Immokalee grower seeks dismissal of whistle-blower suit filed by ex-worker

The courts

The courts

— An Immokalee grower accused in a federal whistle-blower lawsuit of hiring illegal immigrants is pushing back against the allegations of a former employee.

Lipman Produce wants three counts of racketeering and one of conspiracy dismissed in the civil suit on the grounds that they are unfounded, according to documents filed with Florida's Middle District Court earlier this month.

It was the first substantial public response from the privately held company following the October suit by its former director of information technology, Brian Bishop.

Bishop accused Lipman executives of firing him after he sent an email to them in February regarding hiring practices.

His suggestions for how to avoid employing illegal workers weren't taken seriously, he said in the suit, which includes quotes attributed to executives that acknowledge the hiring of undocumented immigrants.

He alleged that employing, concealing and harboring undocumented workers was a "regular practice" at Lipman, and that executives terminated him "in an attempt to cover up their illegal activity."

Executives offered him $84,000 in hush money after his termination to not discuss the use of undocumented workers at the company's farming and packaging facilities, the suit contends.

The company hasn't asked that the fifth allegation — violating Florida's whistle-blower law by firing Bishop — be dismissed.

In response to that count, Lipman acknowledged that Bishop did send an email in February to two executives, but denied the allegations that they fired him when he brought up the issue of hiring practices.

Toby Purse, chief financial officer and chief administrative officer at Lipman, issued a statement through the company's public relations firm in late October.

"We're confident that the allegations are unfounded and we intend to defend against this lawsuit vigorously," said Purse, who is named in the suit along with CEO Robert Shoemaker, former CEO Larry Lipman, and three other executives.

The federal court must now determine whether to dismiss the four conspiracy and racketeering charges.

Lipman Produce, better known in the area by its former name, Six L's, grew nationally in the past year, acquiring businesses in North Carolina, Texas and Oregon.

It has more than 4,000 workers in 13 states and Mexico employed in all stages of agricultural production, from research to growing, packing and distributing produce, primarily tomatoes, according to the company website.

© 2012 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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