One of the reasons I began blogging several years ago was… well… I actually can’t tell you that because I don’t remember. I’m sure that, at the time, I saw it as an alternative to sending out email updates about my life. Somewhere early along the journey, my purpose changed and I began to not only chronicle my life, but what God was doing within it.
I realize now that it’s not as much what I thought God was doing at that moment, but how far along he’s brought me upon the path that I’ve walked. I’ve seen how my writing has improved over time, but more importantly, I’ve noticed how my response to adversity is different. Glancing at my past struggles, I see a “bring it on!” mentality in my tone and words. There was also an arrogance I had back then. Today, I know that my passion is still there, but it is tempered with the patience, wisdom, and humility that only life’s darkest moments can produce.
I don’t have to over-react anymore because I know God is in control at all times.
That last sentence was so important that it got its own paragraph. I even italicized that part that you really needed to pay attention to. There will be a test at the end of this post.
Anyway, the reason I bring this up is because I had a portion of my past recently resurface. This was something that I’d moved on from and almost forgotten, except as told in brief, anecdotal stories to friends about my life history. And here it was, knocking on my door and wanting to be let back in.
Exactly five years ago, I worked for a company called Teacher’s Choice, which was dba (doing business as) Scholastic ETV Consortium. My big boss was a man named Mykalai Kontilai, whom I dealt with nearly daily. I began on Monday, August 29th, 2005 and was wrongfully terminated less than four weeks later on Thursday, September 22nd.
If you would like to go back and read any of the original posts, they are chronicled (warts and all) right here:
- August 26th, 20005 – “I Hope This is God’s Will…” (got the job)
- October 6th, 2005 – “This Is My Life…” (this is the big blog post)
- November 3rd, 2005 – “It’s hard to have faith…” (brief mention)
- April 5th, 2006 – “Private little war…” (telephone threat)
- April 6th, 2006 – “Battle of the legal terms…” (bonus post)
Upon reviewing my old blog posts, I noticed my previous demeanor. While it doesn’t invalidate the facts of the case, I feel that it does cloud them as the rantings of an angry man. Since this situation has passed by the wayside over the years, my emotions are no longer involved and I can discuss this from a calmer point of view without the emotional involvement I had before.
You might ask, “why are you bring this up now?” Good question! I’d like to point you to an article on Current.org about my former employer, Mykalai Kontilai. Last week, this article was brought to my attention. Reading this caused me to dig into my data archives and resurrected old documents and emails, rehashing what happened to me five years ago. Everything backs up what I’ve said previously in my blogs. I was even reminded of a couple of things that I had forgotten, thanks to various notes I had written to myself.
The following are my experiences working for Mykalai Kontilai and Teacher’s Choice/Scholastic ETV Consortium. They are true and I am willing to testify under oath and penalty of perjury as to the accuracy of these facts.
I began working for Mykalai that last week of August 2005. Within two weeks, I began having misgivings about the work environment and leadership, but was not prepared to quit just yet. The office itself was nice, but fairly small with only a handful of employees. Aside from Mykalai and myself: there was Sam, another salesman who would be made my supervisor; the office manager, Susan Botella; DJ, who handled all of the video capturing and dubbing (I had actually applied for his job originally); and the IT guy, I think was named Richard. Once in a while, Mykalai’s wife would man the reception desk.
At first, I didn’t have an office or desk. I sat in the conference room and made all of my phone calls on the big table. The laptop that they tried to give me was extremely old and slow, so I got permission to use my personal laptop. At one point, I remember them trying to revoke that privilege, but I managed to always do at least some of my work on my own machine. Whenever I asked about needing software that wasn’t installed on their laptop, I was given a CD with a hand-written label. It appeared to me as if it might be pirated. I inquired to Susan about this at one point, in a non-accusatory manner, and was brushed off. Sometime shortly before my termination I had access to my employee file, which contained a post-it note about this conversation. Why was it so important to document that fact that I casually asked if we had licenses for all of our software? In fact, I know that the copy of Final Cut Pro being used wasn’t legal, because there was a major problem that DJ was having and there was a hallway conversation about not being able to contact Apple about the problem because they didn’t procure it legally. All of this leads me to believe that this company was guilty of software piracy. After my termination, I reported them to a couple of different agencies, including directly to Apple.
We interrupt this stroll down memory lane to make a side note. I mentioned above how I didn’t have a proper computer to use and none of the software appeared legal. Well, it should be interesting to know that the front desk had a nice monitor/HDTV to entertain the “receptionist” and Mykalai also drove a nice, new Hummer H2. Seems a bit off-balance, if you ask me. We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming already in progress.
One of the things I noted at the time was how the company was a Nevada corporation, but it only operated within California. Now, I don’t want to harp on this much because I personally do not know if they were paying CA State franchise tax or not, but I know a lot of people think they can avoid it by incorporating in another state, but tax is still owed for where you operate. All I want to say is that, if no state tax was ever paid to California, this is another area where they broke the law.
From September 7th through the 9th, I was on a trip to Illinois to speak with WSEC in Springfield and WEIU in Charleston. This was a preliminary trip to pave the way for my actual presentations to school districts. WEIU had changed general managers since joining the program and didn’t understand how it worked. WSEC was having misgivings and was threatening to pull out of the contract. I was sent to help smooth things out. In the case of WSEC, we were going to bring Mykalai in via a conference call.
Earlier that day, Mykalai informed me that I was to refer to him as Robert Hoffman while on the call. Hoffman was supposedly one of the company’s partners (although I never met him) and “gave him permission to speak on his behalf” in these types of situations. He said that WSEC would be more comfortable talking to Hoffman than Mykalai, so I needed to make sure to keep up the charade. This is something that I was not comfortable with, but I didn’t really have time to voice my dissent and went along with everything. The meeting went well, but I felt as if I was lying to the client.
We will return to WSEC, as it is a major component in the story, but I want to be chronological with how I present the facts.
Returning to San Diego, I wrote a trip report, as requested by Sam. In it, I am very clear that I was uncomfortable with the Mykalai/Hoffman role playing and outright said that I would not do so again under any circumstances. I was standing my ground and later verbally reprimanded for it. This trip report is a document that I found in my archives and will happily share it with the public, if requested.
There was a second time that I was reprimanded, this time in writing. I had forgotten about this incident until I found the document dated Thursday, September 15th. This was probably a stupid thing to write, but I lashed out as their reprimand. The gist of the story is that I had a certain amount of school districts that I had to call for my regions in Illinois. Sam was on the road and asked me to call some of his districts, which I believe were in a later time zone. I prioritized my calls first and, when Sam called to follow up, I told him that I hadn’t gotten to his calls yet, but they were in my queue. He became upset and wrote me up upon his return. My argument was that I was doing my best to prioritize my job and get everything I needed done.
This was not the only incident of the company not allowing employees to use their best judgment in doing their job. A very sore topic for me was how I took notes. At first, I was using a MS Word document to detail who I called and when. I would type as I talked to them. Susan tried to force me into using paper and pen on more than one occasion. I always resisted, saying that I knew my own workflow and that I was a faster typist than I was by handwriting. My method also avoided having to type my written notes at the end of the day. In fact, I began creating a simple database in my personal time to help streamline efforts. What we really needed was to centralize our efforts with a CMS solution, like Salesforce. Unfortunately, my efforts were encountered with hostility and micro-management. This continued after Sam became my superior (which happened while I was still in Illinois) and Susan should have had no say in how I did my work.
The events that lead to my termination all happened over the course of two to three days. First, I received an email from Sue Lovdahl at WSEC on Tuesday, September 20th. It listed possible sites to hold the presentation. The way it was supposed to work was that the PBS station sets up the details of the meeting (where, when, refreshments, etc.) and ETV Consortium (i.e., myself as the account rep) would call all of their local school districts to invite them to hear what we had to say. I mentioned that the sites looked good and asked if they had contacted any of them yet (referring to the hotel locations, NOT the districts). Somehow, they thought I meant it the other way around. Looking at the original email, which Mykalai tried to use as his “smoking gun” evidence, I still can’t figure out how that happened. My only guess is that WSEC was still having misgivings and used this as an excuse to try getting out of the contract.
So, the misunderstanding became that I was deceiving WSEC and trying to get them to call school districts for me, when that was my job. There is no documentation to prove that. The only thing they have that suggests it, was me asking if they contacted the hotels to set everything up. In fact, I still have my database files and I can prove who I contacted when and what they said if I needed to. The fact of the matter here is that we had a misunderstanding that could have easily been corrected.
Because I knew this was a sensitive client, I didn’t just shoot back an email. I waited to speak with Mykalai about the situation and get his advice. He gave me a line to use and I called Sue at WSEC up and left her a voicemail, which said exactly what I was told to say. I was then called by another person at WSEC, Jerry Greubel, and gave him the same line. Something about what I said (I honestly can’t remember what it is to this day, but I know it was something that Mykalai told me to say) set Jerry off. He wanted to vent. I was then told not to communicate with the client until Mykalai sorted everything out.
Within a couple of hours, I had been let go. My letter of termination was filled with all of the lies above, saying that I jeopardized the relationship with their client. I tried to ask questions and Susan evaded them (she fired me herself because Sam was still on the road). I was adamant that what was written was untrue and I tried to defend myself. I asked to speak with Sam, my direct supervisor, and I was denied. I asked to speak with Mykalai before I left and I was again denied. In the end, I refused to sign the document, grabbed my stuff, and got out of there as quickly as possible. The only other time I stepped onto the premises was to exchange my door key for my final paycheck.
There was some brief communication with Mykalai after I left. He called (yeah, I finally got to talk to him, but after I left the building) and then we emailed. In the end, he twisted the email that I referred to against me, making it sound like I said the opposite of the intent. At first, I was trying to salvage my job, but in the end I told him that I didn’t even want to work for him anymore. I was sick of being around someone so dishonest.
I also emailed my contact at WEIU. We had built a very good rapport during our meeting and we had discussed me getting involved with one of their programs and speaking to their students during my return trip. I gave her a polite “head’s up” that I was no longer working with them, but I did not know who would be taking over for me. I initially offered no details about what happened and made contact from my personal email account so that we could remain in contact for non-Scholastic matters. Her response began with “the changeover of staff [at Scholastic ETV Consortium] is getting a little ridiculous.” In the end, I told her my story. She said that I had been very clear with her about roles and duties, so she wasn’t sure herself how this misunderstanding with the other station could have happened. This news validated my position, but I kept it to myself.
A week later—on Wednesday, September 28th—I received a phone call from Mykalai. He said that he was getting reports from clients that I was continuing to contact them after being terminated. Well, I only contacted one, which I mentioned above. He threatened to sue me if I didn’t stop, citing “Economic Interference” as his legal grounds. The problem I had with his threat was that I hadn’t interfered, I had contacted her to stay in touch and told her what happened. I did not tell her to break her $200K contract with Mykalai. My email records prove this. And even if I did contact her to try and win her business to a competing company, Mykalai would have no grounds to sue me anyway—not even if I had signed a non-compete agreement when I was hired! One of the things I learned in college business classes was that those agreements are unenforceable because it inhibits a worker from practicing their trade. In the end, I signed no such document and did no such interfering. I would have loved to prove that in court, too.
So, some time passed. I had to call and threaten to report them to the IRS because they didn’t send my W-2 by the end of that January. On March 6th, I stumbled across a post on the Labor Law Talk forums. It was from a woman who was hired after my termination and she had some problems getting her final paycheck when she quit. Now, I admit that my response was kinda stupid. I used my last name as my username and wrote, “Mykalai’s a bastard, huh? You should sue him.” I then wrote a couple of other pieces of information so she knew I was legit and offered to email with her if she wanted to talk.
Between my original blog post about my termination and this forum thread (I got into a discussion with someone about the entire CA tax issue), I had gotten the attention of Mykalai again. It was Saturday, April 1st when he called me. As I look back, it makes perfect sense for him to call me on April Fool’s Day (not because it was a prank, but because I think he is a fool). I’m not going to list the entire conversation (you can read that here), but he was once again threatening to sue me. An important line to note was, “I am going to hunt you down. I am going to take you for everything you are worth, not that it’s much because you are penniless.”
Did you catch that? He was going to hunt me down. The funny thing is, at the time, I only had a mailbox that he could find. I never published my residence and was careful not to place the name of the company I worked at online. In order to serve me papers, he would have to show up at my mailbox, which I infrequently checked and often late at night after hours. So, he really would have had to hunt me down.
Needless to say, I never heard from him. My reasoning at the time, which still sounds solid, was that he wouldn’t have called himself if he had a real case. His lawyer would have just filed papers and served me. The only thing he accomplished was intimidating me into make the blog private so only MySpace friends could see it (that’s where it was hosted at the time) and caused me to look over my shoulder for a few months whenever I got my mail. I’m not afraid of him anymore, so the blog is once again public.
Now, if you haven’t read the Current article yet, make sure to do so. It tells us how his company just bought the Nightly Business Report, a revered PBS financial program that has been on air since 1979. It talks about the 20+ lawsuits filed against Mykalai over a period of 20 years, several for breach of contract. It describes his involvement in raising funds for Xyience founder Russell Pike and his lawsuit to stop an investor from getting their money back.
I must admit that the Xyience-related lawsuit raises a red flag for me. Allow me to quote a section from the article:
Pike had been out of prison for about four years at that point. Pike’s previous company, Advanced Cart Technology, which manufactured drink carts for casinos, had declared bankruptcy in 1996; Pike had been indicted on charges of bank fraud, money laundering and aiding and abetting in connection with the company, according to a California Department of Corporations document. He pleaded guilty to money laundering in 1999 and was sentenced to 59 months in federal prison, three years of supervised release and ordered to pay restitution of $2.4 million, the document said.
Okay, so let’s connect the dots. Mykalai helped raise $23M for Pike, an ex-con convicted of bank fraud and money laundering. Mykalai has a history of dishonest business practices (as personally experienced by me) and a string of lawsuits against him and his companies. Mykalai agreed to give money back to an investor, who called him a “crook” and threatened to expose him to legal authorities. Mykalai then sues to stop the investors from being able to speak out against him. Now, Mykalai is overseeing a revered financial news program on PBS. Are we seeing the problem here?
I’m sorry, but something stinks.
Update 9/8/2010: The story continues here. Make sure to read it.