Accused of deceptive practices, R.I. solar company CEO operates in unregulated business climate – News From The States

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Two floors above the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ downtown Providence meetinghouse, a different kind of worship unfolds in an office conference room.

Sunlight streams through the windows on an early afternoon as a group of 20-somethings draped around a wooden table repeat a motivational mantra three times: 

“I am stronger than my emotions.”

Then suddenly, their slumped backs straighten to attention. The monotone chorus halts.

Their sweatshirt-clad boss has entered the room. His name is Jasjit Gotra — he goes by Jay — and he wants to know what they like about the job.

Buzzwords like “personal growth,” “freedom,” and “empowerment” are rattled off. Similar phrases appear on motivational posters adorning the walls. 

Gotra, CEO of Smart Green Solar LLC, has another in his office, hanging beside his desk. It says, “Integrity: doing the right thing when no one is watching.”

But the sales mogul, and his company, are being watched. And some don’t like what they see.

“Leadership is why I’m here, not here for money,” Gotra said in an interview in his office, minutes before the employee meeting. “Money is something I make when I do a good job leading people. We wouldn’t have been successful to the levels we were if we didn’t have the product that we did.”

That success is based on a trail of deception, according to a lawsuit Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha filed last June against Gotra and his company.

“The defendants deceived and took financial advantage of Rhode Islanders who were looking to do the right thing and ‘go green,’ leaving them with significantly less than they bargained for,” Neronha alleged in a statement when the complaint was filed in Providence County Superior Court. “Plainly, there is a leadership void that needs to be remedied, and with dispatch.”

Predatory sales tactics alleged

Court filings are looking to portray an ego-driven boss taking advantage of the unregulated solar sales industry to pad his own pockets. The company and its 42-year-old leader, who mentions his six-pack abs and his $12,500 monthly mortgage in employee training videos available on YouTube, is accused of preying upon senior and blind residents to dupe them into contracts for solar panels they don’t understand.

The lawsuit claims the company’s sales tactics violated state trade laws. The case relies on testimony from former employees and wronged consumers, alongside the public training videos and even an appearance on a sponsored segment of “The Rhode Show” in 2022. Under a second motion filed in November, the attorney general’s office is now trying to ban Gotra from running any consumer sales business in Rhode Island. 

“Indeed, Mr. Gotra … devised a sales method that misleads consumers from almost the minute a Smart Green salesperson first knocks on their door, and the breadth of their deceptive conduct is staggering,” a Jan. 22, 2024 memo filed by the attorney general’s office alleges.

Another company executive “even went so far as to blame consumers for not being ‘smart enough’ when the company’s contracting tactics succeeded,” according to the memo.

Consumers like Michael Pella-Sabourin, 59, of Warwick. Pella-Sabourin considered himself a savvy solar customer, having studied renewable energy installations at Davies Career & Technical High School. Yet he, too, felt duped by Smart Green after he signed a contract for $70,000 worth of solar panels in 2022. 

Michael Pella-Sabourin, who is visually impaired, complained to state regulators after Smart Green Solar installed 12 fewer solar panels on his Warwick home than he paid for. But he has since softened on the company. (Michael Salerno/Rhode Island Current)

As soon as the agreement was inked, the once ever-present salesperson suddenly became unreachable. Months went by, with no word on his loan application to pay for the panels, never mind the installation of the panels themselves. While he paid for 33 panels, only 21 were installed on his two-story colonial, an omission he could not actually see because of a degenerative eye disease that makes him legally blind.

Pella-Sabourin called the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources, which put him in touch with the attorney general’s office to whom he gave verbal testimony for its case against Smart Green. Pella-Sabourin is “Consumer A” in the attorney general’s lawsuit.

Smart Green is the only solar panel company being sued by the state, but not the only one facing scrutiny. Neronha confirmed several others are under investigation, based in part on the complaints streaming into his office.

“Our office has, for years, been grappling with how to protect customers who want to purchase solar panels,” said Stephen Provazza, chief of the attorney general’s consumer and economic justice unit, during a March 21 State House hearing. “It’s one of the most consequential financial decisions a person can make, probably the most expensive after buying a home. And it’s almost completely unregulated now.”

The attorney general’s office received 107 complaints about solar panel companies in 2023, more than double the 48 made in 2022. In the first three months of 2024, the attorney general’s office received 24 complaints.

Nearly half of those — 80 of the 179 made in the last three years — involve Smart Green, according to the attorney general’s office.

The breadth of their deceptive conduct is staggering.

– From memo about Smart Green Solar, dated Jan. 22, 2024, filed in court by the Rhode Island Office of Attorney General

Now, lawmakers are grappling with how to force the burgeoning residential solar industry out of the shadows and into the light of scrutiny by state regulators.

A 2022 law charges the Rhode Island Division of Public Utilities and Carriers with settling contract disputes between customers and solar panel companies. But no template for modeling contracts has ever been created, and enforcement powers are limited because there’s no way to track solar panel retailers in Rhode Island, aside from the state business registration database.

“There could be 50, there could be 100, we just don’t know,” said Elizabeth Dwyer, director of the Rhode Island Department of Business Regulation. 

Rhode Island Department of Business Regulation Director Elizabeth Dwyer says the state has no other system in place to track how many solar panel retailers there are in Rhode Island other than its business registration system. (Michael Salerno/Rhode Island Current)

The department Dwyer leads already licenses lending institutions, some of which offer financing to help homeowners pay for the panels, and electricians who install the equipment. Often, these are separate from retailers that sell the products before passing on financing and installation to other companies. 

The multilayered process makes it hard for residential customers to know who is responsible for what, especially when things go awry, Dwyer said. Even state regulators can’t keep up with which regional solar companies are hawking their wares door-to-door amid ever changing business registrations. 

“If a company gets enough bad reviews or our office reaches out with a complaint, they just change the name of the company to create a new corporate persona,” Provazza said.

Legislation introduced on behalf of state business regulators aims to instill order in the “Wild West” of solar panel sales. Companion bills by Democrats Rep. Mia Ackerman, of Cumberland, and Sen. Jake Bissaillon, of Providence, create a registration process for solar panel retailers and empower the state’s business regulatory agency to enforce penalties against companies who fail to register or who violate standards around financial disclosures, contracts and set hours for door-to-door sales.

“This gives consumers the assurance that the solar panels they are buying are not from fraudsters,” Ackerman said during the March 21 hearing before the House Committee on Corporations. “The message it sends is clear: Rhode Islanders deserve a solar panel market of trustworthy sellers and law-abiding solar panel retailers.”

‘As a CEO, I’m accountable for my actions’

It’s not the first time Gotra has had to fight for his survival.

His first company, Alliance Security Inc., was sued by the Federal Trade Commission in 2014 and 2018 over alleged illegal telemarketing and accessing of consumer credit reports. The home security alarm business reached a $9.85 million settlement with the FTC in 2020, the same year its business registration was revoked by the Rhode Island Department of State.

Gotra did not admit fault as part of the FTC settlement; instead, he blamed third-party marketing contractors who used information on “do not call” lists without his knowledge.

“It’s not like something jail-level illegal,” he said of the complaint in a recent interview.

Asked again about his role in the allegations, he paused, leaning back in his chair before answering.

I did hire some people that were bad actors, right?” Gotra said, his tone softening. “So if you’re asking me the truth of, you know, did I make mistakes? Yes, I was a 30-year-old, running a company. It wasn’t through ill intention. But again, as a CEO, I’m accountable for my actions.”

In 2003, Gotra dropped out of the engineering program at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth to start his home security business, much to the dismay of his immigrant parents — a lawyer and an engineer — who expected their sacrifices would advance his education.

The business venture began out of a spare bedroom in his apartment, drawing upon Gotra’s experience working in a call center for another home security business during his college years.

By 2010, Alliance Security was on Inc. Magazine’s list of the 5,000 fastest growing companies in the U.S. and received the same recognition for the next three consecutive years. By 2015, the company recorded over $100 million in sales with 800 employees. Gotra, 33, was recognized by Providence Business News in its annual “Forty under 40” awards the same year.

It’s a far cry from being the target of teenage bullies who singled him out as an immigrant Sikh in a mostly-white high school in Agawam, Massachusetts.

“There were no Indians in my school, never mind an Indian wearing a turban,” Gotra  said.

In college, he took a part-time call center gig where a supervisor warned him that his accent would make it difficult for him to succeed.

“Honestly, I think the reason I ended up staying there is because a lot of people told me it wasn’t going to work out,” Gotra said.

The FTC lawsuit forced his company to declare bankruptcy, with lenders no longer willing to do business with him.

“If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from my life and my adversities, and everything else, is I don’t have an image problem,” Gotra said. “I don’t care what people think of me, I’m fine with who I am. I’m a person who’s flawed and has made mistakes in his life. And I don’t, you know, pretend to be perfect, but I understand that that’s part of the journey.”

Gotra looked to an NBA star for inspiration to start anew.

“It’s like LeBron James saying that, after he’s learned for 20 years to play basketball (he) should, you know, leave and do something else,” Gotra said. “The problems we faced weren’t because of a lack of leadership. The problems we faced were because of circumstances and a few bad actors.”

‘Door knockers are creating value at the door,’ says CEO Jasjit ‘Jay’ Gotra, shown in Smart Green Solar’s fifth floor office in downtown Providence. (Michael Salerno/Rhode Island Current)

Attention to customer service

Gotra spent several months learning the model of other solar sales companies, tagging along with door knockers in Odessa, Texas, during the height of the pandemic. He took those lessons home and recruited four employees who worked with him at Alliance Security plus a new hire to start Smart Green.

Three years into his new venture, Smart Green boasted a 180-person team that had logged more than 3,000 solar panel sales and installations across Rhode Island and Massachusetts, Gotra said.

But after the lawsuit hit, customers backed away and lenders no longer wanted to do business with him. As profits shrunk, Gotra said he lost a third of his staff.

Yet he refuses to admit fault, nor has he changed anything about the way his business operates. But he has made amends with Consumer A.

Pella-Sabourin now gives glowing reviews to Gotra for “making things right” by calling him after the complaint was filed and refunding him.

“That shows integrity,” Pella-Sabourin said.

Then there is Mercedes Roman. The 60-year-old resident of Charlton, Massachusetts, canceled with Smart Green last year, months after signing a contract for two dozen rooftop solar panels. She said Gotra let her back out without a fight and recalled his affable nature and references to words of wisdom imparted by his mother.

Roman isn’t planning on revisiting the idea of solar panels anytime soon. Neither she nor the salesperson who offered her the deal were aware of the structural issues with her aging roof when she signed the contract. Problems with the roof, and the placement of solar panels on it, were discovered during the installation. In the end, she decided it was too much money and hassle to fix the roof just to add a few solar panels. 

But, she added, “If I were to get panels eventually, I would choose to go with him.”

Manish Shroff, 48,of Westboro, Massachusetts, blasted the company in a Google review in late March. Hours after Shroff posted the public takedown, he said Gotra called him. They had never spoken before.

Shroff told Gotra about the series of botched encounters with the Smart Green sales team and installation crew that led to his roof leaking halfway through the incomplete installation. Gotra wanted to make things right. The two ended up laughing.

Within a week of talking to Gotra, the job was finished. Shroff revised his public review to five stars, praising the installation functionality and the work of the engineers.

Turning up the heat on cold calls

On Smith Hill, regulators with the attorney general’s office, the Rhode Island Division of Public Utilities and Carriers, and the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources are rallying around the prospect of stricter regulation for solar panel retailers. 

Even state Republicans who often balk at government regulations are involved, with a separate, though similar, pair of bills sponsored by Republicans Rep. Brian Rea, of Smithfield, and Sen. Thomas Paolino, of Lincoln.

The solar companies that would be subject to these regulations aren’t all opposed, either.

“There are good, honest companies like ours, and then there are companies just trying to chase money,” said Doug Sabetti, owner of Newport Solar, which started in 2009. “We have a great personal reputation, but all of these shady practices are giving our industry a bad reputation.”

Unlike many regional solar sales retailers, North Kingstown-based Newport Solar does not solicit customers through door knocking or telemarketing. Instead, Sabetti relies on traditional advertising like radio and social media, along with word-of-mouth, to attract customers. 

“Solar is a very big investment, and I don’t think people should be doing it based on suggestion,” Sabetti said. “I don’t want to participate in that pressure.”

Door-to-door sales might seem like a relic of decades past, reserved for Tupperware and encyclopedias. Not to the CEO of Smart Green.

My philosophy is in a world of robots, you’re gonna rely on a person at your door to give you feedback and knowledge,” Gotra said. “Door knockers are creating value at the door in more predictable ways of generating revenue than it is to use social media, where costs fluctuate and change constantly.”

Gotra also said the face time is valuable for educating potential customers about the combination of state and federal financial incentives for his product.

The complexity is where the danger lies, Neronha said.

“Door-to-door sales is a recipe for customers being misled,” Neronha said. “I don’t think anyone loves buying a car, but at least when you’re walking into a dealership, it’s a time of your choosing, and the product is right in front of you. You know exactly what you’re driving away with.”

Dexter Hofhines, a district sales manager for solar panel retailer Summit Energy in Mansfield, Massachusetts, testified at the March 21 State House hearing in support of more regulation as a way to improve training for often-inexperienced door knockers.

In an interview, Hofhines said several former Smart Green employees he has hired displayed an alarmingly warped approach to sales strategy.

“I think genuinely they believe what they say,” Hofines said of Smart Green executives and employees. “But the way they do business, their intentions don’t match the results. All that does is affect the rest of us who really do good business.”

The bill introduced on behalf of the Department of Business Regulation requires solar retail companies to develop standards and qualifications for their employees and third-party salespeople, along with background checks.

The legislation also lays out clear financial disclosures that solar retail companies must share with customers, along with a seven-day period to cancel signed contracts and receive a full refund.

Companies must also pay a registration fee of $500 to $1,000. Failure to abide by any of these provisions could result in financial penalties of up to $5,000 per violation, along with suspension or permanent revocation of their operating licenses.

Residential solar key to meeting climate goals

State regulators want to hold solar panel sales companies accountable. But they also need them to meet the state’s aggressive decarbonization mandates. 

As of December 2023, small-scale solar systems (defined as those that produce less than 25 kilowatts of electricity), produced a combined 143.7 megawatts of electricity, equal to just over 11% of the state’s clean energy portfolio, according to the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources.

While by no means the bulwark of the state’s renewable energy supply, residential solar remains an important part of the state’s path to a net-zero future, as mandated in the Act on Climate law, said Karen Bradbury, the energy resources office’s administrator of energy legislation and programs. 

Signs chart the progress in meeting sales goals at Smart Green Solar’s fifth floor office in downtown Providence. A lawsuit by the Rhode Island Office of Attorney General describes the extent of the company’s ‘deceptive conduct’ as ‘staggering.’ (Nancy Lavin/Rhode Island Current)

Bradbury views stricter state regulation as a way to enhance Rhode Island’s clean energy future, including through solar.

All Gotra sees is hypocrisy.

“In one breath, we say we want to lower the cost to implement solar panels for homeowners, but then we’re building in more charges, and the next thing you know, the costs to homeowners are going up,” Gotra said. 

Gotra’s view: “They’re solving the wrong problem. If they say, let’s register somebody to sell solar, that doesn’t stop somebody from lying about what they’re selling.” 

By Gotra’s logic, it’s not the companies, but workers themselves, who should bear responsibility for aggressive or deceptive sales tactics. 

My philosophy is in a world of robots, you’re gonna rely on a person at your door to give you feedback and knowledge.

– Jasjit Gotra, CEO of Smart Green Solar LLC

Smart Green customer Shroff said Gotra blamed the problems that Shroff experienced around billing and installation on a third-party contractor. 

Yet Gotra, when interviewed, maintained he relied on his own employees for sales and installations 90% of the time, opting to refer to a third-party installation company only during very busy months.

“We’re a full-service company, which means we control the sales, the installation and ongoing service,” Gotra said. “A lot of door knockers you see, they’re actually not local employees that work here, but rather, people for hire that are sent to these markets in the summer. We don’t do that.”

Entry-level door knockers, known as canvassers at Smart Green, must complete a six-day, 20-hour intensive training program, culminating in a verbal test of their ability to regurgitate sales scripts, before heading out to local neighborhoods. Many canvassers are freshly graduated from high school or college, with little to no experience in sales or solar energy; Gotra doesn’t pay much mind to their resumes. He focuses on attitude and willingness to learn. 

That’s how 21-year-old Breylin Rodriguez landed a job as a canvasser with Smart Green six months ago, despite having no work experience or even a high school degree. He dropped out of school in 10th grade, he said. 

A Pennsylvania native, he moved to south Providence with his fiancée and 17-month-old son in June 2023. The job posting was the first one he found on Indeed, he said.

Rodriguez now leads a team of six canvassers, most younger and newer to the job. Each day, the group gathers in Smart Green’s offices to strategize and discuss questions before heading off to their respective “turfs” to knock on doors. They’re required to log 120 “points of contact” each day and set up at least one appointment with a potential customer.

The job requires physical and mental stamina to withstand extreme weather and ornery customers who slam doors, curse and, in rare instances, even call the cops.

“I just stay there, I am not doing nothing illegal,” Rodriguez said. “When people are rude, it doesn’t really affect me.”

The pay helps soften the blow; beyond a $600 weekly base pay, Rodriguez also earns a commission based on the number of sit-down interviews he schedules with potential customers and final sales resulting from leads started by anyone on his canvassing team. In one recent week in March, he made $2,400, he said.

Gotra dismissed the idea that the extra pay might tempt his employees to be overly aggressive, or even mislead, to customers.

Commissions are inextricably tied to sales as incentives across industries. But Dwyer at the Department of Business Regulation said that unlike with real estate agents and car sales, there’s no oversight for solar panel retailers. 

“When you’re getting this many complaints about one industry, that’s an awful lot,” Neronha said. “Regulation is not a panacea, but I think it will have a significant impact.”

A consent order entered on March 14 stipulates Gotra must “refrain” from misrepresentations in his interactions and marketing to customers, along with other disclosures, until the case is adjudicated or settled. Four days later, on March 19, a Superior Court judge denied Gotra’s motion to toss the complaint.

The fact that Gotra has made amends with consumers like Pella-Sabourin hasn’t dissuaded Neronha.

“Apologizing for stealing my refrigerator and then returning it doesn’t make up for stealing my refrigerator,” Neronha said.

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