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Ex-Kremlin Media Tycoon's Firm Hit With U.S. Lawsuits

Mikhail Lesin, currently the head of the Russian state-controlled entertainment giant Gazprom-Media, is personally named as a defendant in one of the cases.
Mikhail Lesin, currently the head of the Russian state-controlled entertainment giant Gazprom-Media, is personally named as a defendant in one of the cases.

Russian media boss Mikhail Lesin, credited with founding the Kremlin-funded RT network, is facing two separate lawsuits in the United States by household workers seeking millions of dollars in compensation due to alleged labor-law violations.

The two former employees have claimed in California Superior Court that they were wrongly terminated by Dastel Corporation, a U.S. company solely owned by Lesin that the plaintiffs also accuse of an array of other labor-law infractions.

Dastel owns two multimillion-dollar Los Angeles homes in which Lesin's family resides, and two other pricey properties in the area are linked to his immediate family, according to public records and court documents.

The company's California properties were the subject of an inquiry by U.S. Senator Roger Wicker (Republican-Mississippi), who last week asked the Justice Department to investigate whether Lesin used dirty money to purchase Los Angeles-area real estate valued at more than $28 million.

Dastel is named as a defendant in the separate lawsuits filed by the two former employees, while Lesin, currently the head of state-controlled entertainment giant Gazprom-Media, is personally named as a defendant in one of them, along with his wife, son, and daughter-in-law.

Lesin, 56, served as press minister to Russian President Vladimir Putin and played a key role in bringing the independent television channel NTV under state control in Putin's first term in office. He served as Kremlin adviser in Putin's second term but was dismissed by then-President Dmitry Medvedev in 2009.

He is widely credited with creating Russia Today, now known as RT, an international television network with the stated aim of giving a Russian perspective on current events. He founded Video International, one of Russia's largest advertising firms, in the early 1990s.

Plaintiffs: Fired For Complaining

The plaintiffs in the two lawsuits accuse their former employer of failure to pay wages and overtime, as well as discrimination and harassment.

One of the actions was brought by Tessa Wetherbee, a former nanny for Lesin's son and daughter-in-law, Anton and Carole Lessine. Wetherbee claims she was fired in part because she contacted child-protective services about what she believed could be child abuse committed by Carole Lessine.

Wetherbee also alleges that she was discriminated against due to her U.S. citizenship, Native American heritage, and Christian faith, and that the Lessines made derogatory comments about these characteristics.

Additionally, Wetherbee alleges that Dastel was illegally using its status as a corporation to fund personal expenditures rather than business expenses.

Dastel and the Lessines deny all of the accusations by Wetherbee, who is seeking $5 million in damages. They accuse the former nanny of "numerous misrepresentations and acts of insubordination" and of filing the lawsuit in "bad faith."

In the other lawsuit, Martina Landis, who worked as a housekeeper for Lesin and his family, is seeking $1 million in damages for alleged labor-law violations.

Landis claims she was fired after two months of employment because she asked to be classified as an employee rather than an independent contractor, to have taxes taken out of her paycheck, and because she is from Mexico.

In court documents, Landis also alleges that Dastel is a "corporate alter ego" used to charge personal expenses and gain "unlawful tax advantages" from fraudulent activities.

Lesin is named as a defendant in the Landis case, as are his wife, Valentina, the Lessines, and Dastel. The defendants have denied all of the allegations and say that Landis showed up late for work, failed to complete tasks, and avoided work by taking long breaks.

'Nightmare Employer'?

Dastel Corporation was incorporated in July 2011, and Lesin is the sole owner of the company, with a certificate of 100,000 shares, according to court documents.

The company's primary goal is to purchase, maintain, and sell real estate, Dastel president and treasurer Ilya Tsipis said in a declaration to the court.

Lesin believed that it would be "expeditious and sensible" for Dastel to employ household workers because his family lived in properties owned by the corporation, Tsipis said in the declaration.

Tsipis also denied the claims of harassment and discrimination and said he did not recall the Lessines making any derogatory comments based on anyone's ethnic or religious background.

Both of the lawsuits paint the Lesin-controlled company as a nightmare employer.

The plaintiffs claim they were not permitted to take breaks and that they worked beyond 40 hours a week or eight hours in a day and were not paid overtime. Both claim that they had paycheck irregularities, suffered discrimination, and were ultimately fired after reporting complaints.

Wetherbee filed her suit in June 2013, while Landis filed her case in November 2013. Both cases are still pending before California Superior Court.

Attorneys for Dastel did not respond to requests for comment. Dastel did not respond to a phone message seeking comment.

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