Tom Warner filed for personal bankruptcy on July 19 after three years of continued legal action against him and his companies by the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Affairs and the Maryland Attorney General.

The Warner companies - including Warner Management Company Inc., Warner Plumbing of Maryland, Warner Electrical Services Inc.and Warner Air Conditioning and Heating Services Inc. - have been out of service since May 1, and will file for bankruptcy as well, according to Warner.

Legal fees have mounted to $3 million during the on-going lawsuits, and no final resolution has been reached, sources said. Legal action is now being sought against Barbara Warner, Tom's wife, and her company Utility Services Express (USE), a service and repair partner with utilities in the Washington, D.C., area that Tom Warner runs.

USE, started in May 1998, has become the only source of income for the Warners; Tom owns 20 percent of the company and Barbara owns 80 percent. The length of time the lawsuits have taken has provided continuing challenges for the Warners, but USE has been successful. The Warners want to go on with their lives.

"USE has loyal employees and a loyal customer base," Warner said. Separate legal counsel has been retained by USE.

For the Warner companies, there has been substantial employee turnover, shop closures and millions lost in sales as a result of the lawsuits, according to Warner, a fourth-generation master plumber whose family has been in the industry since the 1870s.

"The [Montgomery County] lawyers have called our customers to tell them of the lawsuits, and said they would get large refunds if they helped with the case," Warner explained.

In November 1995, the Warner companies were sued by the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Affairs for alleged violations of Montgomery County's consumer protection laws. The investigation, headed by two private law firms on a contingency basis, was based on the allegations of an ex-employee of American Mechanical Systems of Baltimore Inc., which Warner owned separately from the Warner companies. The employee never worked in Montgomery County, according to Warner.

A three-day investigative report on the Warner companies by CBS affiliate WUSA (Channel 9) aired in November 1995. The ex-employee, who submitted a manuscript full of undocumented and unproven allegations, tipped off WUSA. Coverage of the lawsuits on the station continues as the lawsuits go on.

Another television expos? of the Warner companies aired in February 1996 by CBS's "48 Hours," which filmed five different services firms fixing a disconnected terminal wire in a furnace. The Warner service technician attempted to replace a working motor that was statistically near the end of its useful life, and sold a service contract without fully explaining it. The bill resulted in a $6 overcharge, but it entitled the furnace owner to another check-up the following spring.

In December 1997, the Maryland Office of the Attorney General, Consumer Protection Division, filed a suit against the Warner companies. It sited three unfair and deceptive trade practices, including the company's use of unlicensed journeymen. The WSSC code enforcement authority in the area did not require journeymen to be licensed, according to the Warner attorneys.