Office Depot, Employee at Odds Over Berkeley Overcharges

By Rio Bauce Special to the Planet
Thursday August 13, 2009 - 10:56:00 AM

Office Depot Berkeley is taking its fight to the media. After former account manager Earl Ante of Fremont filed a lawsuit against the company alleging that he was fired because he refused to falsify information, the company sought to present their point of view. 

Office Depot overcharged the City of Berkeley by $289,000 earlier this year. In April, the company agreed to pay back the money to the city after an internal audit. On Jan. 15, Ante filed a lawsuit that claims that top store officials encouraged him to falsify numbers after news came out that Berkeley was set to audit its expenses. 

According to a recent article in the Contra Costa Times, John McMorrow, Ante’s attorney, said that city documents nullify the company’s claims. 

“[Ante] received the instructions [to falsify data] on Oct. 24 at 1:05 p.m. on a Friday, and he refused to comply,” McMorrow said. “The following Monday, he attempted to access the company’s computer system only to find out he was locked out of the system. He then e-mailed his boss from his wife’s computer and confirmed the content of the conversation [about falsifying data] they had on Friday.” 

In a statement, Office Depot spokesman Jason Shockley disputed Ante’s charges. 

“The falsity of Mr. Ante’s lawsuit includes the fact that any overcharges to the City of Berkeley were caused by Mr. Ante himself, who was responsible for managing that relationship,” said Shockley. “In or around May 2006, Mr. Ante submitted bid documents to the City of Berkeley which purported to propose a 55 percent ‘average blended discount’ off list pricing. Yet when it came time to enter this new customer’s details into Office Depot’s computer system in July 2006, Mr. Ante set up the City of Berkeley on an entirely different price plan—one offering 10 percent off retail pricing, instead of a discount off list pricing. Mr. Ante proceeded to service the City of Berkeley account for two years without correcting his error.” 

In fact, Shockley said that Ante was fired as part of a series of budget reduction measures. 

“Mr. Ante was terminated as part of a nationwide reduction in force across Office Depot’s Business Solutions Division, which occurred in November 2008,” said Shockley. “Over two hundred employees across the United States were affected by this reduction, including Mr. Ante.” 

Overcharges to the city surfaced in October when Diane Griffin, president of Radston’s Office Supply, noticed discrepancies in the bills and submitted a 100-page analysis to the City of Berkeley. Shortly after, on Nov. 1, Ante was laid off. Ante filed his lawsuit in early January.  

After Griffin made initial findings in the report, Robert Hicks, Berkeley’s finance director, announced at a council meeting in March that Office Depot had in fact overcharged the city. After an internal audit, the company agreed to pay the city $289,000 in April. 

Griffin, whose business competed with Office Depot for a contract with the city, said that the problem is not only local. Office Depot faces legal trouble on several fronts. Five other states—Florida, Texas, Missouri, Colorado, and Ohio—are conducting investigations into the manufacturer’s governmental supply contracts. 

“It’s not just a Berkeley problem,” said Griffin. “Mr. Ante certainly stepped up and did the right thing if he refused to falsify records. … Office Depot is in national embarrassment. Attorney generals all over the country are investigating claims of wrongdoing. This is not a time when companies can be taking advantage of taxpayers. I am very hopeful that Mr. Ante will be well rewarded for stepping up and doing the right thing. This is far from being over.” 

Office Depot says that the company is cooperating with investigations in all six states. 

“We are currently cooperating with the Florida, Texas, Missouri, Colorado, California, and Ohio Attorney Generals with respect to civil investigations regarding our pricing practices,” the company said in a statement. “We are also cooperating with the U.S. Department of Defense, the Department of Education and the General Services Administration with respect to their joint investigations with the Department of Justice.” 

While the company may be in trouble on other fronts, Shockley contends that previous comments made by Hicks at an April 6 City Council meeting, praising the company’s cooperation, vindicate the office supply manufacturer. 

“The fact that the City of Berkeley remains to this day a valued customer of Office Depot demonstrates the lack of veracity in Mr. Ante’s allegations,” said Shockley.