SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – A business owner has sued the Judicial Council of California and one of its former staff supervisors for $1 million, claiming the ex-employee’s unscrupulous dealings in a project to replace courthouse lighting with energy-saving lightbulbs left her financially ruined.
“The ramifications to her were enormous,” her lawyer Glenn Peterson said in an interview.
The Judicial Council declined to answer questions about the details of the lawsuit, saying through a spokesperson that it does not comment on pending litigation.
Barbara Waldron owned One Source LED Lighting. She says her business shuttered in 2018 because she could not afford to cover the cost of $5.8 million in pre-ordered custom materials she purchased on the assurance that she would be paid.
She also claims the council suddenly terminated her contract after she blew the whistle on the employee, who tried to extort quid pro quo payments from her to enrich himself.
According to the lawsuit, Waldron was recommended for the project in 2017 by Bill McNamara with the California Conservation Corps, an agency she had worked with before.
On May 31, 2017, Judicial Council project lead Mark Johnson, who at the time was a supervisor with the council’s “sustainability unit,” emailed Waldron to congratulate her on the council’s approval of her company for a noncompetitive bid contract. Waldron claims he then began ordering a large quantity of materials for the project, saying the council had funds for the orders now.
Waldron says that when she asked for a copy of the written contract first, Johnson demurred, explaining that the council “didn't have time to issue the written contract until the next fiscal year and that the department had funds for the orders now, but it was on a ‘spend it or lose it’ basis,” according to the complaint.
Despite her concern about making large purchases without a written contract, Waldron says Johnson assured her that she was an approved Judicial Council vendor, and that he had the authority to approve her invoices for payment.
“He recognized early on that the financial magnitude of the project presented abundant opportunities to enrich himself,” Waldron says in her complaint. “To capitalize on these opportunities, he planned to manipulate plaintiff to become financially dependent upon his good graces. In this way, he assured that plaintiff’s precarious financial dependency could be exploited to his advantage.”
Waldron says Johnson began withholding payment on invoices. Then in March 2018, Johnson informed her that she would need to submit a competitive bid proposal to continue with the project, which she says “came as a surprise.” Waldron did submit a bid, but in the meantime “Johnson’s corruption began to present itself,” she says.
Here’s where things veer into the incredible. Waldron’s lawsuit says Johnson began making unusual demands. Waldron says Johnson had already been receiving quid pro quo payments from one of Waldron's vendors, an LED lighting manufacturer, and began asking the same of her.
According to Waldron, Johnson told the vendor that the cash payments would ensure that One Source would be awarded the competitive contract. Waldron says a employee of the lighting manufacturer gave Johnson several bank cards to “protect their investment in the project” and urged Waldron to do likewise, but she refused. The manufacturer is not a party to Waldron’s complaint.
On May 20, 2018, Johnson called Waldron requesting a personal meeting. In her complaint, Waldron says Johnson told her "I need to secure my future. My wife is driving on bald tires," and "It's not a want, it's a need.” She says he then demanded $3,000 cash per month, $160,000 per year salary and a 24.5% ownership or equity in her company.
Waldon says Johnson was furious when she refused, claiming he "flipped out, slammed his laptop closed and said, ‘Fuck it. I'm done.’”
Waldron says she reported Johnson to the Judicial Council eight days later. After what she characterizes as a hostile reception from one council staff director, she was forwarded to director Aurora Rezapore, who said the council would cooperate in an investigation of Johnson. Waldron says Rezapore encouraged Waldron to contact the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office, which Waldron did. The sheriff’s office put her in touch with Department of Justice Special Agent Brian Fitchner, who advised her to record a meeting with Johnson.
Waldron says she met Johnson but when she brought up the bank cards, he tried to explain the scheme was legal.
Peterson, Waldron’s attorney, said as far as he knows, nothing came of Waldron’s report to the Department of Justice “at least not yet.”
Johnson was taken off the lighting project on June 4 and resigned from the council. On June 8, Waldron’s contract was terminated “for convenience,” leaving her indebted to her suppliers for $5.8 million in custom materials Johnson had instructed her to preorder from the lighting manufacturer.
“As a result, One Source was financially ruined,” Waldron says in her lawsuit. “All of its employees were laid off, and its leasehold office space was lost. It was left burdened with debt that was all incurred in reliance upon defendants' representations and for the benefit of the project.”
The lightbulb project has been shelved for now, according to a Judicial Council spokesperson. “At present we’re not moving forward with the project,” he said in an email.
Waldron claims the council still owes her more than $45,000 in unpaid invoices, and she also wants $1 million in compensatory, exemplary and punitive damages.
Peterson said the council should answer for not treating Waldron as a victim of Johnson’s scheme.
“The Judicial Council should have said this woman is blowing the whistle on corruption. She should have been evaluated as a victim, not a sacrifice,” he said.
He added that through discovery, he may be able to uncover the reason behind Waldron’s contract termination.
“I hope to find out a lot more,” he said. “The way I see it, there are questions that cry out for answers.”Follow @MariaDinzeo
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