State and federal lawmakers are calling for criminal investigations into Bitwise Industries.
The tech and real estate company based in Fresno furloughed all its workers on May 29. A lawsuit filed in Fresno County Superior Court on Wednesday alleges that they were effectively laid off.
The lawsuit accused Bitwise of violating state law for not giving advance warning of the firings, and breaking the law by not issuing paychecks correctly — several employees said the checks bounced.
“My office has contacted the Office of the California Department of Justice on this matter. Given the allegations and information that has come to light thus far, we need to thoroughly investigate all questionable and illegal business practices, and hold those accountable for causing this calamity,” state Sen. Melissa Hurtado, D-Bakersfield, said.
Reporting from GV Wire shows that before he was terminated by the company’s board, Bitwise co-CEO Jake Soberal reached out to potential hard money lenders in the community, possibly exaggerating influxes of cash the company was about to receive.
Public records also show that Bitwise is late in paying its Fresno County property taxes, city business taxes, and business taxes in Delaware, where it is incorporated. Bitwise also has several liens from lenders, including 13 million shares in the company owned by Soberal and former co-CEO Irma Holguin Jr., according to California public records.
Costa, Duarte Call for Investigations
Reps. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, and John Duarte, R-Modesto, are also calling for action.
“The situation with Bitwise is concerning and should be looked into,” Costa said. “I am monitoring the news and awaiting any legal outcome to determine what actions we might engage in. My first concern is for the workers left without jobs, putting their livelihoods at risk. At this time, we are working to connect those affected with the appropriate federal agencies to get the support they need.”
Employees also alleged that Bitwise collected health care and retirement funds from paychecks, but never deposited them in the appropriate accounts.
“The claims surrounding misconduct at Bitwise Industries are concerning, to say the least,” said Duarte. “I encourage federal authorities to take a hard look at these troubling allegations.”
Lawmakers Offer Help
Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula, D-Fresno, would not comment on whether he supports a criminal investigation. He did say he has support services available.
“What happened at Bitwise was a shock to everyone. I am saddened and upset for the employees who were furloughed and whose lives — and their families’ lives — were turned upside down. Right now, my focus is on them. My office already has been helping people who need unemployment assistance or have other questions about state resources, and we will continue to help these employees where we can,” Arambula said.
Hurtado and Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, say they can help disaffected Bitwise employees with unemployment benefits.
The Fresno Workforce Development Board is offering workshops on Friday to help former employees to navigate public benefits.
Attention Bitwise Employees!
Our Rapid Response Services are designed to help you navigate your recent furlough
Join us Friday, June 9th, at 10am or 2pm for an orientation meeting to learn more about these free services
2pm https://t.co/NQKMcQklS9 pic.twitter.com/MF1qjyjctw
— Fresno Regional WDB (@WDB_Fresno) June 8, 2023
The city of Fresno will hold a job fair geared toward Bitwise employees on June 16 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
We will be hosting a JOB FAIR with various employers with job openings.
🗓️: Fri, June 16
⏰: 10 am – 1 pm
📍: 2600 Fresno St pic.twitter.com/C8K7TFLdoi
— Mayor Jerry Dyer (@MayorJerryDyer) June 6, 2023
No Comment from Law Enforcement
Law enforcement agencies are not willing to talk about potential investigations.
“To protect its integrity, we’re unable to comment on, even to confirm or deny, a potential or ongoing investigation,” a spokesperson for state Attorney General Rob Bonta said.
After the publication of this story, a spokeswoman for Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp said they “will continue to review police agency investigations submitted for crime charging decisions.
“To the extent that we receive any requests for charges related to the recent news surrounding Bitwise, we will apply our standard case review and evaluation process. We cannot speak to the status, if any, of any ongoing investigation by any police or investigatory agency,” Smittcamp’s office said.”
A spokeswoman from the federal Department of Justice issued a similar statement.