Former D.C. Workers Say Law Doesn't Prevent Retaliation

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By Yolanda Woodlee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 28, 2008

Two years ago, Audrick Payne, an elevator inspector for the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, testified before the D.C. Council that he shut down two poorly operating elevators in the city's own offices at One Judiciary Square. In fact, he later said, half of the 10,000 elevators in the city did not have valid licenses.

For months, Toby Cooper, a senior executive at the D.C. Lottery, complained about a co-worker who she said touched her inappropriately, asked her embarrassing personal questions and warned her not to tell his wife. When he refused to stop the advances, she filed a sexual harassment complaint against him.

Stephen P. Amos, a former employee of the D.C. Department of Transportation, claimed in a recent lawsuit that when he exposed improper city road contracts, his boss threatened to have him escorted from the building.

All three former city workers say they are whistle-blowers who were fired for reporting illegal and unethical behavior and hazardous conditions, in violation of the D.C. Whistleblower Reinforcement Act, which offers protection from retaliation. Other D.C. employees who have reported wrongdoing say they've been terminated, threatened and ostracized. Lawyers and advocates of whistle-blowers say that despite the law, employers still retaliate.

Cooper said Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi, whose independent agency manages the lottery, did not respond to her complaints and terminated her.

David Umansky, a spokesman for Gandhi, said Gandhi never received Cooper's correspondence because it was directed to the general counsel's office. Umansky said her lawsuit had no merit. And the Office of Human Rights concluded that her case wasn't strong enough to take action against the co-worker.

But the worker was eventually fired after other female employees complained of hair pulling, inappropriate touching and being called "darling" at meetings.

Six weeks after the worker's dismissal, Cooper was also given a pink slip. Her supervisors had warned her not to report the harassment, she said in her complaint. In July, Cooper filed an employee discrimination lawsuit in U.S. District Court.

"They fired me for doing what the law says is the right thing to do," Cooper said. "Is it any wonder that no one spoke out all this time about the largest embezzlement case in D.C. history? Of course not. Who would dare speak? It's a culture of corruption -- to look the other way and act like you don't see it."

In November, the Office of Tax and Revenue reported that two workers had been charged with the largest embezzlement case in the city's history. The scam, allegedly led by tax supervisor Harriette Walters, also involved others outside the office and has cost the city up to $50 million.

City officials and residents have repeatedly asked why no one in the tax office reported it, especially because Walters had been conspicuous with gifts and loans to some workers. Tax office employees have said that they didn't know of any wrongdoing and that Walters had said she inherited money from her father and was a high-rolling gambler.

But other government workers say they believe fear of retaliation could have played a part.


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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