Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Billionaire Behind LaCroix Accused of Improper Touching by Two Pilots: Former employees accuse CEO Nick Caporella of unwanted touching while flying in the cockpit of business jet; CEO’s lawyer says allegations are false

Nick Caporella, CEO of LaCroix sparkling water, is accused of inappropriate touching by two former employees—accusations the CEO’s attorney denied.

The Wall Street Journal
By Jennifer Maloney and  Mark Maremont
July 3, 2018 4:11 p.m. ET

Two pilots have filed lawsuits alleging sexual harassment by the billionaire behind LaCroix sparkling water, claiming 82-year-old Nick A. Caporella inappropriately touched them on multiple trips while they were flying with him in the cockpit of his business jet.

The allegations by the former employees, both men, were made in lawsuits filed in the past two years in Florida and name both the chief executive and National Beverage Corporation as defendants. Mr. Caporella is the chairman, chief executive and controlling shareholder of National Beverage, which has a market value of $5 billion, thanks to surging LaCroix sales.

Mr. Caporella, a rare CEO who also pilots the corporate jet, and the company have denied the allegations in court documents. The suits claim the unwanted touching occurred on more than 30 trips from 2014 to 2016.

Glenn Waldman, an attorney for Mr. Caporella and National Beverage, called the allegations false and “scurrilous.” The lawyer said the company’s management hired him to conduct an investigation and he determined the allegations were meritless. He said the plaintiffs were targeting the CEO because he is wealthy and in his 80s.

Mr. Waldman said he spoke with other pilots who flew with Mr. Caporella and they said they had never seen such behavior. “I talked to all of the former pilots going back decades,” Mr. Waldman said. “Nothing like this ever happened.”

In court filings, Mr. Caporella and National Beverage denied any inappropriate touching occurred, writing in separate responses to both lawsuits that “any contact would be the equivalent of an innocuous pat on the back or handshake after a completed flight.” In court documents, the company says both pilots left their positions because of poor performance.

One lawsuit, filed in December 2016 in federal court in the Southern District of Florida, was settled in January 2018, according to court records. Terms weren’t disclosed. The other lawsuit, which was partly dismissed by a federal court citing jurisdiction, was refiled in December 2017 in Circuit Court in Broward County and is pending.

Both pilots were hired in recent years to fly as second-in-command alongside Mr. Caporella, whom the company’s court documents described as an accomplished pilot. The men were paid by Broad River Aviation Inc., the company that operates the jet used for National Beverage business trips, according to the lawsuits and federal and corporate records. North Carolina state records list Mr. Caporella as Broad River’s president.

The two pilots complained to executives at the aviation company and National Beverage about Mr. Caporella’s alleged inappropriate touching, but the behavior continued, according to the lawsuits.

The pilots’ attorney, Lee Schillinger, said Mr. Caporella pays his crew a generous salary. One of his clients had previously been working three jobs to make the salary that Mr. Caporella offered, according to court documents. “He reaches over and grabs his co-pilot,” said Mr. Schillinger. “He’s trying to prove that he’s in control.”

Mr. Schillinger confirmed one case has been settled.

Mr. Waldman said the settlement was “de minimis” and covered “modest wage claims.” He said he reported findings of his investigation to National Beverage’s senior management and didn’t know if the board had voted on the settlement. “It would be immaterial from a board point of view,” he said.

A spokeswoman for National Beverage referred questions to Mr. Waldman. Mr. Caporella is chairman of National Beverage’s five-person board.

The business jet, a twin-engine Falcon 2000EX, flew regularly during the period in question from National Beverage’s home city of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to destinations including Portsmouth, N.H., Oakland, Calif., and Los Cabos, Mexico, according to federal flight records. The travel matches the dates of trips alleged in the two suits.

One lawsuit was filed by pilot Terence Huenefeld and his wife. Mr. Huenefeld, who spent about five months working for Mr. Caporella, accused the CEO of unwanted touching on 18 flights between March and July 2016, according to court documents.

The lawsuit alleged Mr. Caporella engaged in “repeated unjustified, unwarranted and uninvited grabbing, rubbing and groping of Terry’s leg in a sexual manner, reaching up towards Terry’s sexual organs.”

Mr. Huenefeld withdrew all of his allegations against Mr. Caporella as part of the settlement, according to a document dated Feb. 2 and provided by Mr. Waldman. Mr. Huenefeld couldn’t be reached for comment.

Mr. Waldman said his investigation into the second lawsuit is ongoing and depositions are scheduled for later this month.

The second pilot, Vincent Citrullo, alleged in his lawsuit a similar pattern of behavior during more than a year flying alongside Mr. Caporella. The lawsuit claims that on 14 flights from March 2014 to July 2015, Mr. Caporella engaged in unwanted touching, including grabbing Mr. Citrullo under his armpit, under his thigh and moving his right hand up Mr. Citrullo’s left leg towards his genitals.

Reached by phone Tuesday, Mr. Citrullo said he stands by his allegations “100%. It was definitely inappropriate.”

National Beverage was a distant competitor to bigger beverage companies until the recent success of LaCroix, a once-sleepy flavored seltzer brand that has been a hit with consumers as they turn away from diet soft drinks and sugary sodas. National Beverage acquired it in 1996 and successfully relaunched it with neon-colored packaging, targeting Perrier drinkers with a lower-priced alternative.

Mr. Caporella, who has run National Beverage since 1985, owns 73.5% of the beverage maker’s shares, according to the company’s 2017 proxy statement.

Under a structure that has been in place for decades, Mr. Caporella and some other top executives aren’t direct employees of National Beverage, even as they serve in top positions. They work for a management company, Corporate Management Advisors Inc., that is owned by Mr. Caporella. The management company also owns 20% of the aircraft that National Beverage uses, according to SEC filings.

In June, National Beverage changed its corporate charter to give Mr. Caporella more control over its affairs, allowing for the removal of directors without cause and eliminating the need to win minority-shareholder support for a merger or acquisition.

Original article can be found here ➤ https://www.wsj.com

1 comment:

  1. Lets see, 14 times from one client and 18 times from another. I think I would have lost count.

    Once would have been enough from each to garner a broken nose (twice) for the defendant.

    Where is the broken nose? and why did the 2nd seat pilots simply quit and walk away?

    You can never tell about this kind of stuff because it seems to be one person's word vs another and the plantiff(s) have nothing to loose and the defendant has everything to loose.

    When I worked in a public service organization there was a lot of complaining and accusations. My response was "put up (the evidence) or shut up". Usually that did not deter the complaining much.

    It seems to me the plantiffs had plenty of opportunities (with the expectation alleged problems would reoccur) to locate a small camera or audio recorder in the airplane or something else to provide evidence.

    Time to put up evidence or shut up.