MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Gambling, sports betting and big money deals. It’s not happening at a casino, but allegedly at an MLGW building where business is supposed to be going on.
“It was like a miniature casino,” says former employee Sam Barnett.
He has plenty to say about what he calls a gambling ring that was being run by a General Foreman at MLGW’s South Center.
“The catch was you have to knock three or four times and then go in there. That was their code when they was gambling,” says Barnett.
Barnett worked as a crew leader for MLGW’s water division for almost 23 years.
He told WREG about the set up that sounds a lot like loan sharking, offering people gambling loans at very high interest.
“He would have his own casino, and he would get a cut on everything. Like, say if I get $1,000, he would charge you 50 cents on the dollar. That would come to $1,500,” says Barnett.
He says the foreman was also burning and selling illegal CD’s and tapes all from right inside his MLGW office. And football betting brought in even more money,
“Every year they do a football pool for the Super Bowl. The whole pot is $20,000. But he gets a cut for making the sheets. He will get $10,000.”
Barnett says when workers started spending their paychecks in the gambling room and ended up in debt to the General Foreman he decided to blow the whistle.
He says Human Resources officials made promises, but the gambling continued.
Barnett says he even met with MLGW’s new president, J.T. Young, who promised to investigate the claims.
But after 3 months Sam Barnett was suspended and then fired, a year after he exposed the gambling.
The IBEW Union calls it retaliation and is standing with Barnett.
“We find it suspicious that Mr. Barnett would be terminated for what they claimed were performance issues. But they only started looking at his performance after he blew the whistle on what was going on at the South Service Center,” says Bill Hawkins with IBEW Union.
The union says 12 other workers planned to come forward during a hearing to corroborate the claims, but only 3 actually did.
“The other people that wouldn’t testify told us, I am scared for my job. I am scared something is going to happen to me,” says Hawkins.
WREG spent months trying to get MLGW to respond to the claims. We also requested to review employee files .
The response was an invoice that said in order to see the files we sent under a Freedom of Information Act request, we would have to pay $780 for the cost.
After several requests, MLGW did eventually send us this written reprimand issued to General Foreman David Suggars.
It said there was insufficient evidence to support the allegations of running a money loaning operation or gambling operation and burning bootleg CD’s on MLGW property.
But they did say David Suggars admitted to coordinating and taking money from subordinates for a football pool.
We took our questions to MLGW’s President, J.T. Young,
“I am not sure I know all the information associated with it. I know that information that pertained to what was alleged was provided to our folks in HR for that investigation,” says Young.
But the union says Barnett was fired. And if it was for performance as he was told, in similar situations they say a worker would be demoted not fired. They still contend it’s retaliation for blowing the whistle.
“I have said then and I will say again, we don’t tolerate any form of retaliation,” says Young.
“I am the only one got the short end of the stick for telling the truth,” says Barnett.
Barnett is fighting to get his job back. But he has also hired a lawyer. He says after 23 years of work and close to being able to retire, he is not walking away.
He wants those managers responsible held accountable.
Thursday afternoon WREG Investigators were allowed to look at MLGW’s file on this case. According to the file, only one of 12 employees interviewed admitted to knowing anything about the loan sharking and selling CD’s.
The report also showed the utility set up surveillance cameras to see if gambling was going on and the cameras didn’t catch anything. But officials admitted the employees figured out the hidden cameras were there.
WREG learned claims of a similar “loan sharking” case involving a MLGW supervisor back in the 1990’s at another center was found to be true. The union says managers were demoted and the whistleblower, back then, got his job back.