SAN DIEGO (CN) - The founder of the Utility Consumers' Action Network claims in court that the group dismissed him in a "systematic and calculated plan of character assassination and economic harassment."
Michael Shames, a well-known San Diego gadfly, founded UCAN in 1983 to represent the interests of San Diego County utility customers. Shames sued UCAN and its employee David Peffer in Superior Court, three days after Christmas.
Shames seeks damages for libel, conspiracy, wrongful firing, blacklisting, malicious prosecution, privacy invasion, intentional interference with prospective business relations other charges.
Shames was UCAN's executive director from 1985 until June 2012. He says he informed the organization in 2010 that he planned to step down at the conclusion of a battle over rate increases with San Diego Gas & Electric - expected to conclude in 2011, though the fight is continuing at the California Public Utilities Commission.
In his 27-page complaint, Shames claims he got permission from the UCAN board to hire his own replacement. But the staff opposed his decision to hire an assistant executive director from outside UCAN, Shames says, and defendant Peffer told other employees that "they planned to 'take over' UCAN and threatened any employees who interfered in that endeavor."
In March 2011 - one day before Shames claims he planned to fire Peffer - Peffer filed a whistleblower complaint alleging that Shames was not a member of the State Bar and could not practice before the PUC.
Peffer also told UCAN that Shames "had conspired with assorted class action attorneys to receive kickbacks from those attorneys in exchange for providing them with plaintiffs for consumer class action cases," according to the complaint.
Shames claims that despite his urging, the UCAN board declined to fire Peffer until it completed an investigation into the whistleblower allegations.
Then, Shames says, attorney Michael Aguirre - who later represented Peffer in a lawsuit against UCAN - made the same allegations about Shames to the PUC, which Peffer reiterated before the regulatory body a month later.
Ultimately, Shames says, the PUC rejected both complaints by stating that a valid law license is not necessary to appear before the commission.
UCAN's independent inquiry also cleared Shames, but its board never publicly exonerated him, Shames says. Instead, it shared Peffer's allegations with its new executive director, Kim Malcolm, who ordered Shames to "cease referring cases to private class action attorneys .... [and] further demanded that plaintiff prove he was not attempting to personally profit off of class actions based on complaints received by UCAN," according to Shames' complaint.
Meanwhile, Shames claims, Peffer continued tattling on him to UCAN bosses. He claims that Peffer told UCAN Chief Operating Officer Robert Ames that Shames had put software on UCAN computers to track correspondence and other writings, which Peffer and other UCAN employees demanded be removed "as a condition for them doing any further work."
Shames claims that Peffer also told UCAN's investigator - and the U.S. Attorney's Office - that Shames had conspired with the Nucor Foundation and former UC San Diego economist Peter Navarro to launder money and evade taxes.
According to a report by San Diego-area news organization Voice of San Diego, those accusations led to FBI subpoenas and a dissolution filing by UCAN last February.