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Detroit — The head of U.S. sales for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV filed a federal whistleblower lawsuit against the automaker Wednesday, claiming he has been made a scapegoat for inflated vehicle sales practices under investigation by federal agents.

Reid Bigland oversees the Ram brand, among Fiat Chrysler's most profitable divisions worldwide. He alleges FCA executives retaliated against him for cooperating with the investigation and have slashed his pay by more than 90 percent, according to the lawsuit. Bigland has lost millions of dollars and Fiat Chrysler executives plan to use the withheld compensation to pay fines or settlements reached with the Securities and Exchange Commission, according to the lawsuit.

The automaker's actions will cost Bigland more than $1.8 million, according to the lawsuit.

The whistleblower lawsuit provides a rare look inside an ongoing federal investigation — one of at least two targeting Fiat Chrysler — and exposes a private rift between one of the automaker's top executives and his employer. Separately, FBI agents and the U.S. Attorney's Office are investigating corruption within the U.S. auto industry and have secured eight convictions, including former Fiat Chrysler Vice President Alphons Iacobelli, once the automaker's top labor-relations executive. 

“They had the largest growth in retail sales in 17 years last year and refuses to pay him,” Bigland’s lawyer, Deborah Gordon, told The Detroit News. “Why is that? Because he participated in the SEC investigation and they don’t like what he said.”

Bigland says he has cooperated with the SEC investigation, testifying "at length" about Fiat Chrysler's sales reporting, which he says long predated his appointment as U.S. sales chief, according to the lawsuit.

"In late 2018, presumably as a way to wrap up their investigation with some result,

the SEC suggested to plaintiff that he admit to some wrongdoing as to defendants' monthly sales reporting," Bigland's lawyer wrote in the lawsuit. "The SEC also suggested a resolution involving some penalty to FCA. Because (Bigland) had not engaged in any wrongdoing, and there was no wrongdoing, he declined to do so."

Late last year, Bigland wrote a letter to federal investigators outlining Fiat Chrysler's sales reporting practices, which he said he inherited, according to the lawsuit. The sales methodology was well-known throughout the company, including the late CEO Sergio Marchionne, according to the lawsuit. 

The letter revealed the full scope of Bigland's participation in the government investigation and summarized that he had not improperly manipulated the methodology used by Fiat Chrysler in reporting sales, the auto executive's lawyer said. Bigland sent the document to the SEC and his employer, according to the lawsuit. Retaliation soon followed.

"(Bigland's) unwillingness to act as a scapegoat for defendants' 30-year practice which predated him, and his candor regarding defendants' knowledge of this practice prior to and during his tenure as head of U.S. caused FCA to retaliate against plaintiff less than 2 months later by withholding his compensation," Bigland's lawyer wrote.

"His eligibility for incentive compensation — like that of all corporate officers — is subject to a determination by the Board of Directors' compensation committee that he has satisfied the applicable company and personal performance conditions,” FCA said in an e-mailed statement to The News.

“Mr. Bigland's eligibility for his award remains subject to that determination and completion of a Board-level evaluation of issues that are the subject to governmental investigations (as previously disclosed by FCA) in which FCA continues to cooperate. Beyond that, it would be inappropriate to comment on ongoing litigation or internal compensation processes."   

Fiat Chrysler also retaliated because Bigland sold his shares in the company last year, "which highly irritated" the automaker, according to the lawsuit. Bigland's compensation consists of a base salary and an annual bonus and stock payout that he typically receives in March. On March 8, Fiat Chrysler Global Human Resources Chief Linda Knoll told Bigland the stock payout and bonus were being withheld indefinitely, according to the filing.

Fiat Chrysler executives cited an “internal investigation” involving issues being investigated by the SEC, Bigland’s lawyer said. The automaker’s executives also admitted being angry that he had recently sold his vested shares in Fiat Chrysler.

The move by Fiat Chrysler to withhold Bigland’s stock payout and bonus will cost him approximately $1.8 million, according to the lawsuit.

Fiat Chrysler executives “intend to withhold these payments … and instead offer them, in part, as fines or settlements to the SEC at (Bigland’s) direct expense, and/or to suggest to the SEC that they should be exonerated from further responsibility…,” Bigland’s lawyer wrote.

Bigland wants a judge to prohibit Fiat Chrysler from further wrongdoing or retailiation and is asking for an unspecified amount of damages.

Bigland added FCA’s lucrative Ram truck brand to his responsibilities in October as part of new CEO Mike Manley’s reorganization of the automaker’s leadership team. Bigland took over for Manley, who had led Ram since 2015. Bigland also still serves as head of U.S. sales.

He came to FCA in 2006 to run the automaker’s Canadian operations, a job he still holds. In his 13-year career with the Italian-American automaker, Bigland has also led the Dodge brand, Alfa Romeo and Maserati.

Federal investigators in July 2016 began probing the automaker’s U.S. sales reporting processes. FCA said then it was cooperating with the investigation into the reporting of vehicle unit sales to U.S. customers. The company said it "will cooperate fully" with "inquires into similar issues" made by the Department of Justice.

The investigations began after two Illinois Fiat Chrysler dealerships filed a civil racketeering lawsuit against the automaker, alleging the company offered dealers money to report unsold vehicles as sold. The federal lawsuit alleged in 2016 that the automaker's North American-based operation "knowingly endorses and encourages the false reporting of motor vehicle sales by directly rewarding its district managers and business center directors with monetary and quarterly bonuses which are directly related to reported vehicle sales numbers."

The civil racketeering suit alleged that a dealership principal was asked to falsely report sales of 40 vehicles in exchange for $20,000 in incentives by Fiat Chrysler to the dealer. Fiat Chrysler at the time said the lawsuit was “without merit.” A judge dismissed the fraud and racketeering claims.

Fiat Chrysler has since changed the way it reports its sales figures. Not long after the federal probe began in 2016, the automaker revised what had been touted as a 75-month-long string of year-over-year sales increases. The automaker saw sales increase for roughly half that time, based on the new reporting practices. The automaker settled the civil lawsuit in April 2019, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal.

rsnell@detroitnews.com

nnaughton@detroitnews.com

ithibodeau@detroitnews.com

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