HELENA, Montana — The FBI and the U.S. Department of Labor are investigating the bankruptcy of a Montana appliance and electronics store that rendered its Employee Stock Ownership Plan worthless.
The FBI notified former Vann's Inc. employees who participated in the plan of the investigation in letters sent last week.
Investigators are asking the former employees if they believed or were told the stock plan was intended to provide for their retirement and how the loss of the stock program affected them. It also asks former employees to describe any interactions they had with former CEO George Manlove and former CFO Paul Nisbet that they felt were questionable and if they would be willing to testify in court.
FBI victim specialist Jeannette Miller, who sent the letter, did not return a call from The Associated Press seeking comment. A Department of Labor spokesman did not respond to a request to explain the scope of the investigation, and an FBI media contact did not return an email seeking comment.
Last year, Manlove, Nisbet and others settled a lawsuit filed on behalf of 200 former employees who said gross mismanagement of the company cost them $9.2 million in stock losses.
The lawsuit said Manlove and Nisbet, as trustees of the stock ownership plan, violated the Employee Retirement Income Security Act by making reckless business decisions and by personally profiting at the plan's expense.
Specifically, the lawsuit said that between 2007 and 2012, Vann's made excessive rent payments for store properties owned by limited liability companies of which Manlove, Nisbet and others were members. It also said that Vann's made more than $4 million in improvements on those properties, which were eventually to be owned by the companies.
The bankruptcy trustee's lawsuit argued Vann's had more than $8 million in cash on hand in 2007 and that employees had more than $11 million in stock value. The company filed for bankruptcy in August 2012.
The lawsuit was settled in December for $7.4 million.
A spokesman for the Holland and Hart law firm in Billings, which represented Manlove and Nisbet in the trustee's lawsuit, said the firm did not have the authority to comment on their behalf about the investigation. No one returned a message left for George Manlove at his photography business in Eagle, Idaho. There is no current phone listing for Nisbet.
The joint FBI and Department of Labor investigation was first reported by KWYB-TV in Bozeman.