Embattled eyeglasses empire grinds on

…Great Glasses stores had been built upon "elaborate evasions, false statements and sham corporate structures." The scheme had allowed its "highly provocative, arrogant" architect to earn at least $3.6-million through "unlawful business activity," the judge ruled, and he imposed huge fines, believed to be the largest of their kind in Canadian history: a $1-million contempt-of-court penalty against Mr. Bergez for ignoring a cease-and-desist court judgment issued three years earlier, plus a $50,000-per day fine if he continued operating the same way.

The Globe and Mail
July 12, 2008

Embattled eyeglasses empire grinds on
Insurance claim denied after customer given prescription not issued by a licensed optometrist at chain embroiled in appeal
Timothy Appleby

GreatGlassesBruceBergez.jpg

Great Eyeglasses manager Scott Arsenault and entrepreneur Bruce Bergez, right, are shown at a Burlington chamber of commerce event. Mr. Bergez faces $20-million in accumulated fines after a judge found him in contempt of court.

When York University student Jeanette Janzen submitted a $740 insurance claim for three sets of eyeglasses last month, a rude shock awaited.

Her claim had been denied, Desjardins Financial Security advised Ms. Janzen, because the computer-generated prescription issued by a downtown Toronto outlet of Great Glasses, a franchise chain with 23 outlets dotted across Southern Ontario, had not been issued by a licensed optometrist, as the law requires.

"I was just appalled," said Ms. Janzen, 29, who is pursuing an MA in art history.

Researching a tangle of court judgments, however, she swiftly discovered she was far from alone.

Ms. Janzen's spurned claim represents just a tiny fraction of the millions in dollars in fines and legal costs incurred by Great Glasses.

Concurring with a joint complaint from the twin associations that represent Ontario's optometrists and opticians, Mr. Justice David Crane of Ontario Superior Court concluded in 2006 that entrepreneur Bruce Bergez's network of Great Glasses stores had been built upon "elaborate evasions, false statements and sham corporate structures."

The scheme had allowed its "highly provocative, arrogant" architect to earn at least $3.6-million through "unlawful business activity," the judge ruled, and he imposed huge fines, believed to be the largest of their kind in Canadian history: a $1-million contempt-of-court penalty against Mr. Bergez for ignoring a cease-and-desist court judgment issued three years earlier, plus a $50,000-per day fine if he continued operating the same way.

Both under appeal, those fines now accumulatively amount to well over $20-million.

And yet, remarkably, Mr. Bergez's empire just seems to mushroom, offering "free eye tests," "a straightforward, three-for-one combination of the most fashionable glasses … tailored just for you!" and the promise of "more great new locations."

Under the Regulated Health Professions Act, the rules governing the manufacture and sale of prescription eyeglasses are clear. Only an optometrist, an opthalmologist or other physician can conduct an eye exam and the prescription must be filled by an optician.

And while Mr. Bergez used to be an optician, until Ontario's College of Opticians lifted his licence two years ago, there were no optometrists or doctors on hand in any of the Great Glasses stores, noted Judge Crane, unimpressed with Mr. Bergez's contention that a doctor can "delegate" his examining powers.

Instead, as Ms. Janzen learned to her cost, the Great Glasses stores rely on a custom-made computer system, EyeLogic, to do the eye tests. The technician who did the exam, she assumed, was a bona fide eye doctor. She was wrong.

How many other Great Glasses clients have had their claims bounced by insurance companies is moot.

"There's not been a whole lot, really," said Mr. Bergez, 48, reached yesterday at the home in Dundas, an hour's drive west of Toronto, that he shares with his wife, Joanne.

But he would answer no further questions, and referred inquiries to his Hamilton lawyer, Louis Frapporti, who did not reply to messages.

Jim Blair, manager of the Great Glasses outlet on Front Street that sold Ms. Janzen the eyeglasses, also did not respond.

Neither would Desjardins Financial offer any immediate comment. Because of privacy concerns, insurance companies rarely divulge whose claims get rejected, or why, said Caroline MacIsaac-Power, registrar for the College of Opticians.

But the Great Glasses tussle holds serious import, Ms. MacIsaac-Power said.

"Eyeglasses, contact lenses, all of the things we do as opticians - the legislation has determined for 60 years now that there's a risk to the public if it's not done properly by competent, skilled people."

And many people have found themselves in the same boat as Ms. Janzen, Ms. MacIsaac-Power said.

"The problem is widespread and it's reprehensible. It used to be just a problem in the Hamilton area [where the first Great Glasses stores opened] but it's spread beyond that. We have multiple court cases, we have disciplinary hearings and we have suspended Mr. Bergez's licence."

Her counterpart at the college of optometrists, Murray Tournour, could not be reached yesterday but he has previously said that the "very cursory" exams conducted by Great Glasses mean that serious eye ailments may be overlooked.

How matters play out remains to be seen.

Mr. Bergez declared bankruptcy in 1996, listing $4,400 in assets and more than $60,000 in liabilities, but that's not an option when debts stem from court fines and/or findings of fraud, said bankruptcy lawyer Jeffrey Carhart, who has had no role in the Great Glasses saga.

"Those two subsections of section 178(1) of the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act represent a very fundamental limit on the extent to which a person can relieve himself or herself of responsibility for debts through the bankruptcy process," Mr. Carhart said.

The Great Glasses imbroglio has been on the College of Optometrists' agenda since 2001, said lawyer Roy Stephenson, who represented the college at the 2006 hearing and at the appeal hearing in February that examined the $1-million fine and is expected to produce a verdict soon.

The appeal court has yet to hear arguments on the much larger, accumulative fine.

After that, the last recourse for either side would be a Supreme Court of Canada hearing, if the court agrees to hear the case.

"This has taken so long to resolve, and still the concern is that they are continuing to operate," Mr. Stephenson said of Great Glasses.

In the meantime, Ms. Janzen doubts she'll be getting her money back.

"I know I won't," she said. "I just want as many people as possible to know about this."


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