FORT MYERS — A top Immokalee produce company faces a federal whistleblower lawsuit after an ex-employee alleged it hired illegal aliens and offered him a five-figure sum to keep quiet.
In a complaint filed in federal court in Fort Myers, Brian Bishop contended that after 14 years with Lipman Produce, formerly Six L's, executives fired him as chief information officer two days after he emailed superiors over field worker hiring practices.
"Lipman knowingly employed illegal aliens, and then conspired and attempted to cover up this pattern of illegal activity by firing Bishop for his objection to Lipman's illegal practices," the 27-page document stated.
Bishop refused to sign a settlement of $84,000 in return for his silence after his termination, the complaint alleged.
The company isn't commenting on the case, Lipman's Chief Financial Officer Toby Purse told the Daily News on Wednesday.
Bishop's North Naples-based attorneys declined to talk, citing the pending litigation.
Purse is named in the suit along with CEO Robert Shoemaker, former CEO Larry Lipman, and three other executives.
The longtime Collier grower will have to respond in federal civil court to the mid-October lawsuit's three counts of racketeering, one of civil conspiracy, and one of violating the Florida whistle blower law.
The complaint alleges the executives being sued benefited from racketeering because their annual bonus and the company's profits "could not have been achieved with legal farming labor."
"Lipman's practice of knowingly employing, harboring, concealing and shielding illegal workers ... has continued for years," it added, saying such activities were ongoing and "will continue into the future unless halted by judicial intervention."
Furthermore, accepting fake identification from laborers is a "regular way of conducting business" at Lipman Produce, Bishop's complaint alleged.
The former IT specialist made multiple attempts to discuss and solve the problem of undocumented workers with his superiors, according to the civil complaint, by suggesting technology that could curb illegal hires and verify workers' identities.
The document attributes quotes to executives acknowledging Lipman Produce's use of undocumented laborers.
Southwest Floridians may know Lipman Produce by its longtime name, Six L's, founded by the Lipman family.
Headquartered in Immokalee, it changed its name in 2011, a year after Larry Lipman retired as CEO and Shoemaker, a former executive with Sysco, took over.
The company undertook coast-to-coast expansions in the past year, acquiring businesses in North Carolina, Texas and Oregon.
It employs more than 4,000 workers in 13 states and Mexico, in researching, growing, packing, and distributing produce, primarily tomatoes, according to the company website.