SAN DIEGO (CN) – A former controller of Sempra’s Mexican operations claims the energy giant fired him for raising questions about the CEO’s building a palatial oceanfront vacation home in Baja California at ratepayers’ expense. “Casa Azul was abnormal not only because of the excessive price tags (e.g., $60,000 in mattresses, large and fully stocked wine cellar, $100,000 home theater system, $55,000 bar, etc.) but also because of the CEO’s abnormal hands-on approach in directing every aspect of Casa Azul,” Rodolfo Michelon claims in Superior Court.
As controller, Michelon says, he oversaw the construction, furnishing and use of the home, known as the Casa Azul – the Blue House.
“Casa Azul was abnormal not only because of the excessive price tags (e.g., $60,000 in mattresses, large and fully stocked wine cellar, $100,000 home theater system, $55,000 bar, etc.) but also because of the CEO’s abnormal hands-on approach in directing every aspect of Casa Azul.”
The CEO’s penchant for control included demands that a friend be awarded the construction contract, and personally visiting a department store to hand-pick the mattresses that Michelon would later purchase with a credit card, according to the complaint.
“As his ethical obligations as a CPA required, Michelon repeatedly questioned the propriety of the manner in which the CEO was directing Casa Azul, as well as the manner in which Casa Azul would be used for non-business related purposes, but was repeatedly told that he was to stop asking such questions if he wanted to keep his job,” the complaint states. “In September 2010, Sempra asked Michelon to state, in writing, that he no longer questioned the legitimacy of Casa Azul, but Michelon refused.”
That request, Michelon, came 6 months after Sempra had fired him, which came in March. He had worked as controller for Sempra since July 2005.
Michelon claims that the immediate cause of his firing stemmed from his unwitting involvement in Sempra’s scheme to take land belonging to a third party. He says that Sempra officials ordered him to withdraw money from a company account and deliver it to a company associate. Michelon says he was led to believe the money was to pay a legitimate bond to be used to evict the property owner, Sanchez Ritchie.
But Ritchie owner waged a legal battle to prove his ownership of the property, Michelon says. “Shortly before March 10, 2010, a Sempra lawyer admitted to Michelon that Sempra was losing the Ritchie litigation in Mexico,” the complaint states. “Michelon demanded that Sempra provide him documentation related to the September 14, 2006 bond, as Michelon was concerned that Sempra had misrepresented the true circumstance of the bond payment. Sempra refused. Then, on March 10, 2010, official word came from the Mexican Court that Ritchie was the rightful owner of the property from which Sempra had paid Mexican authorities to evict Ritchie. That same day, March 10, 2010, Sempra notified Michelon that his controller employment was being terminated.”
Michelon says his firing also was related to his repeated requests that the company rectify dangerous working conditions at its offices in Baja California. He said his requests for protection against “being hijacked, robbed or shot, were met with open hostility by Sempra officials – so much so that Sempra deleted a complaint Michelon made in writing.”
He adds: “Sempra regularly required Michelon to transfer funds, and account for illegitimate expenditures that boiled down to bribes of government officials – everything from fraudulent trusts ostensibly to purchase fire fighting equipment for Mexican governments, to paying off local fishermen to move their operations away from Sempra facilities, to demanding remediation of accounting that falsely stated Sempra’s assets, to the outright wiring of huge amounts of money to ‘consultants’ throughout Mexico. As with his other attempts to ensure he was complying with his ethical requirements as a CPA, Michelon’s repeated questioning and protests of the miscellaneous frauds and bribes was met with open hostility and threats of termination. The termination of the controller employment was not only in retaliation for Michelon’s complaints, but it was also meant to keep him from reporting the frauds and bribes to governmental, law enforcement officials.”
Michelon demands punitive damages for fraud, wrongful discharge, and pre-emptive retaliatory termination.
The only named defendants are Sempra Global, and Does 1 – 20. The CEO is not further identified in the complaint.
Michelon is represented by Daniel Gilleon with the Mitchell Gilleon Law Firm of San Diego.