The reborn De Tomaso brand was built on shaky ground with dubious financial characters at the very least, or at the very worst, something far more sinister. That’s according to a lawsuit filed by former employee Ryan Berris, who claims the company’s owner bilked him for millions in unpaid wages, expenses that weren’t repaid as he traveled the world for years working to revive De Tomaso’s legendary name. The lawsuit alleges that once Berris was forced from the company, an associate of Norman Choi, the current owner of De Tomaso, threatened violence against Berris, forcing him into hiding for more than a year until he resurfaced to file his lawsuit.
We reached out to De Tomaso and Samuel Lui, the associate of Choi who allegedly threatened Berris, for comment but haven’t yet heard back. We’ll update this story if we do.
The 59-page complaint filed by Berris in federal court outlines a bevy of financial allegations, including money laundering, self-dealing, and “pump-and-dump” schemes surrounding De Tomaso and affiliated automaker Apollo, once called Gumpert. According to the complaint, Choi and another associate, Michael Choi (no relation), used Apollo and De Tomaso as fronts for a pump-and-dump scheme to inflate the company’s apparent financial standing in an effort to sell the company for more than it’s worth.
"For years, I dedicated most of my waking hours to developing a credibly revived De Tomaso that was worthy of that brand’s legacy. When we debuted the P72 and the subsequent stages of the brand’s vision thereafter, I repeatedly heard from clients, dealer partners and friends about how they sensed genuine creative energy and excitement around it," Berris told The Drive. "The client’s dreams were the same as mine - to be a part of the De Tomaso tradition and bring it into the future. The sense of betrayal I felt when I realized Norman Choi did not share those aspirations but was instead misusing the company for his own financial purposes and tarnishing what I had worked so hard to create was utterly devastating. And its implications for my clients and team broke my heart. While I still believe in the De Tomaso brand and its potential - I have to stand up for myself and my clients against what Choi has wrought."
Berris alleges that Norman Choi used his industry experience, contacts, and personal relationships to create an automaker from virtually nothing. Berris’ career took off at Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus and he was courted by Choi in 2016 to revive Apollo, after it was renamed to distance itself from the Gumpert name. Berris worked to sell and cultivate Apollo as a bona fide, small-volume automaker and worked to deliver production versions of the Apollo Intensa Emozione to customers which was eventually sold in 2020 for $153 million.
Behind the scenes, Norman Choi and his associates secured the De Tomaso name, which was surrendered when the widow of founder Alejandro de Tomaso died and what was left of the company changed hands for roughly a decade before Choi’s purchase. Berris outlines in his complaint that, while he maintained a solid relationship with Norman Choi, he was dubious of his plans for De Tomaso and wouldn’t agree to work on the brand’s revival unless Norman Choi bought out Michael Choi.
When that apparently happened, Berris said he devoted more than 80 hours each week in creating a one-man automaker from De Tomaso, using contacts at automakers such as Roush and other manufacturers to secure a future for the fledgling restarted brand. Despite warnings that Norman Choi was lying about the companies’ performance—including a scheduled delivery for an Apollo vehicle that never materialized in Germany—Berris said he worked tirelessly to create the vestiges of a supercar maker. In 2019, Berris unveiled the De Tomaso P72 prototype at the Goodwood Festival of Speed and secured Carmen Jorda as the brand's development driver and spokesperson.
Money for further development of the P72—even for Jorda—either never materialized or was paid out of pocket by Berris. In a text exchange included in the complaint, Berris outlines how Choi initially claimed a $3.1 million investment into De Tomaso would come from Choi personally but actually came from a reportedly shady Hong Kong-based business called Sino Vision with links to Michael Choi. According to the complaint, Berris alleges the money was laundered through the shell company into De Tomaso to pump up the balance sheets for future plans.
Those plans included taking the company public via a Special Purpose Acquisition Company, known as a “SPAC.” Berris said that in 2021, Norman Choi began laying the groundwork to take De Tomaso public via a SPAC with a partner that had been accused of financial misdealing before the proposed deal. Berris claims that Choi became a partner in the group that would ultimately buy a stake in De Tomaso without his knowledge, Genesis Unicorn Capital, and that the partner for a SPAC was predetermined well in advance of the filing, which is specifically prohibited. The complaint alleges that the president and CFO of Genesis, Samuel Lui, and Choi created a phony paper trail to cover up the predetermined selection and deceive regulators about the timeline for investments.
Berris said Choi pressured him to use unreliable suppliers and partners to build the De Tomaso cars and became “laser-focused” in taking the company public to cash in. Berris said Lui pressured him to alter financial models despite having no role at De Tomaso, and that Choi was lying to deposit-holders about the cars’ progress and timelines. Berris said De Tomaso was not paying suppliers and partners, and that Lui was actively manipulating financial documents for valuation gains.
When Choi and Lui chose to push through the company’s public offering, Berris said he was forced out. According to the complaint, Lui told Berris to sign a resignation letter that would absolve De Tomaso of any claims going forward and, when he refused, threatened his reputation and eventually, his safety. Berris claims Lui told him “things would not end well” if he didn’t comply, forcing Berris into hiding for more than a year.
Berris said Choi paid him merely $33,000 during his tenure at De Tomaso, despite being promised millions. Berris said he deferred his salary to keep De Tomaso afloat but was promised millions for his years of service, sales commissions, and his equity stake. What’s more, Berris said his relationship with Choi was once solid enough to personally sponsor his visa to live in the U.S., although he now says the two have no contact.
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