Fulton invokes immunity in whistleblower case

Responding to allegations of a high-level cover up of a scheme that siphoned $183,000 in taxpayer funds into employees’ pockets, Fulton County is invoking the principle that “the king can do no wrong.”

Fired Deputy County Manager Gwen Warren and demoted internal investigator Maria Colon both sued in December under the state whistleblower act.

They claim they were retaliated against because they planned to hand the district attorney evidence of embezzlement by a group of Human Services employees, even after County Manager Zachary Williams ordered them to hold off until after November elections, saying “it could get too political.”

Williams has denied making the statement and said the firing and demotion were for other reasons that he wouldn’t disclose.

In filed answers to the complaints, the Fulton County attorney’s office argues that the government can’t be sued this way because it has sovereign immunity, referring to the common-law doctrine of the infallibility of kings and queens, carried over into American law to protect taxpayers from having to fork over massive lawsuit awards. Fulton argues that the state constitution gives counties that protection unless specifically waived by an act of the Legislature, and no language in the whistleblower law does so.

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The law was enacted in 1993 to protect public employees who report “fraud, waste and abuse.” It initially applied only to the state government, but lawmakers expanded it in 2007 to include cities and counties.

Fulton argues that the act doesn’t apply because it still only covers abuse of state funds and programs.

And the women aren’t technically whisteblowers, the county says, because Warren was in a supervisory position and Colon only uncovered the alleged wrongdoing because it was her job.

If Fulton’s argument prevails, it would limit the law’s protections and have devastating effects on pending cases, one of Warren’s and Colon’s attorneys said.

“They’re trying to basically gut the law,” James Radford, of Parks, Chesin & Walbert, said.

County Attorney David Ware did not return a call last week, and Williams, through an assistant, referred to a prepared statement Ware released in December.

“That Act was never designed to allow disgruntled employees to wage war against a public employer because the employer takes legally appropriate employment action,” Ware’s statement said. “Nor was the Act designed to allow employees to recover for performing the jobs for which they were hired.”

State Rep. Richard Golick, R-Smyrna, who pushed the 2007 amendment in the House, said the law was intended to combat corruption at the local level and protect those who come forward.

One of Golick’s co-sponsors on the amendment, House Majority Whip Edward Lindsey, R-Buckhead, is pushing for reform of the Fulton County government. He said the sovereign immunity argument is bogus, but if it succeeds he’ll work to have the law rewritten and restored.

“That’s exactly the kind of conduct by local government that we were trying to put a stop to,” he said.

Warren’s and Colon’s claims paint a picture of a Fulton County government rife with malfeasance from the lowest levels to the top.

After he became Fulton county manager, Williams created the Office of Professional Standards in 2009, on Warren’s recommendation, to look into whistleblower complaints. Colon, its only investigator, reported to Warren.

Among other troubling discoveries, Colon found $183,194 in county funds had been diverted to four county employees and their private event-planning company, Exquisite Events Atlanta LLC.

Former financial systems supervisor Nicola Hosier charged linens, china and a banquet table on her county-issued credit card, Colon wrote in an internal investigation obtained by the AJC.

Walmart gift cards charged to the county were used to buy furniture, bedding, appliances, video games and champagne flutes that were delivered to Hosier and others at home.

Some of Colon’s work garnered hostility from certain commissioners, the lawsuit alleges.

Warren said Williams quoted Commissioner Emma Darnell as telling him, “At Fulton County, we don’t investigate ourselves.”

Darnell said last week that the county attorney has not cleared commissioners to speak about the matter.

“What will be said will be said under oath,” she said.

Things also grew hot, the suit says, because one of the Exquisite co-owners, Human Services program manager Cheryl Estes, had close ties to former Commissioner Nancy Boxhill, traveling with her to a United Nations-sponsored conference in Brazil in March.

Warren claims Williams cited their relationship when he urged her and Colon to back off.

In July, the lawsuit contends, Warren told Williams that she couldn’t keep quiet any longer and was going to the DA.

Two days later, Commissioner William “Bill” Edwards added an item to the day’s meeting agenda called “What is the role of the Office of Professional Standards?”

After a closed meeting, Williams fired Warren, the suit says.

Professional Standards was subsequently shut down, with Colon demoted to research analyst with a $45,000-a year pay cut.

Her attorney later forwarded her findings to the DA, and Hosier, 37, has since been charged with 15 counts of forgery and credit card theft.

Questions have been raised about the timing of her arrest by Fulton police, two days after the Nov. 2 election.

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