Fired official Eric Payne’s lawsuit against D.C. will continue

December 17, 2013

The former D.C. contracting official who says he was fired for objecting to political meddling in the award of a lucrative and controversial lottery deal is vowing to continue his fight in federal court.

Eric W. Payne’s three-year-old lawsuit against the District and his former boss, Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi, was dealt a blow this month when a judge threw out several counts and dismissed Gandhi as a defendant.

But in court Tuesday Payne’s attorneys pressed ahead, telling U.S. District Court Chief Judge Richard W. Roberts that they would ask him to reconsider his decision to narrow the case and that they were ready to proceed to trial and put on a case with as many as 14 witnesses.

Those witnesses, Payne attorney Donald M. Temple said in an interview, include Gandhi, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1).

Tuesday’s hearing made clear that Payne, who served as contracts director for the finance office until his firing in January 2009, will not retreat quietly. His lawsuit has put into the public record allegations, depositions and documents that have proved politically thorny for Gandhi, Graham and Gray.

Roberts’s Dec. 3 decision to grant, in part, the District’s motion for summary judgment heartened some of the defendants.

Graham, in an interview, said it “cleared away” questions about his role in the lottery contract controversy. D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan, whose office is defending the District, said the ruling proved that the city had “legitimate grounds for dismissing [Payne] from his position” and suggested that the city would prevail on his other allegations of retaliation.

Roberts found that Payne did not offer evidence that the stated reasons for his firing were a pretext that provided cover for illegal retaliation. But the judge found that Payne has alleged other acts of retaliation that involve significant factual disputes that can be resolved only at trial.

On Monday, the District asked Roberts to dismiss Payne’s remaining claims. In court Tuesday, Temple said Payne intended to ask the court to consider reinstating the dismissed claims.

Temple also asked the court Tuesday to require Gandhi to answer new questions about Payne’s firing, saying answers he gave in a deposition were later contradicted by comments he made to The Washington Post. Assistant Attorney General Sarah L. Knapp told Roberts that the city would “absolutely” oppose that request.

Ted Gest, a spokesman for Nathan, declined to comment further on the case.

Payne, in an interview, said he is “still looking for justice” and called it “disgraceful” that city officials have sought to discourage whistleblowers. “There is a price government pays for that,” he said.

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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