Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Rockville deaf-services company Viable finds a buyer, hopes to stabilize

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Deaf-services company Viable of Rockville — under a cloud because of a visit by federal investigators, an upcoming trial of the CEO on charges he did not pay regular wages to an employee, reports of other unpaid employees and the closure of two call centers — is apparently being rescued by a New York company.

Snap!VRS of Pearl River, another deaf-services communication company, said last week that the privately held companies reached an acquisition agreement Aug. 14 and it "will immediately begin the difficult work of stabilizing Viable's business operations and restoring the confidence of its significant constituent base. Current Snap!VRS and Viable customers can continue to expect quality service as the transaction is finalized," according to a Snap!VRS statement.

"Snap!VRS is an industry leader in setting the highest ethical standard, and we are happy to be supported by such a well-respected team," said Viable president John Yeh in a statement. "By joining the Snap!VRS team, we will be able to continue serving our loyal customers while continuing our commitment to our employees, the industry, and most importantly the deaf community."

In an e-mail Thursday, Yeh said, "I started this company in part because of the opportunities we can create within the deaf community. Our work is not done; we will continue this work.

"The past several weeks have been extremely challenging for our employees and their families, and I am grateful for their dedication to our mission," he added. "The new partnership with Snap!VRS is indeed an exciting development for the deaf community and our industry and I am very pleased that our employees can continue serving the community as well as they have."

Yeh could not be reached for further comment.

The sale terms were not disclosed. Viable reported revenues of $7 million in 2007, the most recent year for which it has disclosed figures to The Gazette.

Snap!VRS officials, when asked about purchasing a company visited by federal investigators and how their clients might feel about that or if Snap!VRS would reopen the closed Viable offices, responded by saying Snap!VRS is addressing Viable payroll issues.

In an e-mail, Maureen Ellenberger, Snap!VRS vice president of marketing, said, "Snap!VRS is currently proceeding with due diligence and integration planning for the next 90 to 120 days to ensure a smooth transition that will be beneficial for our new company, employees of Snap!VRS and Viable, and our joint customers. This process will address any open questions regarding the transition. Already, Snap!VRS has taken over payroll for current Viable employees as well as health and life insurance payments."

Snap!VRS is a video relay service that delivers a "high quality and convenient relay experience between people who use American Sign Language and spoken English," according to Snap!VRS information. The company is a division of Snap Telecommunications, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Aequus Technologies of Pine Brook, N.J.

Viable's offerings include videoconferencing hardware and software, and video-based and on-site interpreting services. The business had grown from a handful of employees in 2005 to more than 240, with most workers hearing-impaired. An updated employee count could not be obtained.

Trial date for Yeh

Yeh has been summoned to a Montgomery County District Court, charged with failing to pay regular wages to an employee, according to court records.

A trial is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. Sept. 1 in Rockville. A separate civil contract claim filed by the same former employee, Mary K. Moylan of Catonsville, against Yeh is scheduled to be heard Oct. 27 in a Catonsville district court.

Moylan said recently that she was laid off in early July, along with numerous other workers. Managers told her that Viable's Ellicott City and Towson call centers were being shut down, she said.

Moylan said she was not paid for several weeks and filed a claim for $7,450.

Moylan is the first known former or current Viable employee to take a claim publicly. Some former and current employees have contacted The Gazette to say they have not been paid, but have requested anonymity.

Regarding the court cases, Allison Polk, a Viable spokeswoman, last week said, "We cannot comment on any pending litigation. However, Viable is committed to honoring our financial obligations. We will be communicating directly with our employees as new information becomes available."

Regarding reports of the closure of Viable's Ellicott City and Towson call centers, Polk said "operations at those centers have been suspended."

Questionable partnership

Viable partnered this year with a Florida company whose owners were arrested and charged with conspiracy to defraud the federal government. Authorities said the company billed for video-relay calls, which allow people with hearing disabilities to communicate using interpreters and Web cameras, that were not properly interpreted. A Viable spokesman, Glenn Lockhart, said recently that Viable no longer does business with that Florida company.

In June, federal investigators visited Viable's headquarters, and the company was "cooperating fully" with investigators, said Lockhart, who recently left the company. The company's attorney, Timothy Sullivan, has not returned calls seeking comment.

Ian McCaleb, a Justice Department spokesman, said Thursday he could neither confirm nor deny if Viable is under investigation.

Last year, The Gazette of Politics and Business named Yeh one of its "25 CEOs You Need to Know" and Viable as one of its "Exceptional 53" businesses and nonprofits.