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14th of November 2018

Automotive



When a 'likable' salesman goes 'rogue'

Sookralli: Accused of taking deposits for orders that were never made

The nation's highest-volume Porsche dealership, still rebounding from the sudden death of its owner in July, is now trying to disentangle itself from an alleged scheme involving a former employee who is accused of pocketing over $2.5 million in customer deposits on nonexistent vehicles before he disappeared last month.

He's the same employee, 44-year-old Shiraaz Sookralli, who was the target of fraud allegations in a customer lawsuit last year, a case that the store owner regarded then as an "isolated incident."

Champion Porsche in Pompano Beach, Fla., which was one of the co-defendants in the earlier case, is now suing Sookralli — the store's former vice president of marketing and a salesman at the dealership for 10 years — and two others over an alleged scheme involving fake orders for rare 911 GT3 and 911 GT2 RS models that ran for more than a year.

"We're going to make sure the customers are made whole," Tony Sciple, general manager at Champion Porsche, told Automotive News. Copans Motors Inc., which does business as Champion Porsche, filed the lawsuit Sept. 7 in state court against Sookralli; his wife, Vimla Sookralli, of Plantation Acres, Fla.; Devika Budhram of Plantation, Fla.; and Champion Autosport.

Champion Autosport, Copans alleges, was a fictitious entity created by two of the defendants to collect deposits from customers who were led to believe they were buying limited-edition Porsches from the Champion dealership, with the funds then siphoned off to personal accounts.

It's not uncommon for Porsche buyers to pay dealers large premiums, and large deposits, for high-demand models and wait months or more for their orders.

Sookralli, the lawsuit alleged, presented potential buyers with fraudulent "buyer deposit agreements." Those agreements didn't include manufacturer or allocation information about the vehicles and contained false and fraudulent seller information, the suit said, and Sookralli never ordered any vehicles.

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'No one here was aware'

The dealership said it discovered the scheme on Sept. 4, when customers began calling about their orders. Sciple said the dealership has fired Sookralli and contacted law enforcement.

"No one here was aware of what was going on," said Sciple, who described Sookralli as a "likable guy."

Sookralli's whereabouts were unknown since he left work on Aug. 28, according to a police report from the Broward County Sheriff's Office.

The dealership's attorney, Roy Diaz, said it hasn't been able to locate Sookralli, and law enforcement is investigating. Sookralli is also accused of stealing a desktop computer from the dealership.

In a court filing, Sciple said the dealership was in contact with Sookralli by email and identified 24 transactions "in his scheme to defraud the plaintiff and consumers." Sciple said in the filing that Sookralli admitted to receiving $2,560,198.

Vimla Sookralli and Budhram didn't return phone messages seeking comment.

Sookralli, who has 10 children, was having financial struggles related to child support payments and money judgments against him, according to the lawsuit. In late August, one of his creditors, American Express Centurion Bank Corp., was granted a garnishment of his wages from Champion, amounting to 25 percent of his net disposable pay. He owes more than $176,500 from the use of two American Express cards dating back to 2016, according to court records.

At least two people have filed police reports regarding Sookralli with the Broward County sheriff, including one California resident who told Champion Porsche that Sookralli had agreed to get him a 2018 Porsche 911 GT2 RS and in July 2017 wired about $130,000 to Champion Autosport through Bank of America. No vehicle was ordered and the transaction did not go through Champion Porsche, the dealership told police in the Sept. 5 report obtained by Automotive News.

A person from East Hampton, N.Y., filed a police report on Sept. 9, saying he was in touch with Sookralli at Champion Porsche and had wired $15,000 a year earlier to a Bank of America account as a deposit for a "pre-production 2018 Porsche GT3 for July delivery."

Sookralli advised customers to wire money to a Champion Autosport account at Bank of America — an account apparently controlled by him and Budhram — and also accepted credit card payments, Sciple said in court documents.

A judge on Sept. 11 ordered Bank of America to freeze the account and provide Copans Motors' counsel with all transactions in it since 2010.

Porsche said in a statement that Champion Porsche made it aware of the most recent case, which it called an "unfortunate situation."

"Champion Porsche has assured us it will help Porsche buyers who might have been impacted and is asking those customers to give their information to Champion's legal counsel," a Porsche Cars North America spokesman said in an email.

The discovery of the alleged fraud came several weeks after the dealership's owner, Dave Maraj, died from an apparent drowning in mid-July. Maraj was also the former owner of the Champion Racing team that won several American Le Mans Series championships in the mid-2000s.

A year earlier, it was Copans Motors facing a lawsuit over a transaction allegedly involving Sookralli. The suit, filed by Fellow Assets Inc. and M&L Luxury Cars Inc. in Pompano Beach, Fla., named Copans' operating brands, the Sookrallis and Rampage Motors Inc. as defendants, accusing them of fraud, unjust enrichment and writing bad checks.

Fellow and M&L alleged that Rampage was a sham company, owned and operated by the Sookrallis, that offered high-end vehicles for sale. On June 20, 2016, they alleged, the Sookrallis through Rampage agreed to sell them a white Porsche 911 R. They paid a $500,000 deposit, with a $60,200 balance due upon delivery, according to the lawsuit.

Exhibits filed with the lawsuit included two separate buyer orders for the car, one listing Champion Motors as the seller and Sookralli as the salesperson, and a later one signed by Sookralli showing Rampage Motors as the seller.

"The defendants were confronted by the plaintiffs when the above described vehicle was not provided and said defendants confessed and admitted that the representations were false and had been made as a ruse to attempt to bilk the plaintiffs out of the $500,000," according to the lawsuit.

It appears the Sookrallis attempted to make payments to the plaintiffs — but with four bad checks.

A $75,000 check dated May 12, 2017, signed by Sookralli was returned for insufficient funds, as was one for $75,000 dated May 17, 2017. A check for $200,000 dated May 19, 2017, from Rampage Motors was returned because the account was closed, as was a check from Rampage Motors for $150,000 dated May 5, 2017.

The case went to mediation and an undisclosed settlement was reached. Sciple said he couldn't discuss it.

'Isolated incident'

"Champion Motors and Champion Porsche had no involvement in any of the transactions in the case," said Diaz, the Copans attorney, who represented all the defendants in that lawsuit.

Sciple would not say whether Sookralli was disciplined. Diaz said that before the suit was settled, dealership owner Maraj sat down with Sookralli and had a talk with him, and Maraj "felt comfortable this was an isolated incident."

The dealership intends to get customers' money back "as soon as possible," said Sciple, who also directed customers to work with its attorney at SHD Legal Group in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Sciple said the dealership is a victim in the current case and some of the stories and social media posts in recent weeks have been hurtful. The Copans suit charges unfair competition and fraud, among other things, and seeks a full accounting of the funds.

"Our track record speaks for ourselves how we've done business over the last 30 years," he said. "We have a rogue employee who went off on his own and who was stealing money from our customers."

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