The Bowlero location at Chelsea Piers in New York City.

CNBC

A former executive at Bowlero, the world’s largest owner and operator of bowling centers, has asked a court’s permission to countersue his former employer for extortion and retaliation, after an executive on a recorded call threatened to report him to the FBI if he didn’t admit to spilling company secrets, according to a transcript of the conversation filed in court.

The allegations by Bowlero’s former chief information officer, Thomas Tanase, filed Wednesday in a proposed countersuit in Virginia federal court, come after he and dozens of others filed discrimination claims with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging they were fired based on their age or out of retaliation, according to company securities filings and the proposed countersuit. Bowlero denies the claims.

The company, which went public in late 2021 through a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, was among the select successful stocks to emerge from the SPAC boom. It owns two of the biggest brands in bowling — AMF and Lucky Strike — and operated more than 300 bowling centers across North America as of July. Between 2021 and 2023, Bowlero nearly tripled its annual revenue, from $395 million to $1.06 billion, and it expects sales to grow between 10% and 15% in fiscal 2024, according to company filings.

Tanase started with the company’s information technology department in 2001 before climbing his way up to the C-suite, where he worked closely with the company’s CEO and frequently had access to sensitive information contained in the CEO’s email accounts, he said in court filings. He says the company fired him in May because of his age, and in August, he filed a discrimination claim with the EEOC, according to a copy of the claim, which was included as an exhibit to the proposed countersuit.

Bowlero says that Tanase resigned and then had a change of heart when he realized he wouldn’t get severance pay. In July, the company sued him, alleging he hacked into the email account of CEO Thomas Shannon, copied company documents onto a personal USB drive and refused to hand over his company-issued devices. Tanase denies the claims.

Now, Tanase is seeking the court’s permission to countersue Bowlero and the company’s executive vice chairman, Brett Parker. Federal rules require Tanase to get permission to countersue given the timing of the filings.

In the proposed countersuit, Tanase alleges that Parker threatened to report him to the FBI if he didn’t admit to accessing Shannon’s emails and “come clean” about information he shared with Daniel Dowe, the attorney representing the EEOC complainants, and with CNBC, which has previously written about the discrimination allegations against Bowlero. During a March deposition, Tanase testified that he hadn’t spoken with CNBC, or any other media outlet, about the company.

‘You tell us everything you know’

In a phone conversation between Tanase and Parker that Tanase recorded in June 2023, Bowlero’s vice chairman and former finance chief allegedly asked Tanase numerous times to reveal what he’d said and told him that if he did, all would be forgiven, according to a transcript attached as an exhibit to the proposed counterclaim.

“If you come clean there is a path where you are our friend … You tell us everything that’s transpired … You tell us everything you know about Dowe everything that’s ever happened with respect to Dowe … With respect to the CNBC,” Parker said during the conversation, according to the transcript.

“Then there can be a number and there can be a go away and we can move on. But we have to get the truth and full clarity,” Parker said, according to the transcript. 

“You can … Fall back into our good graces and be our friend in this matter and you will get paid to do that, but it has to start with the truth.”

According to the transcript, Parker told Tanase if he explained everything and shared what information he had disclosed, the company could give him a “severance,” but “you really don’t want this to start with the police.” 

“I’m not going to be able to fight this internally, and you’re going to be trying to explain to the FBI that some device did this and I don’t want you to be in that position,” Parker said, according to the transcript. 

“You gotta help me help you,” he added.

In response, Tanase repeatedly told Parker he didn’t share any information with anyone and had been in the hospital when Shannon’s email account was allegedly breached, according to the transcript. As Bowlero’s former CIO, he previously had access to the CEO’s account and said it may have still been logged in on another device.  

“I haven’t done anything illegal … I haven’t done anything malicious either. I haven’t talked to anything or given out any information to anybody. I’ve told you this before,” said Tanase, according to the transcript.  

Bowlero said the transcript simply shows the company trying to extend an “olive branch” to Tanase if he were to confess to the hacking allegations. 

“Far from wrongfully seeking to obtain a benefit from Tanase, Mr. Parker … acknowledges that he is ‘trying to help.’ These are all actions which, in the face of Tanase’s hacking of Bowlero computer systems, neither Bowlero nor Mr. Parker were required to do,” Bowlero said in filings.  

“Indeed, what Tanase suggests is ‘extortion’ is obviously no such thing. Hence, even if Tanase had a private right of action for an extortion claim, the elements of such a claim are not met here,” the company said.

Tanase further alleges that Bowlero’s suit against him was brought in retaliation for his refusal to sign a termination agreement that required him to waive his right to pursue legal action against the company. He also claims Bowlero sued him to deter him from filing a complaint with the EEOC or serving as a witness in its investigation into Bowlero.

Tanase’s attorneys are seeking around $8 million in damages from Bowlero on the extortion claim and more than $27 million on the retaliation claim.

Late Thursday, Bowlero asked the judge overseeing the case to deny the request to countersue and to sanction Tanase by either issuing a default judgment in the company’s favor or precluding Tanase from further testimony. In court filings, the company said Tanase admitted he misstated facts in an earlier court affidavit, which he later corrected, and pointed out that he has hired at least three different law firms since the onset of the case.

“Tanase has so seriously impeached his own credibility that no testimony he can offer in his defense will rehabilitate him, and, in these circumstances, default judgment is appropriate in order to protect the integrity of the judicial process,” Bowlero said in a memorandum in support of its request for sanctions. 

Bowlero’s attorney Alex Spiro at law firm Quinn Emanuel, who has also represented A-listers such as Elon Musk and Alec Baldwin, said in a statement to CNBC Tanase “will lose” his request to file a countersuit, and that it “is almost certainly going to be denied.” 

“Mr. Tanase is now seeking the court’s permission to file baseless counterclaims against Bowlero, five months after the deadline and five days before fact discovery will close. This cynical attempt to deflect attention from his bad acts is fatally flawed on both the merits and on the law — and Bowlero is confident it will prevail in its lawsuit against Mr. Tanase,” said Spiro.

“His counterclaims are completely frivolous and we are seeking fees for responding to his motion,” he said.

In response, Tanase’s attorney Scott Pickus told CNBC if the court doesn’t permit Tanase to move forward with his counterclaim in the case, the suit can and “likely will” be filed as a new action. He said he “very much” disagrees that the assertions made in the proposed counterclaim are frivolous. 

He said he won’t comment on remarks Tanase made about misstating facts.

“Suffice it to say that we disagree with Bowlero’s interpretation of the law, disagree with Bowlero’s recitation of the facts, and look forward to the trial of this matter,” Pickus said.

EEOC investigation

Bowlero has been embroiled in an EEOC investigation since 2016 involving more than 70 former employees who claim they were unlawfully fired. They allege that Bowlero fired them for being too old as it worked to transform its hundreds of locations from what the company has referred to as “dingy” bowling alleys to upmarket experiences with elevated food and drink offerings. 

Complaints and an affidavit filed by three former employees, including Tanase, say Shannon hosted “beauty contests” with prospective hires over brief video calls to evaluate a candidate’s appearance as part of the hiring process. 

Tanase’s complaint accused Shannon of making “racial and especially inappropriate ‘blonde women’ jokes” and “always treated wom[e]n as an inferior class to men.” Tanase also alleged that the company’s policies banning Timberland boots and ball caps worn backward were “designed to deter African American males from using” the company’s bowling centers.

The EEOC has found reasonable cause in the majority of the complaints brought against Bowlero, including Tanase’s, while the rest remain under investigation, according to Tanase’s complaint and company reports. When the EEOC finds reasonable cause in a complaint, it means it believes discrimination occurred.

The EEOC previously tried to settle the complaints with Bowlero for $60 million in January 2023, but those efforts failed last April, CNBC previously reported. The agency now has the ability to file a federal lawsuit against the company, but it’s unclear if it will. Before the agency can sue Bowlero in federal court, the EEOC’s commissioners need to vote on the matter. 

Spiro, Bowlero’s attorney, told CNBC the employment discrimination claims “are without merit.”

“The so-called eeoc issues are age based discrimination claims, some of which date back to nearly a decade ago and no civil nor eeoc suit has ever even occurred with respect to those claims,” Spiro wrote in an email. 

Pickus, Tanase’s attorney, said the EEOC’s reasonable cause findings that Bowlero engaged in discriminatory practices dating back to 2013 “would seem to belie Mr. Spiro’s assertions” that his client’s counterclaims are “frivolous.”

“Those findings by the EEOC may well be why Bowlero has sued Mr. Tanase. Bowlero’s actions remind me of a sports cliche: the best defense is a good offense,” Pickus added.

“We look forward to proving both claims,” he said.

Dueling claims

Still at issue is whether Tanase resigned or was fired from his position — a dispute that’s at the center of Bowlero’s lawsuit, Tanase’s proposed countersuit and his EEOC claim, which are all separate but related actions.

In the leadup to his separation from Bowlero, Tanase said, the company began micromanaging him and harassing him by closely supervising his work so they could find a reason to fire him — a process he described as “managing out,” according to his EEOC complaint and proposed counterclaim. 

“Although Tanase suspected for several months that his employment might be in jeopardy, at no time did he seek to secure confidential information, remove property, or engage in any other self-serving conduct while having full access to Bowlero’s offices, office files, and computer servers,” Tanase’s attorneys wrote in the proposed counterclaim.

In the EEOC’s determination letter ruling that Tanase’s claims of age discrimination had cause, Director Rosemarie Rhodes wrote that the conduct of Tanase’s then-supervisor, current Bowlero President Lev Ekster, “included unwarranted hostility, frequent criticism, unnecessary correction of his work, and undermining his authority and role vis-a-vis subordinates and vendors.” 

Bowlero alleged that following Tanase’s separation from the company, he vowed to get “revenge” on his former employer and “bury” its CEO, according to its lawsuit against Tanase. The company alleged in its suit that Tanase told Bowlero Vice President of Human Resources Heather Webb that he had spoken with CNBC and several lawyers, including Dowe, about the company.

“Mr. Tanase said he would ‘walk away’, which Ms. Webb understood to mean that he would no longer attempt to seek revenge or retribution on Bowlero or Mr. Shannon, if Bowlero were to pay him a $1.2 million ‘severance’ payment. Bowlero refused to make the payment,” Bowlero’s lawsuit said. Tanase denies the claims. 



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