In July 2018, Andrew Staples and two other former employees at the Tesla-owned SolarCity, sued the solar power company, alleging age discrimination, sexual harassment, and anti-LGBT slurs. The charges were dramatic—and Staples is seeking serious compensation. (The case was moved to private arbitration in late August.)
An Ars investigation revealed that Staples has been involved in numerous lawsuits. In addition, his former company and his long-faded non-profit collectively owe more than $660,000 across 13 outstanding wage claims filed in California by people who used to work for him.
One of Staples' accusers is Margie Palmer, who worked for Staples' non-profit in 2011. She told Ars she was only paid a couple of times during her employment. In 2012, she won a wage claim and a civil judgement against the foundation for $9,309.09—but she hasn't collected on that judgment yet. In fact, Palmer says she's lost all hope of ever collecting a penny.
Partly because neither the company nor the non-profit have few if any assets, Staples himself has emerged largely unscathed from all these claims. Earlier this year, he was granted an insurance broker's license by the state of California and now sells insurance and related products like annuities.
But Staples denied all wrongdoing in conversations with Ars.
"I can file anything, it doesn't mean it's factual," he told Ars of the wage claims against him. "There is no merit at all."
Ars initially reported on Staples' lawsuit against SolarCity after receiving an email tip from someone calling himself "Michael Beardsley," after which we confirmed the story through court documents. The case seemed straightforward enough. But then Beardsley went silent.
Beardsley originally claimed that he was a previous employee of Tesla who was a "witness to much of this" material in the lawsuit. When we asked Tesla, however, the company claimed it never heard of Beardsley.
"We havent been able to find anyone by that name in our records of former or current employees," Dave Arnold, a Tesla spokesman, emailed Ars.
Beardsley stopped responding to Ars emails on July 29, two days after the initial tip. We asked Staples for any information on Beardsley, and he told Ars that he "believed" that his attorney, Jean-Paul LeClercq, had spoken with him. LeClercq has not responded to Ars multiple requests for comment since.
On August 8, Ars received a second unsolicited email from someone else who claimed to work with Staples and the other two co-plaintiffs. This person, calling himself "Sean Tipton," portrayed himself as an ally of Staples. But he, too, did not respond to Ars' requests for additional comment.
"We havent been able to find anyone in our records by that name," Tesla's Arnold told us.
This was all a bit odd, so Ars attempted to contact confirmed former colleagues of Staples to learn more about the man at the center of the SolarCity lawsuit. That's when a strange story began to come into view.
"Free" as in… stopping payment
Staples, who is sometimes known as Latham Staples, has been known in the San Diego gay community going back nearly a decade. His business activities were first covered in a local news outlet, the San Diego Gay & Lesbian News (SDGLN), as part of a 2011 dispute involving his non-profit group, the Empowering Spirits Foundation (ESF).
ESF was formally organized as a California-based non-profit in 2010, with Staples as CEO. ESFs website described its mission this way: "To dispel the negative stereotypes of the LGBT community and realize a society that achieves fundamental fairness and equality for all through service-oriented activities designed to foster non-confrontational dialogue with our non-LGBT neighbors."
As part of that mission, ESF organized a music event called the "Free to Be" festival—an ill-fated venture that drew fewer than 100 attendees. By October 2011, SDGLN published a story: "Free To Be Festival a bust, leaving performers, vendors asking Empowering Spirits Foundation for payment."
According to the SDGLN, in the run-up to the festival, Staples wrote checks totaling nearly $107,000 to cover costs of the event. However, 21 checks issued to the event vendors were later stopped. A month after the SDGLN story ran, Staples attempted to seek a temporary restraining order against Jonathan Hale, the news organizations publisher, in San Diego County Superior Court. The court denied that effort and also denied a request for a restraining order.
When Ars asked Staples about this lawsuit against Hale, he responded by email: "Feel free to contact John Schena, my attorney who handled the matter against them and SDGLN/Hale."
The court record does not indicate Staples had a lawyer in that case. When we contacted Schena, we received a curious answer noting that he does not represent Staples at present and did not do so in any previous lawsuit.
"I believe there may be some confusion," he emailed Ars. "This firm did not represent [Staples] in any lawsuits against any parties. That said, as a policy we do not comment on past clients and as such cannot be of any assistance to you."
So how did the lawsuit against Hale end?
"I had no money then and couldnt afford to proceed with the suit," Staples said.
By December 2011, Staples personal legal troubles began. He was sued by Irvine Apartment Communities over failure to pay rent; he still owed about $7,000 as of February 2018.