Former Univision Radio-syndicated Spanish-language star Eddie “Piolin” Sotelo filed a civil extortion lawsuit 8/26 against six former Univision employees and their LA attorneys for attempting to “shake him down” for nearly $5 million by threatening to go public with what the suit calls false and misleading allegations of sexual harassment and workplace humiliation.
According to the lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court in Santa Monica, the Defendants made their demands of Piolin last week on the telephone and in writing. The demands followed press reports that another former employee had made similar wild claims as well as the announcement that Piolin and SiriusXM had agreed to launch a new channel of Spanish-language programming soon.
The lawsuit details how the Defendants offered to “seal their lips” and take their own copycat allegations “to their graves” if Piolin paid the group $4.9 million. Their attorneys made this demand although they acknowledged to Piolin’s counsel that three of their clients were time-barred from making legitimate legal claims because the statute of limitations for such matters had expired.
In fact, the other three Defendants also are barred because they had previously signed agreements waiving any and all legal claims against Piolin or his former employer, Univision, a fact which their attorneys certainly knew or should have known. Without any hope of resolving the claims legitimately, their demands amounted to civil extortion–a “naked money grab” through the unlawful use of fear, the lawsuit says.
“Piolin is appalled by the conduct of his former colleagues and personal friends,” the lawsuit says.
Piolin attorney Jeffrey Spitz, of the Los Angeles law firm Lerman Pointer & Spitz LLP, called the extortion scheme “one of the more brazen, shameless and despicable examples of a shake down that I have ever seen. It was clear from the outset that the Defendants’ demands crossed the line into potential criminality.”
Piolin’s lawsuit names as Defendants six former friends and colleagues from the Univision “Piolin Por La Manana” morning show. They are former employees Domingo Rodrigo Ochoa; Tomas Alejandro Fernandez; Samuel “Cusuco” Heredia; Sergio “Checo” Vera; Gerardo “Chiquirruco” Palencia, and Bertha “Betushca” Velasco. The complaint also names as Defendants attorneys John C. Taylor and Robert R. Clayton and their firm, Taylor & Ring, LLP. The same law firm represents the former employee who lodged the initial accusations in a demand letter to Univision Radio.
The lawsuit details how Piolin gave five of the Defendants, who had no prior broadcast experience, their break in radio. Piolin also shared his good fortune through raises, perks, loans and side payments made by his personal production company as the program shot its way up the ratings to become number one in the U.S. Hispanic market, where it was syndicated on more than 60 stations.
According to the lawsuit, the Defendants began plotting as early as 2006 to pressure Piolin for more money, even if it meant staging a walkout. When Univision urged the dismissal of the Defendants for insubordination, Piolin not only saved their jobs but persuaded management to grant them salary increases. Within years, however, Univision fired two of the Defendants for poor job performance and laid off the other four Defendants as part of companywide staff reductions, the lawsuit states.
Despite losing their jobs, several of the Defendants expressed gratitude for Piolin’s mentorship and the opportunity to work on the show, according to the lawsuit. In emails after the layoffs in 2011, Palencia called his time with Piolin “a very beautiful cycle” in his life. Fernandez wrote that he would remember Piolin as “the friend from high school that gave me his hand and the one with whom I shared the best 8 years of my life,” the lawsuit says.
None of the Defendants ever complained to Piolin that they felt sexually harassed, intimidated or humiliated while working on the show, which became popular because of its “mixture of farce, sarcasm, sound gags, outrageous comments… Everyone knew this ‘horseplay’ was all in good fun,” the lawsuit says. In fact, Univision lawyers directed the posting of a disclaimer on the studio door warning all guests and staffers about the show’s “comedic” format.
The goodwill appeared to continue even days after the story broke about the former employee’s allegations. Heredia sent a message of encouragement to Piolin: An email with the opening verses to the 3rd Psalm, which assures believers God will help them defeat their enemies.
Less than three weeks later, Heredia and the five other former staffers shocked Piolin with an 8/16 demand letter accusing him of gross misconduct. Piolin’s lawsuit characterized the demand letter as one of the overt acts of an extortion conspiracy that continued with attorney Clayton demanding the $4.9 million to buy his clients’ silence.
Piolin’s lawsuit states “that defendants have attempted a naked money grab, but have sorely underestimated their target; plaintiff has worked for justice his whole life and does so again with the present action.”
Meanwhile, Piolin was recenlty accused of sexual harassment and more by Alberto ‘Beto’ Cortez. Cortez, a writer, producer and performer on the show, alleged that his boss Sotelo was “physically, sexually and emotionally harassing” him for a three-year period ending last January. The claim was made in a 4/16 letter from Cortez attorney Robert Clayton to Roberto Llamas and Jose Valle of Univision.
In addition to the claim of sexual harassment, Cortez alleged that Sotelo ordered members of his radio production team to falsify letters in support of a high-profile campaign for congressional immigration reform, an issue that Sotelo championed on his program.
Sotelo’s attorney, Jeffrey Spitz, said the allegations were false and motivated by money: “A disgruntled, troubled employee has made malicious and false claims about Eddie Sotelo,” Spitz said in a statement. “This was done as part of a demand for money…. The employee worked with Eddie for more than a decade. The employee’s allegations of harassment and falsification of immigration letters are pure fiction intended to gain a financial settlement.”
Cortez claimed that Sotelo repeatedly made aggressive and unwanted sexual advances, including grabbing Cortez’s buttocks and genitals when Cortez would arrive at work in the morning at the Glendale studio. Cortez alleged that Sotelo taunted him during staff meetings, calling him by a derogatory term for a homosexual, and telling him to say that he was gay. Sotelo also asked vulgar questions about Cortez’s girlfriend, according to the documents.