Spencer Merryman was delighted with the offer of a top-level job and $120,000 salary with the Bleu Network, which touted itself as a dynamic consultancy with offices in Spain and Argentina as well as on Brickell.
He and his wife, Yadira, who also was offered a job with the company, and their toddler son packed up and relocated to Miami-Dade from Cancún, renting a home in Homestead’s manicured Keys Gate subdivision.
But when payday arrived, Merryman, 74, was given excuses instead of a paycheck. The alibis ranged from the bank had closed early to a casino owed the company money to funds will be deposited a week late.
He filed complaints with the county’s wage-theft office, which determined, yes, he had been stiffed. He already knew that. But the affirmation has thus far netted him — and at least 15 other former employees — $0, county records show. The president and CEO of the company, Janet LeGrand, would not pay.
“She can pump sunshine like no tomorrow. She promised people things; promised them the world,” Merryman said of his former boss, whose business was actually on Homestead’s less-glittering Krome Avenue, not on Brickell. “But then produced nothing.”
Merryman and his wife are still owed nearly $40,000, according to the wage-theft office.
According to an arrest warrant, LeGrand — who falsely claimed to be both a licensed engineer in the state of Florida and a University of Miami graduate — presented herself as the head of a sprawling firm with impressive multimillion-dollar endeavors on its résumé. These included a portion of the Port of Miami tunnel, an Ohio State University parking project and a Tampa International Airport expansion project — and access to billions in financing.
None of that was true, Homestead police investigators say. It was all an effort to secure a $33.3 million public-private partnership to oversee a cornerstone redevelopment in downtown Homestead.
Homestead police suspected that Bleu Network was not what it it purported to be and undertook an investigation that would lead to the arrest of the Homestead resident July 19 while sitting in the waiting room of WaxArt Spa.
I have an appointment to get waxed.
Janet LeGrand, to detectives.
“I have an appointment to get waxed,” she told detectives.
She was charged with one count of organized scheme to defraud, a felony.
Although Homestead avoided doing business with Bleu Network, employees like Merryman were not so fortunate.
The “convincing conniver” duped her staff into believing they scored six-figure-salary jobs along with relocation reimbursements, health insurance and retirement benefits, Merryman said.
“She lied about the payments. Lied about those projects that she had,” Merryman said. In five months he was paid twice, he said. “When I was hired she said we were going to start working on these projects, bidding, providing our expertise, but as long as I was there, we never secured a project.”
LeGrand — who did not return phone calls from the Miami Herald — was one of three bidders for Homestead Station, a project aimed at reviving the city’s spectral urban core and that is slated to include a high-end movie theater, a bowling alley, shops, restaurants, a parking garage and a transit center. The Bleu Network was ranked third of the three by a selection committee.
The company’s website and promotional materials feature photos of luxurious office buildings in Madrid, Buenos Aires and Brickell. Only problem: The company has no office space there, police say.
The website also shows cranes swinging over a metropolitan skyline, and depicts multiple construction projects and financial partnerships with companies that — according to detectives — have never heard of LeGrand or the Bleu Network.
One testimonial letter included in the Homestead proposal, offering financial backing to Bleu Network from the Spanish banking giant BBVA, was apparently a fake.
The road is littered with her victims and I hope and pray that justice will prevail. This is an ongoing investigation as we continue to learn more about her and others.
George Gretsas, Homestead City Manager
“We have come to the conclusion that the letter is forged, typed on stolen letterhead or some other form of unauthorized use of our trade name,” a representative of the company’s legal department wrote to police.
Merryman said LeGrand “was constantly saying her funding came from the Saudis. But that was an absolute lie. After a while we could tell that something didn’t smell right. When people started complaining about not getting paid, she’d get rid of them and get new ones.”
The arrest warrant noted that about 20 years ago, LeGrand had been busted for issuing bad checks, then rearrested for violating probation by issuing more bad checks, something Merryman doesn’t find surprising.
“One time she put the money in the bank and immediately completely drew it out again,” he said, adding that the payroll person, to whom employees tried to complain and who never answered the phone, was LeGrand’s relative.
An official from the wage-theft program said it’s not uncommon for employers to dodge responsibility for unpaid salaries, even after the office affirms that the debt is legit and a judgment is served, unless the victim also files a writ of garnishment or execution.
In 2016, 428 complaints were filed with the office, and about 24 percent of them were resolved, according to an annual report.
After Homestead informed Bleu that the company would not be involved in the city’s downtown makeover, LeGrand filed a protest and a lawsuit against the city, saying the process had not been fair. LeGrand told the city she would drop the suit if Homestead agreed to pay her $155,000. Homestead demurred and the actions have yet to be resolved.
Frank Schnidman, a community development expert who recently retired from Florida Atlantic University, told the Herald “you have to be incredibly devious” to attempt such a caper and have a lot of help.
He added: “I have not heard of a case, where an engineering firm loses a bid and then sues just because they didn’t win. … How absurd can you get?”
When the city of Homestead said no to LeGrand, she set her sights on Florida City, immediately to the south. City records show multiple meetings occurred with Mayor Otis Wallace. A participant in these meetings was Steve Shiver, a former Homestead mayor and city manager in Opa-locka as well as manager of Miami-Dade County.
Shiver, whose father R.S. is a longtime Florida City councilman, said he was not there to lobby for the project — which was nearly identical to Homestead’s, featuring a movie palace, retail complex and bowling center, in addition to a 1,000-plus space parking garage.
Shiver said he was strictly there for his real estate business.
“I found her three pieces of property and nothing ever came of it. Yes, I met with owners of the properties and people that had a vested interest. I had assumed Bleu Network was a fine company because she was involved in Homestead,” Shiver told the Herald Friday.
She promised people things; promised them the world ... but then produced nothing.
Spencer Merryman, former Bleu Network staffer
After LeGrand’s arrest, Wallace told the Herald he had previously pulled the plug on the Bleu Network proposal. He said the project would have needlessly pitted the neighboring cities against each other.
At a prior commission meeting, Wallace had publicly stated the opposite — that the projects were unrelated and could coexist.
Despite the arrest, and the problems in Homestead and Florida City, business continues apace at Bleu Network. LeGrand paid the $15,000 bond and returned to work.
When a Herald reporter dropped by the new office in Florida City — after phone calls were not returned — the doorway was blocked by Chief Financial Officer Richard Arthur, along with Cesar Fernandez, the company’s corporate manager for ethics and human resources. Arthur called the intrusion “absolutely inappropriate.”
“We are very busy dealing with other projects that go far beyond Homestead and Florida City,” he said.
Said Homestead City Manager George Gretsas: “The road is littered with her victims and I hope and pray that justice will prevail. This is an ongoing investigation as we continue to learn more about her and others.”
Also ongoing is the frustration of former employees still waiting to be paid.
For then-21-year-old Elizabeth Medina, landing a job as a receptionist assistant at the Bleu Network in 2015 was a major coup — her first job.
“I was super excited. She told me she could work me and give me flexible hours since I was a student at the time. Everything was good at the beginning until the second or third week when I wasn’t getting paid,” Medina said. “I waited about two months before deciding enough was enough.”
Medina quit and was given a letter saying she would be mailed her wages in the next two weeks. Two more months passed and nothing, so she decided to take it to small claims court. LeGrand never showed up. At the third hearing date, LeGrand’s attorney showed up and worked out an agreement to pay Medina.
“We signed a paper and everything. Months passed and nothing. I decided to call the lawyer who proceeded to tell me that she doesn’t represent Janet anymore because she wasn’t paying her,” Medina said. “Isn’t that ironic?”