Gary E. Bitner, left,of Bitner Goodman and former partner Michael Goodman. Goodman went on his own to form Goodman Public Relations
Gary E. Bitner, left,of Bitner Goodman and former partner Michael Goodman. Goodman went on his own to form Goodman Public Relations ()

One partner at Fort Lauderdale public relations firm Bitner Goodman Inc. is suing the other partner, claiming the company was plundered on video.

Michael Goodman is accused in a Broward Circuit Court lawsuit by Gary Bitner of looting their company.

Bitner described a startling betrayal by his partner of 10 years in a breach of fiduciary duty complaint filed Monday by his attorney, Michael Kean of Berman, Kean & Riguera in Fort Lauderdale.

After employing Goodman since 1995, Bitner made him a partner in 2003, and the company became Bitner Goodman Inc. Each held a 50 percent interest. The firm was one of the largest marketing companies in South Florida and served clients like Simon Property Group malls, Winn-Dixie, Tri-Rail and the Seminole casinos.

Earlier this year, Goodman wanted to go his own way, and the partners began discussing the framework for his departure.

“However, when Bitner arrived at the office the morning of June 12, 2014, he was confronted with a nearly empty office,” the complaint states.

Surveillance video revealed that 17 minutes after Bitner left work the previous day, Goodman and two others—vice president of graphic communications Beth Zuckerkorn and account manager Gene Broyles—spent the next five hours carting away everything that wasn’t nailed down.

They took the company checks and account records, office furniture, 16 full file cabinets, computers, a server, supplies and petty cash, the complaint said. They even took the coffee maker and espresso machine.

“Looting of the company was so extensive and malicious that items as minor as an umbrella stand and first-aid kit had been taken. In fact, at 8:10 p.m., Goodman is seen on the surveillance video smiling as he announces to his co-conspirators that he is ‘going to take the bell’ as he smiles and walks off with the service bell,” the complaint said.

Bitner demanded the return of the property. That didn’t happen.

BoTTOm Line

Asked to respond, Goodman told the Daily Business Review that the lawsuit inaccurately portrays events. Both sides met July 3 and agreed to sell the Bitner Goodman building and another property.

“We also agreed to settle the accounting,” Goodman said. “I did not leave him inoperational at all. Then he files this lawsuit. Obviously, he’s doing what he can to discredit me.”

Goodman said he tried for a year to reach an amicable split and during that time they barely spoke to each other, interfacing almost entirely through their attorneys.

“I was not met halfway,” Goodman said.

When he moved out, he said he took what he was entitled to as a 50 percent owner. But he maintained Bitner was left with sufficient computer capacity, furniture, supplies and employees to stay in business.

“The bottom line for me is at some point it became necessary to protect my interests and to leave,” Goodman said.

Bitner also claims Goodman’s faction shut down the Bitner Goodman website and social media accounts.

Goodman, under the name Goodman Public Relations Inc., had a website and social media accounts up and running—and taking credit for work done by Bitner Goodman. Goodman’s new firm is also in Fort Lauderdale.

Bitner claims he found out only after being “plundered” that Goodman registered his new company April 30 with the secretary of state’s office.

“Bitner Goodman was required to immediately retain a third-party vendor and rehire the company’s prior bookkeeper and purchase a new computer and printer to recreate as best as possible its accounting records. At the time, Bitner discovered that various clients of the company were not invoiced for the months of May and June and, upon information and belief, Goodman and Goodman PR diverted such fees to Goodman PR,” the complaint states.

Bitner alleges unapproved checks cleared the Bitner Goodman account, and the company had to take emergency steps to protect funds.

Goodman counters that Bitner wrongfully removed him from the accounts and stopped payments on checks to vendors based on which clients each partner claimed.

Bitner accuses Zuckerkorn of refusing to return clients’ commercial art files, leaving Bitner Goodman unable to provide services to clients. Zuckerkorn also was “largely responsible” for orchestrating the removal of Bitner Goodman social media sites “and has been instrumental in ensuring that the sites remained offline,” the complaint alleges.

Causes of action against the three individual defendants and Goodman PR include breach of fiduciary duty, conversion, tortious interference, civil conspiracy and a demand for an accounting.