Spanish-language radio star Eduardo "Piolin" Sotelo has filed a lawsuit against six former staff members who worked on his canceled Univision Radio program, claiming the group banded together to try to extort $4.9 million from him.
Sotelo claims to be a victim of a shake-down by former employees who allegedly demanded a big payday in exchange for taking their Univision workplace secrets "to the grave," according to the civil lawsuit filed Monday by Sotelo's lawyers in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
The suit seeks general damages and punitive damages "in an amount sufficient to punish defendants and to deter them from engaging in similar conduct in the future," and legal costs.
[Updated at 5:10 p.m.: An attorney representing the six former colleagues released a statement Monday afternoon saying the group will be filing their own lawsuit against Sotelo. He rejected Sotelo's lawsuit as lacking merit.
"This lawsuit is a public relations ploy by Eddie Sotelo to deflect attention from the merits of the allegations of Sotelo's harrassing and abusive conduct towards six of his former co-workers," said John C. Taylor. "The lawsuits speak for themselves and will be filed soon."]
Before joining Sotelo's crew, the suit claims, most of the group held low-level jobs outside of radio -- working as a fast-food server, a bakery delivery man, a warehouse employee, a medical waste hauler and a copywriter. But after going to work on Sotelo's popular radio show, the employees were well compensated and able to rub elbows with the likes of President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and entertainer Jennifer Lopez, who were guests on the show.
"This case arises from the defendants' ingratitude, unmitigated greed and desire to extract from [Sotelo] some perceived revenge and an undeserved monetary windfall," the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit is the latest messy twist in the saga of Sotelo, an immigrant from Mexico who crossed into the U.S. at the age of 16 and worked menial jobs in Santa Ana before landing in radio and eventually rising to national prominence. Sotelo, who became a U.S. citizen in 2008, used his top-rated "Piolin por la Manana" Univision Radio program as a platform to galvanize huge crowds to participate in immigration reform marches.
But last month, Sotelo lost his radio program on Univision after a call-screener and performer on the show complained to Univision that Sotelo had created a hostile work environment. The employee, Alberto "Beto" Cortez, alleged that Sotelo sexually harassed him over a three-year period.
Sotelo has since signed a new deal with SiriusXM, which is planning a Spanish-language channel to launch this fall devoted to Sotelo and his blend of humor, which mixes farce, sarcasm and sound gags. SiriusXM executives hope Sotelo will be their equivalent of a Spanish-language Howard Stern, who signed up for the satellite service after leaving his longtime radio job.
Sotelo's lawsuit, which alleges civil extortion and intentional infliction of emotional distress, names Domingo Rodrigo Ochoa, Tomas Alejandro Fernandez, Samuel Heredia, Gerardo Palencia, Sergio Vera and Bertha "Betty" Velasco, who several years ago worked on Sotelo's program. None of the six were still employed with Univision. Cortez was not named as a defendant in the Sotelo suit.
The suit is unusual because it also named the group's two Los Angeles attorneys, Richard R. Clayton and John C. Taylor, as defendants. The attorneys also represent Cortez in his claims against Univision and Sotelo.
The eight defendants, the suit said, "have attempted to extort $4.9 million from plaintiff under the threat of publicly embarrassing [Sotelo] and damaging his reputation by the disclosure of false and misleading allegations regarding plaintiff's alleged conduct on the program." The suit claims that the group has no legal claims against Sotelo, and that they know it.
"But [they] insisted that they be paid anyway, in exchange for their agreement to seal their lips and take their purported allegations `to the grave,' " the suit said. "At bottom, defendants have attempted a naked money grab."
The alleged extortion plot began after the Los Angeles Times in late July published a front-page article that detailed complaints by Cortez. Cortez claimed that Sotelo repeatedly made aggressive and unwanted sexual advances, including grabbing Cortez's buttocks and genitals when Cortez would arrive at work in the morning at Univision's Glendale studio, where Sotelo's show was produced.
The lawsuit alleges that Sotelo's hiring by SiriusXM gave rise to the plot by the six ex-employees, "who are now trying to shake him down under the threat of filing a (baseless) lawsuit that would damage his reputation. ... Defendants' extortion has caused Piolin extreme mental stress and emotional suffering, as well as forcing him to amass considerable legal and professional bills at a time when he should be preparing for the launch of his SiriusXM show."