Federal prosecutors say three former Starkey Hearing Technologies executives and two of their business associates conspired to steal more than $20 million from the Eden Prairie-based hearing aid maker over a 10-year period.
An indictment filed Wednesday charges ousted Starkey President Jerry Ruzicka, former chief financial officer Scott Nelson, and former head of human resources Larry Miller with embezzlement and mail fraud.
It alleges that they — in concert with business associates Jeffrey Taylor and Lawrence Hagen, who also were charged — moved millions of dollars illegally through shell corporations and fraudulent payments.
Prosecutors also say the executives unlawfully received bonuses, forged signatures and received illegal perks such as Ruzicka’s Jaguar and a condo that Nelson used to carry out an affair.
“The defendants carried out a complex scheme to accomplish a simple goal: to embezzle funds for their own benefit,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger said in a prepared statement announcing the indictment.
The charges come after a year of accusations and counter-charges that began when Ruzicka, who had led Starkey for 17 years, was abruptly fired by company founder and owner Bill Austin and led from the building by a sheriff’s deputy. Later, at least 20 other managers and high-ranking employees were fired, search warrants were served on Ruzicka’s and Nelson’s homes and at least four wrongful termination lawsuits were filed against Starkey, one of the world’s largest hearing-aid manufacturers.
John C. Conard, Ruzicka’s attorney, said his client “has done nothing wrong.” Miller’s attorney, Paul Engh, said the indictment “is not an accurate rendition of what happened.” Nelson declined to comment because he had not yet spoken to his attorney, and the other two defendants could not be reached for comment.
The defendants will make an initial appearance in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis later this week, federal officials said.
Starkey, which had $800 million in revenue last year, issued a statement saying the company has been cooperating with the investigation “and will continue to do so.”
“While there undoubtedly will be other developments in this matter as the prosecutions run their course, we will continue to be focused on our business, our customers and our core mission,” the statement said.
According to Luger, much of the embezzled money flowed through three sham companies: Archer Consulting, Claris Investments and Archer Acoustics.
The indictment alleges that between 2006 and 2015, Ruzicka and Taylor stole about $7.65 million through Archer Consulting. Ruzicka is accused of directing Starkey to pay Archer Consulting “commission” payments for fake sales from Sonion, one of Starkey’s major suppliers of hearing-aid components.
Taylor was president of Sonion at the time and has since been terminated.
In 2010, the indictment says, Ruzicka and Taylor changed the fraudulent payments from “commissions” to “consulting fees” and arranged for monthly fees of $75,000 to be paid to Archer Consulting.
The indictment also accuses Ruzicka, Taylor and Hagen — a one-time Starkey employee — of controlling Claris Investments and Archer Acoustics.
Prosecutors said Taylor falsely represented to the Sonion supply firm that Claris and Archer Acoustics were affiliates of Starkey and therefore eligible for discounted pricing on hearing-aid components.
The three men are accused of using the sham companies to buy discounted goods that they then resold, collecting more than $600,000 in profits, commissions and rebates they used for “their own benefit,” the charges said.
Federal authorities accused the men of a third scheme that involved Starkey’s retail affiliate, Northland US LLC, that Austin created in 2002 to buy and operate retail hearing aid outlets. Austin was Northland’s sole owner.
Beginning in 2006, the indictment charges, Ruzicka and Nelson transferred assets of the affiliate, without Austin’s knowledge, to a new entity they controlled, Northland Hearing Centers Inc.
They are accused of forging Austin’s signature to complete the transfer of assets, award themselves restricted stock and pay themselves and another individual $15 million in exchange for terminating the restricted stock grants.
Other allegations accuse Ruzicka of embezzling funds from Starkey that were used to pay his state and federal income taxes and transferring ownership of a $120,000 2011 Jaguar from Starkey to himself.
Nelson is accused of using $200,000 in Starkey funds to buy the condo and $225,000 to replenish an investment account that had been used to buy a home in Prior Lake.
“To conceal this theft, Nelson prepared a phony ‘promissory note’ to disguise this illicit payment as a loan from Starkey,” the criminal complaint said. “He never reported the ‘loan’ on Starkey’s loan register and has made no payments on the ‘loan.’ ”
Starkey officials had accused Ruzicka of theft after he filed a whistleblower and wrongful termination lawsuit in January.
In it, Ruzicka had made allegations against Austin, Austin’s wife, Tani, and stepson Brandon Sawalich of using millions of corporate funds for personal gain, of phony accounting, and of writing off personal expenses on corporate tax filings.
Former chief operating officer Keith Guggenberger and former executive assistant Julie Miller, Larry Miller’s wife, also have filed wrongful termination lawsuits.
In the spring, Luger asked the courts to stay discovery in the three lawsuits.
Luger argued that the civil fact finding process known as discovery might interfere with his investigation into possible criminal wrongdoing at Starkey.
Hennepin County District Judge Kevin Burke refused the request. Miller and Guggenberger’s lawsuits were soon moved to federal court.
Ruzicka’s lawsuit against Starkey soon moved to mediation.
Ruzicka’s civil attorney, Marshall Tanick, said it is not known how Wednesday’s indictments will affect the lawsuits. Mediation is now scheduled for Oct. 31.