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Ocean Bank infighting has landed in court in Miami. A lawsuit by a fired executive claims bank officers condoned discriminatory hiring, misused medical insurance funds to pay school tuition and used employees to work for an executive’s personal company. Ocean and its president, Jose Concepcion, are named as defendants in a wrongful termination suit filed in state court Aug. 2 by the bank’s former second in command. Rolando Bichara contends he was fired as executive vice president in June 2004 for threatening to notify regulators and law enforcement of the alleged misconduct by bank executives. Bichara, a 30-year veteran banker who spent two decades with Ocean, seeks compensatory damages of up to $21 million for his termination and the bank’s alleged campaign to damage his reputation and limit his earning potential in the tight-knit South Florida banking community. “The actions of Concepcion and the bank were carried out with the intent to harm the plaintiff and with malice and with the ulterior purpose of bringing to a halt the plaintiff’s objections to the improprieties at Ocean Bank,” according to the suit filed in Miami-Dade County Circuit Court by Miami lawyers Mark Raymond and Thomas J. Rebull of Broad and Cassel. An Ocean Bank spokeswoman declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing company policy not to discuss pending litigation. Concepcion was vacationing out of the country and could not be reached for comment. From the bank, the suit seeks up to $10 million in compensatory damages for wrongful termination and $1 million for back pay. Bichara also wants up to $10 million in compensatory damages from Concepcion for tortious interference with business relationships. “Mr. Bichara was terminated for refusing to participate and remain quiet when confronted with wrongdoing by the bank,” Raymond said in an interview. “He is the quintessential career banker. Everything is by the book.” Ocean’s primary shareholders are Venezuelan’s Agostinho de Sousa Macedo and Benigno Perez-Concepcion. The bank is one of the most profitable banks in the nation, enjoying a return on assets of 1.62 percent as the industry strives for the norm of 1.2 percent. Ocean, which earned $79.2 million last year, has a bullish reputation locally for being the first financing source to approach when trying to develop a property or finance a commercial venture. Bichara, 53, alleges he was wrongfully fired and then humiliated when police escorted him out of the bank’s headquarters a day after contesting Concepcion’s order against alerting federal banking regulators and law enforcement to “improper practices” at the bank, the suit says. The lawsuit was filed following months of negotiations in which Bichara sought a severance package. His 1995 employment contract set his base salary and pension through his scheduled retirement in 2016. Bichara claims in the suit he was fired after demanding the regulatory filing of a “suspicious activity report” upon discovering Concepcion had permitted bank officers to misuse Ocean’s medical insurance reimbursement plan to pay for their children’s private school tuition. The suit did not name the officers who allegedly used insurance money to pay for school tuition. Bichara also planned to notify regulators that employees were being forced to perform tasks for a title company owned by an undisclosed Ocean officer, according to the suit. Under Concepcion’s leadership, Ocean allegedly created a racially discriminatory employment environment that triggered an investigation by the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Agency. The lawsuit accuses Concepcion of openly ridiculing the bank’s few African-American employees and referring to one lending assistant who is a black as “la negrita,” Spanish for “the black girl,” according to the suit. Tanisha Lawrence, the lending assistant, was hired by Bichara and was demoted shortly after he was fired. Lawrence later followed Bichara to Premier American Bank where she is a lending assistant. She could not be reached for comment before press time. The suit claims Concepcion systematically demoralized blacks hired by Bichara with racial slurs made to them and their colleagues. “Concepcion made comments reflecting an underlying racial bias against African-Americans and � carried out adverse personnel actions against African-American employees who had either been recruited by plaintiff or had been supported by the plaintiff in their work activities at the bank,” according to the suit. In another example, Ledger Kellier, who is black and served as a vice president at the bank for seven years, was the subject of derogatory ethnic comments. “He frequently made presentations to the bank’s executive loan committee after which Concepcion would make derogatory comments regarding Mr. Kellier’s ethnicity,” according to the suit. Bichara “championed the cause of Mr. Kellier’s, pointing out to Concepcion on various occasions the quality of the work performed by Mr. Kellier and his efforts to produce good loans.” Kellier said he was terminated a few days after Bichara was fired. “I felt what happened to him was not right,” said Kellier, who refused to say where he currently works. “I asked about it and the following day I was gone.” Kellier said a racially discriminatory environment existed at Ocean Bank, but he refused to elaborate, citing a confidentiality agreement that he signed as part of his termination. He was fired “a few days” after Bichara, the suit says. Bichara also accuses Concepcion of steering many of Ocean’s real estate transactions for branch locations to his son, who is a real estate broker, so he could collect hefty commissions. Sergio Concepcion, who is not named in the suit, is the broker for Mayor Realty in western Miami-Dade. He confirmed he has handled business for Ocean Bank but declined to detail the procedures used to select his firm or to answer specific questions about his work for Ocean. After Bichara’s firing, Concepcion sent an memorandum to employees saying Bichara and two senior corporate lenders were fired the same day for alleged conflicts of interest resulting from private business relationships with bank clients. “While we are saddened to see their departure, Ocean Bank’s focus continues to be that which is clearly outlined in our mission statement, ‘To be the most financially sound and profitable bank in South Florida,’” according to Concepcion’s companywide memo. The conflict allegation relates to $1.8 million grossed by Bichara’s sons Andre and Daniel when they sold a 2.5-acre parcel on North Kendall Drive in Miami-Dade County in September 2003. They bought the lot from Ocean for $1.6 million and sold it four months later for nearly $3.4 million. Ocean sold the land to a corporation controlled by the Bichara brothers after it built a branch at 10950 N. Kendall Drive on an adjacent 2.1 acres. Ocean bought the land in the late 1990s in a deal brokered by Concepcion’s son, the suit says. Bichara contends he properly disclosed his sons’ role to the bank. Supporting papers filed with the lawsuit include a copy of minutes from two bank board meetings where the offer from the sons based on three appraisals was discussed and approved. The suit calls the price the highest possible. The sale killed lower offers of $950,000 and $1.25 million generated by Concepcion’s son. Bichara “objected to and advised Concepcion that such a transaction — while yielding a commission to Concepcion’s son — was not in the best interest of the bank because the property was still worth more than the revised offer,” according to the suit. Ocean chairman de Sousa is a long-distance overseer. He lives in Venezuela, speaks limited English and travels to Miami for board meetings. In recent months, he has begun regularly sending his son Alfonso to the bank to keep an eye on things. The son is a banker with de Sousa’s Banco Plaza in Venezuela. Some of the bank’s independent directors hired Miami banking attorney Alcides Avila as outside counsel earlier this year to represent them for an unknown purpose. Directors are typically represented by bank attorneys. Bichara’s suit followed a lawsuit by a Venezuelan investor who claims the bank and a director played a role in her losing out on an undeveloped 98-acre tract in western Broward County, Fla. The director and others then allegedly bought the Davie property near Flamingo Road and Orange Drive and resold it five months later for $2.5 million more than they paid. The 2-year-old case is pending in Miami-Dade Circuit Court. Bichara’s suit alleges the bank’s firing and its attacks on his reputation devastated his future earning potential, including his ability to collect bonuses, fringe benefits, insurance and other perks. In South Florida banking, Bichara went from being promised the top spot at Florida’s largest state-chartered commercial bank, with $4.7 billion in assets, to a job as an executive vice president and director with the Miami startup Premier American Bank, which has assets of $141 million. In 20 years at Ocean, Bichara started as vice president of corporate lending in 1984, was named a senior vice president and branch manager in 1986 and became head of corporate lending in 1997. Two years later, he was named the bank’s only executive vice president and heir apparent to Concepcion. Bichara was named a director in 2000. He was scheduled to earn a base salary of $168,164 plus bonuses this year. In his last full year, he earned a $550,000 bonus in 2003. Premier American’s total first-quarter salary expense was $517,000, according to Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. data. The suit claims Bichara’s firing should be reversed under a state whistleblower law protect employees who refuse to condone illegal activity. The suit claims Bichara’s firing was tied in part to his willingness to hire and promote African-Americans. The suit alleges that Concepcion resisted hiring African-Americans even after the EEOC launched the investigation in 1997 asserting Ocean “appeared to be discriminating in failing to recruit and hire African Americans into the professional and clerical work categories within the bank because of race.” Only five of Ocean’s 682 employees, or less than 1 percent, were African-American in 1997, the suit says. Bichara claims he tried to personally change the hiring record before then. The EEOC ended its investigation in 2001 with a finding that blacks accounted for 22, or 2 percent, of the bank’s 911-member work force, according to the suit. “I can’t confirm or deny that any charge was filed against Ocean Bank,” said Delner Franklin-Thomas, regional attorney for the Miami EEOC district office. “What I can tell you is that there is no litigation in the federal court.”

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