After terminating its CEO in September, the San Antonio Board of Realtors (SABOR) is now defending itself against multiple allegations made by the former executive, including "outright bullying" before being wrongly ousted after only three months on the job.
But this is not the first time former CEO Shane Johnson has been fired after a brief stint as head of a realtor association, according to court records.
In a Nov. 11 letter to the SABOR board of directors, former CEO Shane Johnson accuses current Board Chairwoman Lorena Peña of undermining his ability to build trust with the organization's leadership and orchestrating his firing without due process.
Following a local news report about the issue Monday, SABOR officials declined to provide a copy of the letter to the Rivard Report, saying that it was an employment issue that must be kept confidential. But on Tuesday, a local realtor emailed a copy to the Rivard Report in response to its story published the day before.
Johnson, who was hired in May following a nationwide search that began in 2017, stepped into the role of CEO June 18 after serving five years as chief operating officer of Cape Fear Realtors in North Carolina.
SABOR’s board of directors voted in September to terminate Johnson during a special meeting. In a statement from SABOR at the time, Peña said the termination came after it became apparent that he and the organization had different visions for the real estate advocacy group’s future and mission.
District court documents show that Johnson only lasted three months at the helm of another realtor association in the past.
In 2013, he sued the Oklahoma City Metropolitan Association of Realtors after the board fired him in February of that year “without reason or cause.” He had worked as CEO of that organization for just three months. The petition states that, following the termination, the association provided Johnson with a list of 11 reasons which "purportedly justify the termination action," but that Johnson considered the reasons "baseless fabrication."
In the suit, Johnson sought $645,000 in lost wages. The case was dismissed in May 2013 and referred to arbitration per the employment agreement.
Johnson wrote in his Nov. 11 letter to SABOR that the executive search committee knew of the lawsuit before he was hired to lead the organization earlier this year: “After my hire, I understand the Executive Committee discussed the matter, and determined there was no need to share the information with the board. I learned this because Lorena texted me to let me know she was happy the executive committee had voted this way, as it was also her desire.”
Gilbert Gonzalez, formerly vice president of risk management and general counsel at SABOR, served as interim CEO before Johnson was hired in June. Gonzalez was named permanent CEO shortly after Johnson’s departure.
Johnson’s eight-page letter sent to the board in November contains a timeline of his selection, brief service, and interactions with Peña while at SABOR, including 11 footnotes and a detailed account of his termination. Despite “not a single HR complaint against me,” he wrote, Peña undermined his ability to lead and “used every opportunity to diminish me.”
“Gilbert’s emergence as the new CEO was no surprise and provides strong evidence of a hidden agenda,” Johnson wrote. “It also represents an abuse of power by Lorena, which I was assured SABOR left behind in 2017.”
Johnson wrote that he believes Peña wanted him fired quickly because she feared he would terminate Gonzalez “based on several inexcusable mistakes he made costing SABOR millions and exposing it to corporate and federal legal liability." Johnson's termination also came before a scheduled 90-day CEO report he was set to deliver and in which he planned to outline multiple levels of financial failings he had uncovered.
“I understand he’s upset but I don’t know specifically what he could be talking about,” Peña said when reached for comment on Tuesday. “I’ve had other leadership positions in this city, and this is the first time I’ve been categorized in this way. This is new to me, too. It’s just unfortunate, but I understand he’s upset.”
Peña added that Johnson’s allegation that she wanted Gonzalez in the CEO job instead of him are untrue. “We were all excited about starting a new chapter and welcomed him into San Antonio,” she said. “We had a whole program prepared for him to meet members, board members, City officials. We had everything in place to make him succeed.”
A search committee selected Johnson for the job, Peña said, and his termination was a decision of the board. As chairwoman, she did not have a vote, she added.
Johnson did not return phone calls, voicemail, and text messages the Rivard Report left at the phone number provided on his letter.
In the letter, Johnson also addresses accusations against him of inappropriate touching: “Immediately, I knew it was a setup. I’d done nothing of the sort as the only uncomfortable contact I’d experienced at SABOR was Lorena hugging me.” An attorney who investigated, he wrote, cleared him of those allegations.
“These trumped up charges have no validity. Further, they were gathered under a cloud of secrecy, without transparency, by a partisan chair with a personally selected attorney, in league with a disloyal individual who wanted my job,” Johnson wrote. He also asserts that Peña leveraged her leadership position to shroud financial issues.
“He was venting,” Gonzalez said Monday. “He provided information about the termination and why he thought it was done incorrectly.”
Gonzalez said he was not part of the termination process; rather, it was handled by an executive committee with the help of outside counsel. Johnson was terminated without cause, which was legal according to Texas law, Gonzalez said.
"I would say 99 percent of what’s in the letter is not factual," said Kim Bragman, board chairwoman-elect for 2019.
Johnson made three requests in his Nov. 11 letter. The first was an investigation into his termination and to be reinstated as CEO. The second was a request for a payout of the balance of his employment contract. If those requests were not met, Johnson wrote that “he would have little choice but to respond to pending media invitations and bring this matter to the public,” and inform SABOR members.
In response to the letter, SABOR started discussions with Johnson through its lawyer to try to resolve his concerns.
“We had ongoing discussions up until the letter was sent out to other agents, companies, and we understand it also went out to the [San Antonio] Business Journal,” Bragman said. “But obviously that letter did become public [so] there have been no further discussions at this point.”
Johnson’s letter also alleges that the organization is not fiscally responsible or financially sound. "Millions of dollars were being spent inappropriately, with no red flags," he wrote.
Both Bragman and Gonzalez disputed that SABOR is not financially sound. “That’s inaccurate as are a lot of his other statements,” Bragman said. “We have an accounting executive, and he prepares the financials. And the budget is vetted by a finance committee before being presented to the executive committee and the board. There are many sets of eyes as well as an annual audit by an external firm.”
Tax documents show SABOR had more than $7 million in revenues in 2016.
When SABOR recently learned that some of its members had received a copy of the letter, the organization invited members to a series of open meetings where they can ask questions and learn more about the issue. The first meeting on Tuesday morning was attended by “a small percentage of the 11,000 members,” Peña said.
“For me, the most important thing is that our members know that we put them first,” Gonzalez said. “That all the actions we take are for the benefit of all 11,000 of them and that we will continue to work to make sure the association is adaptable to their needs.”
In a ceremony at its annual awards event Dec. 4, SABOR installed a new board of directors and executive committee for 2019. Peña, who served as board chairwoman for 2018, the period during which Johnson was hired and fired, is succeeded by Grant Lopez. In addition to Bragman as chairwoman-elect, the organization also installed Trudy Pape as secretary/treasurer.
Neither Johnson nor SABOR has threatened legal action. But Johnson wrote that his career has been “ruined” by Peña’s “negative statements to national media.”
“I can only speculate he’s unhappy as former employees can be,” Bragman said. “But we wish him no ill will. We would like him to succeed, and we hope he will.”
This article was originally published on Dec. 10, 2018.