PR firm, employment giant square off in court over who is right after a hiring went very wrong

Shootout at the e-mail trail

February 27, 2007|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,Sun reporter

There may be few things like a public relations firm scorned.

The Rosen Group, a Baltimore-based publishing and marketing company, hired a bookkeeper in 2003 through the employee placement giant Spherion. But no one at Spherion had checked the bookkeeper's references - they were fake - and Rosen Group officials later suspected Raheim Jackson of stealing from them, according to attorneys involved in the dispute.

President Wendy Rosen was none too pleased about Jackson, who was later indicted. And court papers show she fought back with a most powerful weapon: her Rolodex.

The civil case brought to trial this week in U.S. District Court pits Rosen, a scrappy local marketing executive who specializes in representing artists, against one of the nation's leading employment company, a firm, she says, that failed to do the most basic parts of its job.

Spherion claims, in turn, that Rosen crossed the line, turning her complaints into a "campaign of extortion" that defamed the well-respected company.

In a series of widely circulated e-mails cited in court papers. Rosen railed to colleagues and associates about Spherion and her own loss, estimated at $127,000. She demanded that the company at least return the $5,500 placement fee she doled out to hire Jackson.

Or else.

"One week and we'll let the dogs out," Rosen wrote in an e-mail forwarded to Spherion and cited in court filings.

In another recounted e-mail threatening to tell others - reporters, business leaders, potential clients - about the episode, she boasted of her connections: "I have a database with thousands of Baltimore area business e-mail addresses. In addition, hubby owns the largest office furniture company in the area."

Rosen headlined yet another e-mail to businesses "Spherion Placed a Thief in my Business."

When her bare-knuckle missives failed to persuade Spherion to pay out - she also toyed with a "camera-friendly" picketing campaign - Rosen went public and told her story to a magazine.

That sent Spherion straight into federal court in 2004, when the company sued the Rosen Group, originally under civil racketeering law. The judge dismissed the racketeering claim but left a defamation count for the jury to consider.

"Ladies and gentlemen, this case is about vengeance," Spherion attorney Raymond C. Baldwin told jurors yesterday.

In the same case, the Rosen Group countersued, saying Spherion was negligent by placing Jackson with the publishing and PR firm in the first place.

Now a jury of seven women and one man will consider both claims. It must decide whether Spherion was victimized by a smear campaign or whether the employment company was negligent in failing to do its job for the Rosen Group and sending along a questionable hire.

As lawyer Susan Q. Amiot told jurors yesterday, the Rosen Group believes Spherion, a company that boasted of its "world-class screening process," failed miserably.

If the company had only checked Jackson's background as promised, "they would have never placed him," Amiot said.

The controversy started four years ago when Jackson submitted an application to Spherion's Baltimore office.

"For over 60 years, Spherion has been providing recruiting and staffing excellence by connecting the right employees with the right companies. More than 375,000 employees discovered us as their employer of choice last year," says the company's Web site.

Baldwin insisted yesterday that the Rosen Group did not request a criminal background search. But the lawyer also conceded that the employment company did not check Jackson's references.

If they had, they might have discovered that Jackson was convicted of committing financial crimes when he served in the Army, military records show.

Jackson's resume listed his enrollment in an MBA program at Morgan State University, but Rosen Group lawyers say he was never a student.

He told Spherion that he left his job at the Salvation Army because the position was seasonal. But in court papers, Rosen Group alleged he had been fired.

Indeed, the lawyers said that the Salvation Army reported Jackson's alleged theft from the organization to authorities a full month before Spherion placed Jackson with the Rosen Group.

In March 2003, Jackson arrived at Rosen on a temporary basis to help balance the books. Federal prosecutors said his theft started soon after.

In a federal indictment handed up last month, Jackson is accused of stealing 27 company checks and using them for his own benefit. He is due back in court Thursday on motions that his statements to authorities should be thrown out. His attorney did not return a call for comment yesterday.

Jackson, according to Rosen's lawyers, wrote checks to pay his rent, his insurance company, his bail bondsman, his family and a car dealer for a 2003 Lexus SUV.

"Jackson was not who he said he was," Amiot said at the civil trial yesterday. The company fired Jackson in July 2003, alleging he stole thousands.

His theft left the Rosen Group "in a tailspin," according to the lawyer.

"What did they do for their fee?" Amiot asked.

But Spherion lawyers painted a different picture, quoting extensively from Rosen's increasingly belligerent e-mails and arguing they imperiled the company's future.

"Spherion's success depends in large part on its ability to attract a wide range of customers and candidates, based upon its business reputation and good will," the company's lawyers wrote in court papers.

matthew.dolan@baltsun.com

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