Robert Balewicz, the Hermitage’s former real estate manager and principal broker of Hermitage Club Realty has filed a “whistleblower retaliation complaint” with the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Balewicz’s complaint, filed under the federal Consumer Financial Protection Act, alleges that he was fired in retaliation for reporting alleged illegal accounting activities and “kickbacks” in the form of illegal real estate referral fees. Balewicz says he reported the alleged irregularities to the Hermitage Club’s legal department, accounting department, human resources, and the club’s founder, James Barnes.
It was after reporting to the human resources department that his employment was terminated on December 18, Balewicz says.
Balewicz says he was expected to pay a “referral fee” to a senior vice president at the Hermitage for the sale of an “off-campus property,” meaning non-Hermitage property, to a club member. In an email exchange provided by Balewicz, the Hermitage Club official asks Balewicz to “Please advise the amount and timing of my referral fee payment.”
A week later, according to the email, Balewicz responded in writing to an office visit from the Hermitage vice president, telling him that he would pay no referral fee, and that paying such a fee would be illegal under applicable real estate law.
According to Balewicz, under the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act of 1974, such a referral fee can only be made between two licensed realtors. In the email, Balewicz alludes to a conversation with the vice president suggesting that the “referral fees” had been paid regularly before the incident in the allegation.
In a December 16 email to the same Hermitage Club official, Balewicz says that Barnes “threatened” his employment for reporting the alleged violations, and that Balewicz had taken further steps to report the alleged activities. “I’m informing you that to protect my own Vermont Real Estate Commission Real Estate license, I have filed a formal complaint with the Vermont Real Estate Commission and the Vermont Office of Professional Regulation regarding the practices of the Hermitage Deerfield Valley Real Estate and yourself.” The email also names two additional real estate personnel.
Balewicz says he met with the Hermitage human resources director at about the same time, on December 15 and 16, regarding allegations of workplace harassment that Balewicz and another employee, former managing director of hospitality John Santaniello, say involved Barnes. Balewicz and Santaniello say they have filed a complaint with the Vermont Attorney General’s office regarding the workplace harassment. Citing their attorney’s advice, Balewicz and Santaniello declined to comment further on the harassment allegations.
Balewicz says his employment was terminated on December 18, shortly after his meeting with the human resources department. “I was getting shook down,” Balewicz said. “They wanted kickbacks, and when I told them it was illegal, nobody was doing anything to mitigate this illegal activity. When I told human resources, I was out in three days after (Barnes) conjured up a performance review. I had only been there four months, and other people I talked to had never had one.”
In response to an inquiry about the allegations, the Hermitage Club said they “vehemently deny any wrong doing,” and say they have also filed complaints regarding Balewicz. “The Hermitage Club does not, as a matter of policy, comment on personnel matters,” a company representative said. “We will confirm, however, that the complainant was terminated for cause after following institution of, and a failure to meet, the terms of a performance improvement plan, and after consumer complaints against the employee were brought to light. Hermitage Club Realty has also filed numerous complaints with the Vermont Real Estate Commission concerning the employee in connection with alleged illegal real estate practices, improper transfer of real estate listings, and inappropriate escrow procedures.”
Balewicz responded that the Hermitage Club’s allegations were “spin,” and said the “transfer of real estate listings” the Hermitage Club called improper was actually an automatic action by the New England Real Estate Network’s Multiple Listing Service.
The listings could not stay with Hermitage Club Realty because, Balewicz said, when he left the firm there was no broker of record, and Hermitage Club Realty was considered inactive until a new broker was named.
Balewicz also said there were no transactions requiring escrow during his tenure, and that, to his knowledge, Barnes was the only person with access to the escrow account.