A whistleblower claims a San Diego company used bribes and Mexican law enforcement to evict a family from their land.
In a joint investigation with media partner The San Diego Union-Tribune, 10News learned from sources that multiple agencies have launched an investigation into Sempra Energy that stemmed from a whistleblowers claims of bribes and corporate greed.
Sources confirmed investigators from the U.S. Attorneys Office, the FBI and the Securities and Exchange Commission have all launched probes into Sempra Energy.
In the eye of the storm is fired Sempra executive Rudy Michelon, who oversaw Sempras finances in Mexico and a liquefied natural gas plant built north of Ensenada.
According to Mexican regulations, a buffer was required around the facility in case of a calamity. Occupying land near that buffer zone was Ramon Eugenio Sanchez Ritchie and his family. Sempra, which says it holds the title to the land, calls Sanchez Ritchie a squatter. After Sempra disputed Ritchies legal rights to the land, the company with the help of Mexican law enforcement had Ritchie evicted.
I think there must have been 50 to 80 agents who came in, said Ritchie, who is speaking out about the dispute and the late-night eviction for the first time. I had gotten warning and left
and saw them from a hill... I have not seen this type of show of force even against drug cartels.
Ritchie said a Mexican court eventually gave him back the property but Sempra continues to fight that decision.
According to Michelon, Ritchies eviction was sparked by some extra motivation: a bribe.
In a wrongful termination suit, Michelon alleged that Sempra directed him to deliver $16,000 in cash, which he believes was a bribe. Attached to the suit was a series of e-mails between Sempra executives and employees detailing the late-night delivery with the subject line have cash.
Sempra had an agenda and its friends helped advance that agenda, said Michelon.
The company, which vowed to fight the suit, said claims of a bribe are absolutely false and described the payment as a $8,200 bond required by authorities as a guarantee for any damages suffered by Sanchez Ritchie during the eviction.
10News confirmed on Monday that accusations of bribery prompted a closed-door meeting in late January between Michelon and investigators from the three federal agencies.
It was very serious and they had a lot of questions, said Dan Gilleon, Michelons attorney. They were very, very interested in everything that was said.
During the meeting, Gilleon said he was told that thousands of internal company documents held by Michelon would be subpoenaed. Michelon said he will cooperate with the federal investigations.
Thats the beginning of a fairly major effort to determine the validity of the allegations, said former U.S. Attorney Pete Nunez.
Nunez said after investigators comb through the documents, they could then decide to interview Sempra employees or stop the probe.
Among the other accusations in Michelons suit are more bribes of government officials and falsely stating
assets to increase earnings.
The suit also address Sempras lavish, $20 million conference center north of Ensenada. Michelon said the center was built with ratepayer funds and is only used by Sempra CEO Donald Felsinger.
Sempra called Michelon a disgruntled ex-employee making outlandishly false claims and misrepresentations.
In a recent interview, Michelon talked to 10News about accountability at the company. When asked if people should lose their jobs, Michelon responded, I believe so.
10News contacted the three federal agencies but all declined to comment on the investigation.
San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob has also asked for another investigation into Sempra by state and federal regulators to see if the company is improperly using profits from utility bills to fund their conference center in Mexico.
In response to the allegations, Sempra has issued this statement:
Last summer, after learning of the allegations by Mr. Michelon a disgruntled ex-employee who is trying to extract money from the company we did two things. First, Sempra Energys board of directors retained an outside law firm to independently investigate the allegations. Second, in July, the company initiated a dialogue with the government to advise them of these false allegations. The independent investigation by outside counsel found Mr. Michelons allegations to be baseless. The company has continued to maintain a dialogue with the government on this matter.
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