- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 23, 2015

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - A former top-level Starkey Hearing Foundation employee has filed a whistleblower claim alleging she was fired weeks after raising questions about business practices.

In her lawsuit filed in Los Angeles last week, Maria Vanessa Boys Smith claimed she was terminated after she told executives that the foundation was inflating the number of hearing aids it donated during charity missions. According to the Star Tribune (https://strib.mn/1QX41jF ), Boys Smith alleged the foundation claimed it gave away 175,000 hearing aids in 2014, but “would be lucky” to have fitted 100,000.

Starkey Hearing Foundation attorney Elena Baca said the foundation denies the allegations.

Boys Smith worked in director-level positions at the foundation’s Los Angeles office for more than two years until she was fired April 10. She’s also suing Starkey Laboratories Inc., because her last two positions were funded by the Minnesota-based hearing aid manufacturer.

Starkey has been under scrutiny since roughly 20 people were fired in September. Many of those former employees have been questioned by the FBI, but details on that investigation aren’t known. Starkey has claimed it’s the victim of a crime.

Starkey, founded in 1967 by Bill Austin, controls about 17 percent of global hearing aid sales. Austin and his wife, Tani, launched the nonprofit foundation, which operates separately, in 1984.

Boys Smith’s lawsuit alleged the inflated donation numbers were a fraudulent “gross overestimate” that could have jeopardized the foundation’s nonprofit status, as well as its partnership with the Clinton Global Initiative. Starkey had promised the Clinton initiative that it will donate more than 1 million hearing aids by the end of the decade.

Boys Smith alleged the Starkey Foundation also routinely engaged in conflicts of interest with the private corporation, and said the process for identifying international patients for free care was “deeply flawed.”

Since September, the FBI and IRS have searched the homes of Starkey’s fired president, Jerry Ruzicka, and its fired chief financial officer, Scott Nelson. Other terminated employees have been questioned, but no one has been indicted.

Keith Guggenberger, the former senior vice president of operations, has filed a wrongful termination and defamation claim against the company, alleging that one reason for the firings was Ruzicka’s refusal to promote one of Tani Austin’s sons. The lawsuit also alleges Ruzicka was planning to start a new company. At the time that lawsuit was filed, Ruzicka’s attorney, Marshall Tanick, said his client did nothing wrong.


Information from: Star Tribune, https://www.startribune.com

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