Businessman Bernie Moreno, Trump's Senate pick in Ohio, faced discrimination lawsuits, the AP finds

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Bernie Moreno, a Trump−backed candidate for Ohio’s crucial U.S. Senate seat who touts his success in business, faced multiple lawsuits alleging discrimination against employees in the run−up to the sale of his high−end Cleveland car dealership, an Associated Press review has found.

Three discrimination suits were filed in Cuyahoga County between 2015 and 2017. Two accused Moreno and Bernie Moreno Cos. of gender and age discrimination, respectively. The third, in which Moreno was not named, alleged race discrimination against a dealership run by a BMC subsidiary.

A campaign spokesman said that the two employees who sued Moreno directly now support his Republican U.S. Senate campaign and that Moreno, who was born in Bogotá, Colombia, prided himself on giving equal opportunities to all his workers.

Moreno’s performance in business was cited by former President Donald Trump as he endorsed Moreno in the three−way primary with Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose and state Sen. Matt Dolan last month.

“Bernie Moreno, a highly respected businessman from the GREAT State of Ohio, is exactly the type of MAGA fighter that we need in the United States Senate,” Trump said, using the acronym of his “Make America Great Again” slogan.

The discrimination claims come to light as Republican support has begun to coalesce behind Moreno since Trump’s endorsement, with recent endorsements by U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan and former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell. The winner of the GOP primary March 19 will face third−term Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, among Democrats’ most vulnerable incumbents this year in the narrowly divided Senate.

Brown characterizes his fight for “the dignity of work” as a key policy and campaign priority, while Moreno has said he is running for the Senate to support policies “good for American workers and families.”

All three lawsuits identified by the AP were settled out of court, and terms of any resulting settlement deals were kept private. Often, such deals include a clause preventing either side from disparaging the other.

The first lawsuit, filed in 2015, accused BMC and Moreno of gender discrimination.

Female former dealership supervisor Cara Wilson, then of Streetsboro, in Portage County, alleged Moreno repeatedly belittled her about being a mother, sometimes in front of her peers.

She told the court Moreno called her “a bad leader but a better mother” and once, when she approached him about her flex time arrangement, he said, “Lots of people are single parents, put your kids in f—−ing daycare.”

The lawsuit alleged Wilson was stripped of her flex time schedule, was blamed for her dealership’s poor performance despite being deprived of the leeway given to male counterparts to make key decisions and was wrongfully fired.

Reached by phone, Wilson said she and Moreno “are great friends now” — as evidenced by the fact she hosted a fundraiser for his campaign last fall — and declined to comment further.

In a 2017 lawsuit, a Black former service manager at an Akron Infiniti dealership operated by BMC subsidiary M9 Motors, alleged that he was targeted for discipline and then demoted after taking concerns to human resources about white peers and a subordinate being paid the same or more than him.

Ronell Thompson claimed racial discrimination led to his demotion and eventual wrongful termination. Reached by phone, he referred a reporter to his lawyer, Peter Mabley, who confirmed in a statement that his Cleveland−area law firm represented Thompson and that the matter "has been resolved” — which suggests Thompson is limited by a settlement agreement from discussing details.

In the third lawsuit, filed against BMC and Moreno the same year, an award−winning, top−performing saleswoman who was 67 alleged gender and age discrimination. Dolores Wolfe, then of Rocky River, a Cleveland suburb, claimed that she was repeatedly passed over for promotions in favor of white males, some in their 20s.

She told the court she was preparing to take a new job in New York when Moreno flew in to meet with her and persuaded her not to resign by offering a promotion complete with increased salary, benefits and bonuses. She said she passed up the out−of−state position and stayed, only to have the promotion never materialize. She told the court her treatment caused her economic and emotional distress and physical sickness.

In an interview, Wolfe said that her lawsuit "had to do with business issues” and that Moreno is a tremendous businessman who would make a great U.S. senator.

"Every female who worked for him, and every age group who worked for him, were generously treated,” she said.

Moreno campaign spokesman Conor McGuinness said in a statement that Moreno knows Wolfe and Wilson personally and “they have all moved past any previous misunderstandings.”

He said Moreno is “a proud minority businessman” who based his company "on the colorblind principles of merit and hard−work."

“As someone who has previously experienced discrimination himself, Bernie has always been committed to giving opportunities to all of his workers, regardless of race, color, gender or creed,” his statement said.

Robert Foehl, a professor of business law and ethics at Ohio University, said multiple lawsuits against a company “doesn’t necessarily mean there’s something systemically wrong.”

“The devil’s in the details,” he said.

Foehl said it’s not unreasonable to expect a company of BMC’s size to have a robust anti−discrimination and anti−retaliation training program for its managers.

“It’s really incumbent on the employer in these traditionally male−dominated industries to be sure that they’re working within the bounds of employment law, ensuring that they’re providing those opportunities to, not just the men in the work setting, but also women in the work setting, and ensuring equal opportunity for all those based on their protected characteristics," he said.

In response to the AP’s reporting, the Moreno campaign produced an open letter signed by 23 former female employees vouching that he treated them fairly and respectfully.

A BMC subsidiary, M10 Motors, also faced a lawsuit in Florida unrelated to discrimination. The civil rights class action brought by Andres Gomez, who is blind, alleged a Coral Gables Infiniti dealership’s website was inaccessible to the visually impaired, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. A settlement agreement was reached in the case in 2020.

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Follow the AP’s coverage of the 2024 election at https://apnews.com/hub/election−2024.

Julie Carr Smyth, The Associated Press

Photo: AP

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