Cardinal Innovations sues former CEO to recover $1.7 million in severance

Cardinal Innovations sues former CEO to recover $1.7 million in severance
Kurt Meyers, partner, McGuireWoods LLP emphasizes an emoji contained in a text message during an overview of an investigation into Cardinal Innovations Healthcare (David T. Foster III | Charlotte Observer)

CHARLOTTE, NC (Jim Morrill/The Charlotte Observer) - Cardinal Innovations Monday sued former CEO Richard Topping in an effort to recover nearly $1.7 million in severance he received amid a state takeover of the agency last fall.

At the same time a former federal prosecutor hired by the agency said Topping "stole" proprietary information from the company before leaving and engaged in "a pattern of self-enrichment . . . at the expense of Cardinal."

"I think (Topping) was trying to find the key that would unlock the treasure chest and kept running into culs-de-sac," CEO Trey Sutten said.

State health officials last fall took the unusual step of taking over the Charlotte-based Cardinal, which manages a treatment network for people with disabilities, mental health needs and substance abuse in 20 counties including Mecklenburg, and firing its board.

State officials had demanded that Cardinal Innovations repay $3.8 million in "unlawful" severance pay to Topping, its ousted CEO, and three executives even though they'd already received the money.

Monday's suit appears to be the first step in trying to recover some of through the courts.

Topping could not be reached Monday.

Cardinal invited reporters for a nearly 90-minute presentation in which Kurt Meyers, a former assistant U.S. attorney, laid out an extraordinarily detailed case against Topping. Using text messages, emails and memos, he sought to show how Topping repeatedly sought higher compensation and even planned a new business venture while at Cardinal.

Meyers said Topping "contemplated how he was going to enrich himself from Cardinal."

State Sen. Tommy Tucker, a Union County Republican and longtime critic of Cardinal management, said he "smelled a rat" years ago.

"What I saw this morning didn't really shock me when you're dealing with a narcissistic personality like Mr, Topping," he said.