Lottery contract lawsuit is narrowed but not dismissed

December 9, 2013
Jim Graham (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) could still be called to the witness stand in Eric W. Payne’s whistleblower retaliation case. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

In announcing his decision Monday to seek a fifth term on the D.C. Council, Jim Graham cited in interviews the recent dismissal of a high-profile whistleblower lawsuit — one that had made him a central character of allegations of wrongdoing related to the award of the city’s lottery contract in 2008 and 2009.

“It helped to have that cleared away,” Graham said to The Post’s Aaron C. Davis.

Well, things aren’t cleared away entirely. A federal judge last week dismissed some key elements of former contracting official Eric W. Payne’s lawsuit against the District of Columbia and Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi, Payne’s old boss. But other parts of the lawsuit survive, and Payne said last week he expects to ask the judge later this month to set a trial date.

At the center of Payne’s lawsuit is the claim that he was retaliated against and ultimately fired because he objected to political interference in the lottery contract award — including from Graham and then-council chairman Vincent C. Gray. Graham and Gray have vigorously denied the allegations of wrongdoing, which have them trying to steer the contract away from its original awardee for political reasons. Filings in the three-year-old litigation have already painted an unflattering picture of the various officials involved.

U.S. District Judge Richard W. Roberts ruled on Dec. 3 that Payne did not offer evidence that the stated reason for his firing — in the telling of his superiors, he was dismissed due to his abrasive management style — was in fact a pretext covering for illegal retaliation. Because of that, Roberts said, Payne could not prove his wrongful termination claim. But, Roberts found, Payne alleged other acts of retaliation — demotions, etc. — that involve significant factual disputes that can only be resolved at trial. Because Gandhi was not alleged have been involved in those acts, Roberts dismissed him as a defendant.

Graham is not alone is praising Roberts’ judgment. Last week, Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan, whose office is defending the case, hailed the ruling, saying it proved the city had “legitimate grounds for dismissing [Payne] from his position” and suggested the city will prevail on the other retaliation claims “should Mr. Payne decide to pursue this case.”

Payne has given every indication he will pursue the case, and the bad news for Graham et al. is this: Even a trial on much-narrowed claims will be a high-profile affair that keeps the issue in the public eye for many months and will involve city officials — likely to include Gandhi, Graham and Gray — taking the witness stand to answer uncomfortable questions under oath.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis | December 9, 2013