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Trump-backed Ohio Senate candidate shredded documents as he faced a lawsuit accusing him of wage theft

GOP Senate candidate Bernie Moreno at an event for now-Sen. JD Vance in Independence, Ohio on April 20, 2022.
GOP Senate candidate Bernie Moreno at an event for now-Sen. JD Vance in Independence, Ohio on April 20, 2022.Reuters/Gaelen Morse
  • Bernie Moreno, backed by Trump, is well-positioned to be the GOP nominee for Senate in Ohio.

  • He settled over a dozen wage theft lawsuits before launching his campaign.

  • Moreno was also sanctioned by a court for shredding documents amid the case.

Former car dealership owner turned GOP candidate Bernie Moreno, whose Ohio Senate race could determine whether Republicans regain control of the chamber, settled over a dozen wage theft lawsuits in the months before launching his campaign last year, according to court documents reviewed by Business Insider.

Those settlements came after a jury ordered Moreno to pay over $400,000 to two former employees at his Massachusetts dealership for failing to pay overtime in accordance with state labor laws.

As he faced those lawsuits, Moreno admitted in a deposition to shredding documents containing information that was potentially relevant to the case, despite being instructed to preserve records — drawing a rebuke from a state judge.

The revelation of the cases, first reported by the Columbus Dispatch, comes as Moreno pitches himself as a champion of the American worker while seeking to take on incumbent Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, who's long positioned himself as an ally of labor and spoken of the "dignity of work," in a race that's widely seen as a toss-up.

Moreno has been endorsed by both former President Donald Trump and the state's Republican Sen. JD Vance, who has said that Moreno will "never stop fighting to protect Ohio workers and families."

"Bernie has always taken tremendous care of his employees, which is why his businesses have been routinely recognized as one of the best places to work in Ohio," Moreno campaign spokesman Conor McGuinness said in a statement for this story. "Any attempt to smear his tremendous record in the private sector is despicable."

Recent polling has shown the former dealership owner leading the GOP field as he's racked up endorsements from other prominent state Republicans.

The 2024 US Senate race also comes as Republicans and Democrats, both in the rust-belt state of Ohio and across the country, compete for the mantle of the party that fights on behalf of workers.

Separately, the Associated Press reported that Moreno faced three lawsuits for gender, race, and age discrimination at two Ohio dealerships from 2015 to 2017, which he later settled as well.

Moreno sued for wage theft

Moreno's legal troubles began in 2017, when Omar Adem — a former salesperson at a Mercedes-Benz dealership in Burlington, Massachusetts — filed a lawsuit alleging that Moreno had failed to pay him for overtime hours worked while he was employed at the dealership between February 2015 and July 2017.

Adem — and other salespeople who later sued Moreno — said they were often scheduled to work as much as 56 hours per week, and that they did not receive the necessary one-and-half increase in their pay for those excess hours.

Those salespeople were compensated for overtime work via commissions — a figure tied to the number of cars they were able to sell. That sum was then counted toward any overtime hours worked, a standard practice at the time that was consistent with federal law.

Furthermore, Moreno argued that Adem had never worked any overtime hours and that his dealerships' work culture was more generous than his nearby competitors'. In a sworn affidavit on Moreno's behalf, a former employee who said he "personally observed" Adem's work habits said he would "come and go as he pleased" and that Adem was "not a team player."

Moreno is seeking to take on Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown (left) and has been endorsed by Republican Sen. JD Vance (right).
Moreno is seeking to take on Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown (left) and has been endorsed by Republican Sen. JD Vance (right).Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Yet by 2015, state law mandated that employers like Moreno pay salespeople for any time worked beyond the standard 40 hours per week, regardless of commissions.

Both parties eventually agreed to hold off on a trial until after May 2019, when a state Supreme Judicial Court decision clarified that retail salespeople who are paid with commissions are still entitled to additional overtime pay.

"A liberal Massachusetts court changed the rules governing every single commission-based sales company in the state, in an act of rank judicial activism," said McGuiness, the Moreno campaign spokesman.

Moreno continued to litigate the case, even as that ruling appeared to open the floodgates for further lawsuits.

16 other former salespeople who had worked at the Massachusetts dealership from 2014 to 2018, all of whom were represented by the same lawyers as Adem, sued Moreno for wage theft beginning in March 2022.

Moreno, who also ran in the 2022 Senate election in Ohio, had dropped out of the race the previous month. He later endorsed Vance, the eventual nominee.

'This case turns on the parties' credibility'

From the beginning, Moreno was required to preserve all documents relevant to the case, and he specifically agreed to do so in January 2020 as the Adem case progressed.

But during a May 2021 deposition for one of those wage theft cases, Moreno conceded that in late 2020, he had destroyed paper copies of monthly reports containing information about overtime hours worked by some employees — though he said this did not include salespeople at the dealership.

Moreno attributed the document destruction to the logistical hassles of closing down the Massachusetts dealership — along with his other dealerships across four different states — in 2018.

"Just a pile of records ended up at what used to be our Nissan dealership on Brookpark Road in Cleveland," Moreno said in the 2021 deposition. "We sold that building, and so when we did that, we took out the records that were flagged for records retention and then had a shredder come in and, you know, get rid of all the other ones from all the other dealerships' records that we just didn't need from a retention perspective."

Moreno said that he destroyed "anything that wasn't purely accounting data, that we needed to keep for, you know, financial statements," later adding that "we weren't really as sophisticated as we should have been around this stuff."

Despite this, Moreno and his lawyers did produce data from the third-party service that his dealership used to keep track of the hours his employees worked.

Moreno at a Trump rally in Delaware, Ohio in April 2022.
Moreno at a Trump rally in Delaware, Ohio in April 2022.AP Photo/Joe Maiorana

But the judge in that case, Justice Michael Ricciuti, chose to sanction him for destroying potential evidence, arguing that the only proof that overtime records for salespeople never existed was Moreno's own testimony.

"This case turns on the parties' credibility," wrote Ricciuti. "Plaintiffs should not be forced to take Moreno's word about the substance of these reports."

In sanctioning Moreno, Ricciuti ruled that the jury could use the fact of destroyed evidence when determining whether Adem and other employees were owed overtime pay.

"Where negligently or intentionally, the Defendants lost or destroyed evidence that they were required to preserve and which they knew or should have known was relevant," Justice Michael Ricciuti wrote in August 2022.

Moreno settled 14 other similar cases months before his Senate campaign

Ultimately, a jury found in August 2022 that Adem and another salesperson who joined the lawsuit had proven "by a preponderance of the evidence" that they had worked overtime hours, and that his employers knew that.

The judge later ordered Moreno to pay out a total of $416,160, including compensation for the overtime hours worked, damages, and legal fees, in November.

In January 2023, Moreno settled 14 of the 16 related lawsuits, court records show. Just 3 months later in April 2023, Moreno launched his comeback bid for US Senate.

One lawsuit had been withdrawn, while the judge dismissed the other case after the salesperson failed to appear for a hearing.

Moreno's campaign did not disclose those settlement amounts to Business Insider, and lawyers for Adem and the other former employees declined to comment for this story.

Read the original article on Business Insider