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Former DeKalb watershed director files whistleblower lawsuit

DeKalb County’s former Watershed Management director has filed a whistleblower lawsuit that accuses top county leaders of mismanagement and corruption.

Scott Towler said problems began soon after then-CEO Lee May hired him in late 2015 and continued through his resignation on March 7.

He charges in the lawsuit that multi-million dollar watershed management contracts were approved without going through the bidding process; that new developments were approved for connections to the sewer system even though there wasn’t enough capacity; that unqualified people were allowed to sign off on new sewer connections in violation of a consent decree negotiated with state and federal regulators; and that taxpayer money was misspent at May’s behest.

Scott Towler, then-director of the DeKalb County Department of Watershed Management, speaks during a groundbreaking at the Snapfinger Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant in 2015. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

The suit also details conflicts Towler had with current CEO Michael Thurmond and Ted Rhinehart, deputy chief operations officer of infrastructure.

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Towler said he was repeatedly asked to ignore county policy or professional standards and, when he refused, was stripped of duties. The lawsuit says the Georgia Whistleblower Act protected him from retaliation and means he should be allowed to work again.

“[DeKalb County’s] actions in forcing Mr. Towler out of his job amount to a constructive termination of Mr. Towler’s employment,” the lawsuit claims.

Towler is asking for a jury to give him his $180,000-a-year job back and pay him for the time he has missed.

DeKalb County CEO Mike Thurmond said he is trying to fix problems in the long-troubled Department of Watershed Management. File photo by Akili-Casundria Ramsess/Special to the AJC (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

The county released a statement that said it will “exhaust all legal remedies” in fighting the lawsuit.

“Mr. Towler is a disgruntled former employee that has made an ongoing series of slanderous, baseless accusations against county leadership,” the statement said. “An internal investigation initiated several months prior to Mr. Towler’s resignation found that he was guilty of ‘double-dipping,’ costing taxpayers over $5,000.”

The statement said Towler’s ouster was part of Thurmond’s effort to clean house after he took office in 2017 and took note of poor leadership and dysfunction in the Department of Watershed Management.

Towler’s attorneys at the Thrasher Worth law firm did not respond to a request to provide more insight on his lawsuit.

Towler’s resignation letter became public on the same day a massive water main break crippled operations across DeKalb County, although the two issues were unrelated. In both the lawsuit and the letter, he accused high-level county officials of stripping him of duties when he became critical of how DeKalb was addressing provisions under a state and federal consent decree to address sewage spills.

“Although Mr. Towler faced retaliation — marginalized within (Department of Watershed Management), excluded from meetings, and reprimanded for his objections — he remained at (DeKalb County) and tried to do his job to the best of his ability,” the lawsuit said.

DeKalb County Deputy Chief Operating Officer Ted Rhinehart discusses the water main break on Buford Highway at the Doraville City Council Chambers Wednesday. PHOTO / JASON GETZ (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Towler requests a jury trial and said his goal is either to be reinstated to his job with back pay or be awarded three years of his salary if he can’t return to the position. Towler is also asking a jury to award damages for mental anguish and suffering.

Days after Towler submitted his resignation, the county released a report that concluded he violated a take-home vehicle policy and improperly received $5,257.75 in monthly car allowance disbursements. He agreed to pay it back.

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