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Russell Pearce Supporter Matt Tolman Sued for Back Pay by Undocumented Worker

The lavanderia where Estrada said she worked for Matt Tolman for several years
The lavanderia where Estrada said she worked for Matt Tolman for several years

Matt Tolman, chairman of the pro-Russell Pearce, anti-recall group Citizens Who Oppose the Pearce Recall, is infamous for putting out placards in Mesa alleging that pro-recall organizer Randy Parraz "opposes the rule of law," but a lawsuit by one of Tolman's former employees alleges that Tolman may have his own issues with the law.

The complaint filed in Maricopa County Downtown Justice court by 46 year-old Martha Elena Estrada, claims that Tolman owes the undocumented immigrant close to $8,000 in back pay for her work as a laundress at coin laundry owned by Tolman and his wife.

Estrada, a small woman with large brown eyes and a chirrupy voice, sat down with me Friday at New Times' offices with her lawyer Salvador Ongaro, who acted as translator. She said she worked at the small lavanderia on the northeast corner of 3rd Avenue and Buckeye Road for several years from 2004 to late 2010, cleaning clothes, as well as towels, drapes and tablecloths from local hotels. 

"Tolman was my boss," she said in Spanish after identifying Tolman from a photo on his Facebook page. "He paid me and told me what to do."

Her lawsuit includes several checks she received from 3rd Avenue Laundry, LLC, the corporate entity formed by Tolman and his spouse. She said no pay stubs accompanied them, and there was no withholding, as far as she knew.

Problem is, Estrada says her checks did not include payment for the overtime she did for Tolman. She stated that she worked for minimum wage, sometimes 10 or 12 hours a day, often six or seven days a week, without vacations or holidays.

When she left Tolman's employ, she estimates that he owed her as much as $12,000. Estrada says she confronted Tolman about the money he owed her early this year. Tolman asked her how much she wanted.

"I said, `I'll make this easy and simple,'" she recalled of the conversation at Tolman's business. "Pay me $7,000, and it'll be done."

She said Tolman initially accepted, but then reneged seconds later.

"He said he wasn't going to pay me, that I had no right to anything," Estrada stated.

When she left, she said Tolman followed her for several blocks in his vehicle, so close that he almost hit her. She stopped at a Circle K, and he eventually abandoned his pursuit.

According to Estrada, Tolman knew she was undocumented, and also knew that another woman who worked for him was also in the country without papers. He once asked Estrada for her Social Security Number, but she told him she didn't have one. She said he never asked why, but did have her sign some paperwork that Tolman said was for the IRS.

She says Tolman, who is apparently fluent in Spanish, referred to women such as herself as mojada, the Spanish term for "wetback," and indocumentada, or "undocumented." 

"He said the women, the wetbacks, just come here to have children," she remembered Tolman saying one time. "I told him I didn't come here just to have children."

Estrada related that she's been in the country for about 10 years, and is originally from Mexico. She began work at the Phoenix location before Tolman, who owns another laundry in Mesa and sits on the board of the Arizona Coin Laundry Association, acquired it.

I asked her if Tolman ever threatened her.

"He never threatened me directly," she said. "But he did say to other girls who worked for him that he would set immigration on them."

Estrada's original pro per complaint, filed in March of this year, states of Tolman, "I was very afraid of him, that is why I never complaint [sic]. He followed me in his truck, and was harassing me because I complain to him about my pay."

Tolman did not reply to my several attempts to reach him via phone, Facebook, and e-mail. So I paid a couple of visits to the laundry at 1023 S. Third Avenue. Tolman was never present, and the place seemed unsupervised on Friday evening and early this Saturday morning. 

The laundry is in a Latino section of Phoenix. Uptempo Spanish tunes blare from the laudromat's speakers. The signs are all bilingual. Free Spanish publications sit near the window. 

A few blocks to the west on Buckeye is a local hospital are medical facilities with signs in Spanish and English. Go east on Buckeye and you'll soon pass the headquarters of the Latino advocacy group Chicanos Por La Causa, once the subject of an infamous raid by Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

I did reach Ed Phillips, a spokesman for Senator Pearce's campaign, who received $2,500 from Tolman's anti-recall group according to CWOPR's recent campaign finance report. He declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying only that he knew nothing of it.

If Estrada's tale is true then the irony of Tolman's actions is obvious, particularly considering his unwavering support of state Senate President Russell Pearce, political progenitor not only of the state's harsh immigration statute Senate Bill 1070, but also of Arizona's employer-sanctions law.

Worse in my mind is the allegation that Tolman stiffed an employee on her back pay.

"I think the $8,000 is less than I'm owed, but the money would be important for the education of my daughter," Estrada offered.

Indeed, in these tough times, who can afford to lose eight grand?

If Tolman responds to any the messages I've left with him, I'll update this blog post. You can read the entire Estrada complaint, here.

Note: Oblivious Cortex below is correct that the location I saw is no longer a hospital. Was once Phoenix Memorial, and is still labeled as such. On site are medical offices and a family health care clinic. Verified this Monday morning, November 7. Thanks for lookin' out, OC.


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