Worst Boss Ever?

Local bank CEO does his best Godfather impression.

At the bar mitzvah party of Steven Liefschultz’s son, a strange thing happened, says a witness who asked not to be identified. Apropos of nothing, a clip of the movie The Godfather suddenly appeared on a wall and ran for a few minutes.

Now many years later, the bizarre details of a half-dozen lawsuits that have been filed against Liefschultz—CEO and chairman of Equity Bank in Minnetonka—offer clues to the mystery of the Godfather bar mitzvah.

Victoria Pederson, a real estate agent who worked with Equity Bank, and Jonathan Pettengill, a former Equity president, have each filed suits detailing abuses they claim to have suffered while in Liefschultz’s employ. And both talk about The Godfather.

“While they were together, Liefschultz explained his view on life, in which he saw himself as the iconic Mafia godfather,” Pederson says in her suit. “He made clear that he was willing to inflict harm on those who were not in [his] circle, and explained he had done so in the past.”

“Liefschultz commonly talked about how he saw himself as the godfather and as such, no one could harm him because he had ‘people he could talk to,’” Pettengill says in his suit. “Liefschultz stated that he had paid . . . ‘thugs’ to hit tenants and to ‘threaten them with a lead pipe’ if they didn’t pay their rent on time.”

When Pettengill reached his limit with Liefschultz’s behavior—at one point he says Liefschultz threw a stapler at him that cut his scalp—he quit, against his boss’s vehement protests. He left for Florida on a vacation, where he received a call from a neighbor that his house had burned down, a more than $1 million loss. The state fire marshal determined that the fire was due to arson. Asked if he knew anyone who might be angry with him, Pettengill named Liefschultz, saying he was angry about his resignation. Like Pettengill, Liefschultz was out of town the day of the fire.

Two other former Equity Bank presidents and other former employees have filed suits against Liefschultz. In 2011, former Equity president David Grzan accused Liefschultz of repeated threats to kill him, dismember his children, and burn his house down. His suit claims he was subjected to “the worst abusive, harassing, vile, deviant, and threatening conduct imaginable.”

Eric Magnuson, an attorney representing Equity Bank, told the Star Tribune, “These are really outrageous allegations, and as far as we can tell, they’re completely unfounded.”

In a written statement released by the Star Tribune, Liefschultz said: “I am very disappointed that these individuals have created such malicious and false allegations against Equity Bank and me.” He filed a countersuit in response to Grzan claiming that over the 15 years he had employed him, Grzan “established a pattern of failures” that damaged his businesses. The lawsuits between the two men were settled privately last June.

A few of the other lawsuits against Liefschultz have also been settled, but a few remain, including one from former employee Kristin Wagner. Her allegations include discrimination, sexual harassment, battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

“It appears as though the cartel of plaintiffs is achieving their goal: media coverage,” said Liefschultz’s lawyer, Sara McGrane, with Felhaber Larson Fenlon & Vogt, in an e-mail. “As you read the complaints, you can see they intentionally wrote them to get attention, not to make legal arguments.”

Two other cases by bank employees were settled in 2012 in order, McGrane says, “to avoid defense costs.”