The former finance director of a Ford dealership in Florida claims in a lawsuit that he was fired for refusing to go along with unscrupulous and illegal business practices. The defendants in the suit include the dealerships owner, a U.S. congressman.
Joe Kezer makes the allegations against Sarasota Ford and several individuals, including U.S. Rep. Vernon Buchanan, a first-term Republican from Sarasota.
The dealership is part of Buchanan Automotive Group. The congressman is chairman of the group. But Buchanan is not involved in the day-to-day operations of dealerships, his congressional spokeswoman says.
Kezer filed his lawsuit today in a state court in Sarasota. The suit contends that Buchanan, as owner, is the dealerships supervisor under a Florida law that prohibits retaliation against whistleblowers at private businesses.
The suit also names as defendants the dealerships general manager, Darrin Chrisman, and sales manager, Javier Baez. Chrisman told Automotive News today that as operating partner, he is responsible for all the decisions at Sarasota Ford.
Chrisman said he hadnt seen Kezers lawsuit. He said claims of illegal activity at the dealership are a very false statement.
Attorneys for Kezer say they have not determined how much they will seek in damages. Kezer earned more than $300,000 a year doing it right, said one of his lawyers, Bill Amlong.
The suit claims Kezer was fired in November 2007 after he repeatedly objected to practices orchestrated by the dealerships managers. They included fraudulent alterations of customer credit reports and sales contracts, according to the lawsuit.
Well known in Detroit
A native of suburban Detroit, Buchanan founded retail printing chain American Speedy Printing Inc., in 1976. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1992. In 1993, he sold the company to a group of Detroit-area investors that included former Detroit Piston Isiah Thomas.
After the company emerged from Chapter 11, the new owners changed its name to Allegra Holdings LLC. It continues to operate more that 600 franchises in North America and the United Kingdom. The privately-held company reported $369 million in sales for 2006.
In 2000, the Internal Revenue Service slapped Buchanan with a $4.76 million tax bill from the sale of American Speedy. The IRS said that when Buchanan sold the suburban Detroit company, he should have been taxed on $12.4 million in canceled debt and $1.62 million in capital gains from the deal.
Buchanan disputed the ruling, and two years later the IRS agreed to cut the tax bill to $1.26 million.
Buchanan Auto Group, of Sarasota, ranks No. 43 on the Automotive News list of the 125 largest U.S. dealership groups. The company owns 16 dealerships. It sold an estimated 15,684 new vehicles at retail in 2007.
Andrew Grossman contributed to this report