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Texas Car Dealer Accused of Blatant Racism

HOUSTON (CN) - A Houston luxury car dealer fired its top salesman for "insubordination," for defying its policy of not doing business with African-Americans, the salesman claims in court.

Steven Calderone, 53, made more than $360,000 a year in commissions selling new Jaguars and Land Rovers for Sonic Houston JLR, he says in his Dec. 22 federal lawsuit.

Calderone says Coach Henry, a black man, paid him a $2,500 deposit for a car in July 2014, but Sonic managers refused to release the "Buyer's Order" that Henry needed for a bank loan, before admitting they wouldn't sell to him.

"Henry was angry and told Calderone that the reason was racial discrimination, in these words: 'Do I look like I have an 'N' painted on my chest? I've been dealing with this all my life. I know when I'm being sent to the back of the bus,'" the lawsuit states.

Calderone tried to sell vehicles to a black man and a dark Middle Eastern man later that month, he says, and the dealership turned them away with "different excuses, none valid."

Sonic profiles blacks as "exporters," Calderone says, which excludes them from buying new cars because Sonic thinks they can't afford them and are buying them for shipment overseas.

Most automakers ban U.S. sales to exporters. BMW, Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche fined dealers more than $30 million from 2008 to 2013 for such sales, according to a July 22, 2014 report in Autoweek.

Calderone says Sonic made him tell black shoppers they had to sign an "agreement not to export" that included several deal-breaking terms.

He says he dutifully laid out those terms to Theresa Blackwell, a black woman shopping for a Land Rover in August 2014.

Blackwell picked up on the racism, Calderone says, and complained about him in an email to management.

"There was some assumption for whatever reason that was made that I could not afford the vehicle. I am still asking myself today what prompted that assumption but have chosen not to take that train of thought any further and just go with the fact that the guy is a general ass," Blackwell said of Calderone in the email, which he cites in the lawsuit.

Calderone says he complained about the policy to Frank Pecka, the finance director, and Pecka screamed obscenities at him, leading him to file a complaint with HR manager Marlena Warthan.

Sonic Houston JLR LP, of Charlotte, N.C., is the only defendant.

Calderone says his complaint triggered a blitz of retaliation from Warthan and Sonic: that they sent three "mystery shoppers" from North Carolina to evaluate his sales methods, made him take a drug test and papered his file with negative reviews.

He says he met with Sonic's vice president Steve Prather to discuss Warthan's investigation.

"At that meeting, Prather demonstrated hostility toward Calderone, stating angry words to the effect that 'Just because you are the highest paid employee making $400,000 a year, you think you can sell to anyone you want' and stated to Calderone 'You are insubordinate,'" the complaint states.

Sonic fired Calderone three weeks later "because of the Theresa Blackwell complaint," he says, which proves he was not insubordinate, as he'd showed Blackwell the "agreement not to export," as required for all black shoppers.

Prather did not respond to an email seeking comment on Wednesday.

Calderone wants more than $15 million for lost wages and mental anguish and whistleblower retaliation under the Consumer Financial Protection Act. He first filed a complaint with OSHA, which gave him permission to sue.

He is represented by Thomas Coleman in Houston.

Sonic's attorney Michael Mitchell with Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart in Houston said there's no truth to Calderone's claims.

"The company vehemently denies Mr. Calderone's allegations that it fired him for objecting to a purported company policy of not financing or selling cars to minorities. The company has no such policy and Mr. Calderone certainly never objected to any such alleged policy," Mitchell said in an email.

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