district attorney's office.

The department store's lack of cooperation comes nearly six months after the district attorney's office filed misdemeanor charges against Macy's, alleging that it falsely advertised necklaces as "lead nickel free" when they contained a significant amount of lead.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Daniel Wright said he subpoenaed the customer information from Macy's in January, but the company has balked at turning it over. He said he believes Macy's customers could easily be tracked using records from credit cards and checks.

"We want a list of the people that bought the lead-contaminated items so that they can be notified," Wright said.

Beth Charlton, director of issue management at Macy's Inc,. said the company had no comment.

A hearing has been set for April 7 in Superior Court in Glendale on Wright's motion to force the company to provide the names. The criminal trial is scheduled to start May 4.

The district attorney's office also charged Pecoware Co. Inc., the Chino-based company that imported the jewelry from China. The companies face a maximum penalty of $2,500 for each violation. A judge could consider the sale of each piece of jewelry a violation.

Wright, who works in the district attorney's environmental law section, said it was extremely rare for his office to file this type of case.

He said Pecoware has been "very cooperative" and provided the district attorney's office with the information it requested, including test results on the jewelry.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission announced a voluntary recall of the necklaces in February 2008, and customers were told to contact Pecoware for a refund. It estimated that 2,900 of the necklaces were sold from January 2006 through November 2007 for about $13 each.

Macy's was not mentioned in the safety commission's recall announcement.

Prosecutors, however, contend that Macy's sold more tainted necklaces than any other retailer.

Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the safety commission, said the commission encourages companies to use databases or other information in their possession to reach those who bought the product.

"Research shows that directly contacting consumers leads to the highest response level," he said.

The commission, he said, has a special concern over children's metal jewelry. "Our advice to parents with young children is to be very cautious when it comes to metal jewelry," he said.

The necklaces that are the subject of the recall are a cat with silver and pink rhinestones; a heart, lock and key with pink rhinestones; a silver-colored heart with a rhinestone crown inside; and a silver-colored lock and key with pink rhinestones. They hang from silver-colored chains.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lead poisoning can affect almost every part of the body and show no obvious symptoms. It can cause learning disabilities in children, behavioral problems and, at high levels, seizures, coma and death.

Linda Kite, director of Healthy Homes Collaborative, a Los Angeles nonprofit group working to improve people's health and housing, said Macy's should make efforts to alert those who bought the necklaces.

"Macy's, in order to be a responsible business, should, of course, be concerned their products are hurting people," she said. "We all make mistakes and should take responsibility for mistakes. That's what's being asked."

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jeff.gottlieb@latimes.com

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