By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Lexus of Kendall enjoys two unique distinctions: It is the sole dealership in Miami-Dade County for the high-end, award-winning automobiles; and it currently is facing multiple charges of racial discrimination from what one attorney calls "a rainbow coalition" of former employees.
In Miami allegations of workplace discrimination are hardly rare. Last year the local office of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) fielded 1012 such complaints. But the unlikely assortment of ethnic and racial groups leveling charges against Lexus of Kendall -- in a town where minorities actually constitute the majority -- makes this set of accusations unusual.
Three Cubans, one black, and two Jewish former employees claim they were subjected to vicious racial slurs and, in at least two cases, physical assault while working at the dealership, located since 1989 at 10943 S. Dixie Hwy.
At the vortex of the swirling controversy is 42-year-old Terrence "Terry" Bean, a Lexus salesman who also happens to be the son of the dealership's owner, Gerald Bean. The former employees all say Terry Bean regularly harassed minority employees. They say the abuse was condoned by a management team that at best ignored their repeated complaints and at worst treated them with similar hostility.
Gerald Bean sits at the helm of a South Florida automobile empire encompassing both Lexus of Kendall and neighboring behemoth Kendall Toyota, which ranks as the nation's third-largest Toyota dealership. The elder Bean opened Kendall Toyota in 1969,sold the thriving business to Wayne Huizenga's Republic Industries for stock valued at $45 million in 1997, and bought it back in 1999. Terry Bean is widely assumed to be heir apparent to the family fortune.
"This case is unique in the pervasiveness of the discrimination and the attitudes all the way up and down the corporate structure," says Miami attorney Manuel Dobrinsky. "It's pretty unusual to have a case where the owner's son is going around being completely abusive to each and every minority group, insulting minorities who have to be a large percentage of their client base. It's a company that has an ongoing, long-standing pattern of discrimination."
Avraham Mardo experienced that alleged pattern soon after signing on as a salesman in May 1999. He's one of five individuals who have filed EEOC complaints against Lexus of Kendall. (A sixth former employee, saleswoman Susan Weinberg, missed the EEOC deadline -- no more than 300 days after she left the company.)
According to Mardo, who is both Jewish and Hispanic, the harassment began his first week at work in the sparkling showroom. A diminutive, well-dressed, and personable man, Mardo speaks with an easily discernible Israeli accent. He says he was casually and regularly referred to as "spic-Jew" and "fucking Israeli" by both Terry Bean and a sales manager.
"[Terry Bean] hates everybody that's not white American," Mardo contends. His voice drops and his brow furrows as he describes the insults. "He would always say that when he took over, there would be no Jews, no blacks, no spics. He said he'd clean the place up."
Mardo resigned after only five months at the dealership. He and his wife packed up and moved so he could work as a salesman at County Line Lexus in Hollywood. "These remarks affected me really deeply," he recounts. "When I think about Lexus of Kendall -- it's the worst working environment I've ever had. The kind of people they discriminate against are the same people who give them their business. They have a hatred for these types of people."
The former employees say the harassment did not stop with verbal abuse. Jesus Molina, a Cuban American, began working at the dealership in 1989 and was promoted to service manager in 1992. He claims Bean intentionally urinated on him in the men's room about four years ago. "I was furious," he remembers. "I ran to [a supervisor] and showed him my wet pants leg." The supervisor, he says, simply waved the incident aside. "He just said, “Oh, you know Terry. Just go home and change. We'll talk to him about it.'" His advice to Molina? "He just told me to try to stay away from Terry." (Molina says no action was taken as a result of the incident.)
Similarly former salesman Lance Noel, who is black, alleges in his lawsuit that racial slurs were directed at him, frequently by Terry Bean, who, according to Noel, commonly used the word "nigger." Noel also says Bean insulted customers with the same racial slurs, albeit behind their backs. "Everytime [Bean] saw me with a white female customer," Noel recalls, "he'd call her a “nigger lover,' or “white trash.'"
The dealership's managers discouraged him numerous times from filing discrimination charges, even after he got into a fistfight with Bean. Says Noel: "They told me: “Lance, come on now. He's the owner's son. You've got thick skin; you know how Terry is.' My complaints fell on deaf ears."
While Terry Bean, who declined comment for this story, may be the individual at the center of the complaints, the former employees also say they were harassed by Lexus of Kendall managers. "It starts from the top," Noel relates. "It's because of how the owner let things go. The bottom line is that if you don't fire Terry, anybody can get away with it."
Adds Susan Weinberg: "It's not an occasional joke or comment. It's a way of business there, a way of life. It's like a whipping post. It was an ongoing, brutalizing experience."
But despite nonchalant use of derogatory language, the urination incident, and the fistfight, Noel, Molina, and the two other Cuban employees did not choose to quit. Instead they were all fired, Noel for "insubordination" in September 1999 and Molina and his two colleagues in the service department nearly one year later. In his lawsuit Noel charges that he was fired in retaliation for protesting to managers.
Discouraged from lodging formal complaints, fiercely loyal to the Lexus company, and desperate to keep high-paying jobs at a prestigious dealership, both Molina and Noel say they tried for years to ignore the barrage of insults. Molina points to his handsome $150,000 salary, the new Lexus demo he was given every six months, and the all-expenses-paid vacations he was awarded. "Terry was Terry, but it would just be impossible to find another job like that," Molina admits. "I would still be there putting up with this stuff because of the money, because of the benefits, because Lexus is a great manufacturer. They pay you -- you gotta put up with it."
Noel concurs. In a good year he too would bring home more than $100,000. "Terry Bean would leave and say, “Goodnight, everybody. I'm going to a KKK meeting.' What are you going to say to that? What are you going to do?" Noel asks. He pauses before answering his own question: "He's the owner's son. It's not easy getting to sell such a high-end car. So you sit there and take it. And that's the bottom line."
Noel notes another factor: Car salesmen often must rely on their managers for the deals that make or break their careers. "You see, the managers can make you a superstar," he explains. "So you wait for their calls and smile in their face after they call you a stupid spic because, meanwhile, they'll be handing you a deal."
After Noel was fired for insubordination in September 1999 (following a shouting match with Terry Bean), he believed he no longer had anything to lose. So he did what he'd been considering off and on for six years: He filed a complaint with the EEOC.
Lexus of Kendall's lawyer, Ken Knox, declined to comment on the allegations except to assert that Molina and the other two Cubans in the service department were fired for "misconduct" -- all on the same day. Instead Knox questions the motives of the former employees. "I think what we're seeing here is people who are lining up to take shots at the son of an owner of a successful business," he says. "Anyone can go down to the courthouse and file a lawsuit. Whether that has merit or not isn't determined until the case has gone a significant way through the process."
That process is in fact moving apace. Lance Noel already has a December court date for his lawsuit. Bolstered by the EEOC's finding that his civil rights likely were violated, Avraham Mardo's case entered a required period of negotiation in late February; should that not conclude satisfactorily, a courtroom trial will follow. Two weeks ago Jesus Molina and his two co-workers in the service department, Humfredo Perez and Felix Quevedo, were notified that the EEOC had found "reasonable cause" that a hostile work environment existed at Lexus of Kendall. Their cases now enter the negotiating period. Former saleswoman Susan Weinberg, who missed her opportunity to sue using the EEOC process, nonetheless remains involved in the overall proceedings. "I think it's important that people know what goes on there," she says. "But whether it'll make a difference, who knows? From my experience over there, they could care less."