Former Atlanta Watershed workers file whistleblower lawsuit

Two former employees of the Atlanta Department of Watershed Management have filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the city, saying they were wrongly fired after reporting incidents of fraud and mismanagement inside the troubled department.

The lawsuit, filed last week in Fulton County Superior Court, comes one year after the two employees — Gwendolyn Winston and Loren Yarbrough — were terminated with about a dozen others in what city leaders say was a massive clean-up of the department.

But according to the suit, Winston believes she was eliminated because she reported myriad concerns over health violations, safety hazards, compliance issues and fraud inside the department to her superiors.

Specifically, Winston reported allegations that include an illegal landfill, chemical storage compliance issues, faulty fences and improperly dug holes that resulted in employee accidents, according to the lawsuit. The suit states that a supervisor instructed Winston not to report her violations via email as it would then be subject to open records laws.

Winston was employed by Watershed for less than four months as a safety manager at the time of her firing. What’s more, the lawsuit states she received accolades from Watershed Commissioner Jo Ann Macrina just days before she was terminated.

Yarbrough, a 17-year employee who worked as an assistant Watershed manager at the time of his firing, believes he was ousted after reporting allegations of safety violations and missing equipment, including more than a dozen vehicles that could not be located, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit states that Yarbrough was told by a director, who has since been fired, not to conduct an inventory of the vehicles and equipment.

Attorneys for the workers were not available for an interview on Monday. Winston and Yarbrough seek compensation, legal fees and to be reinstated at Watershed, according to the suit.

Mayor Kasim Reed’s office said Monday that it has not yet been served with the lawsuit. Reed’s office typically does not respond to pending litigation.

Watershed has been under fire in recent years after city leaders discovered hundreds of thousands of dollars in missing or stolen equipment. The items include 28 industrial water meters weighing 700 pounds and worth $5,210 apiece, copper, pipes and more, according to police reports. City officials also have yet to find a missing backhoe worth $80,000.

The city fired 13 people in August 2014. At least six other employees have been arrested at Watershed this year and face theft charges.

City Auditor Leslie Ward released a scathing report of the department’s inventory management practices last fall, an audit that found Watershed couldn’t account for more than 10,000 missing water meters. Ward’s office also found lax security at several Watershed facilities, including keys left in locks.

Macrina has said the bulk of the missing meters went unaccounted for between 2006 and 2009, long before Reed took office.

The department has worked to turn around its image by tightening its security measures, now requiring manager sign-off on equipment check-out, limiting who can order, receive and distribute equipment, and monitoring security-camera feeds from a central location. Watershed also will implement a bar-code system to track its equipment, worth a total of about $20 million.

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