Witness Calls Workplace Cult-Like
SUIT: EMPLOYEES REQUIRED TO WALK ACROSS COALS, TAKE PART IN SHOUTING SESSIONS
By Tracy M. Neal (Northwest Arkansas News)
BENTONVILLE — An expert witness testified an ex- minority owner in Premier Concepts is recovering from what she called a cult-like environment at the business.
Janja Lalich, sociology professor at California State University-Chico, testified Wednesday and Thursday during the jury trial in Milton Edmund Scott’s lawsuit against Premier Concepts, whose principal office is in Bentonville.
Darren Horton, Ray Pearce, Steve Freeman, Josh Wilson and Alan Main also were named as defendants in the 2006 suit. Scott’s suit seeks unspecified monetary damages for breach of fiduciary duties, breach of contract, outrage, deceit, civil conspiracy and unjust enrichment.
Scott was a shareholder and co-owner in the company with Horton, Pearce, Freeman, Wilson and Main.
The suit concerns Scott’s 2006 departure from the company. Scott was a shareholder and was on the company’s management team. Scott began complaining about what he described as excessive salaries for upper management members. The suit claims Scott was told to retire. When he refused, the other five shareholders voted to expel him from the company.
According to the complaint, Scott claims Horton, the company’s chief executive officer, and Pearce, the president, established a corporate culture based on accumulation of power, forced conformity, intimidation, secrecy and fear as they attempted to make themselves indispensable and led other members to believe their livelihood was tied to the men’s success.
The suit claims all shareholders and some employees were required to take part in New Age training exercises conducted by the Rapport Leadership Institute.
The suit says shareholders and employees were required to:
· Walk barefoot across a 20-foot-long pit of hot coals
· Participate in mentally and physically exhausting marathon shouting sessions
· Submit to excessive
· peer pressure
· Participate in exercises such as climbing 6 feet into the air and falling backward into the outstretched arms of other participants
Lalich compared the training to a cult. Lalich said she was in a cult for several years before she was able to leave the group.
Lalich said she interviewed Scott and believes he had several symptoms of a person recovering from a cult-like experience. Lalich said Scott was depressed, confused and ashamed when she first talked with him. “He felt guilty,” Lalich said. “He was constantly apologizing for what happened.”
She also said Scott was under undue duress, especially when it came to him signing documents.
Lalich said she spoke with former employees and viewed documents to reach her conclusion about the company.
On Friday, the jury listened and watched a video recording as Larry Zepp was questioned by attorneys. Zepp was a territory manager and regional manager for the company from 1998 to 2007.
Zepp said the company began using Rapport in 2004 when Horton took the helm of the company. Zepp said he went to three different Rapport training sessions.
He said he walked across hot coals and fell backward off a platform into the arms of other territory managers. Zepp also said he once participated in a sharing session where employees disclosed extremely personal information about themselves — from cheating on their spouses to alcoholism.
Zepp said Premier employees were prohibited from saying the word “try” and had to do a “cockroach dance” if the word was said.
“It was very degrading,” Zepp said.
Zepp said one of the reasons he left the company was because he didn’t like the direction senior management was taking the company.
The jury spent the remainder of Friday afternoon watching another video recording of another witness.
Alonzo Heath, who works for a company that does business with Premier, said in the video recording he attended a Rapport training session.
Heath said he would not compare the activities at Rapport to a cult. Heath said he would consider sending one of his sons to a Rapport program for teenagers.
The jury also saw photographs of some of Premier’s training exercises.
One male juror apparently said “I’ve been there” when a photograph was handed to him by another juror. Circuit Judge Jon Comstock then recessed court and had a bailiff bring the juror back into the courtroom where Comstock questioned him about the remark.
“It’s humiliation,” the juror replied, and explained he had seen similar exercises while serving in the military.
The juror said his military experiences would not impact his decision-making concerning the case. He was allowed to remain on the jury.
The trial is expected to last into next week.