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    Whistleblower denies lying to State Ethics Commission

     

    By JIM WALLS

    A whistleblower who accused state ethics lawyers of misconduct was herself fired over allegations of fraud and dishonesty.

    Jennifer L. Ward, budget and human resources administrator for the State Ethics Commission, was dismissed in November. The reasons included her alleged failure to drop a former employee from the payroll and her statement that she fabricated salary figures to help her old boss get a pay raise, personnel records show.

    Ward, through her attorney, denied wrongdoing and claimed her new boss, Tom Plank, canned her for complaining to others about his private law practice. Inspector General Liz Archer, in a July 14 report, concluded that Plank and his law partner made phone calls and did Internet research for the law firm on state time.

    In a Nov. 18 memo, Plank said Ward:

    • Told him IT manager Brian Hess was off the payroll even though he was paid for a month after his resignation;
    • “Lied” to commission members to justify a pay raise for the agency’s former top administrator, Rick Thompson, and
    • Falsely accounted for a missing flat-screen TV monitor that she later acknowledged could not be found.

    The $8,000 or so paid to Hess after his resignation squeezed an already tight budget, Plank wrote. Commission staffers had to take extra unpaid furlough days because of an unexpected $9,500 budget shortfall.

    Ward’s attorney, Regan Keebaugh, said she denies the allegations.

    Keebaugh said Thompson directed her to keep Hess on the payroll for a month after his resignation and she was never told to do otherwise. Thompson, not she, compiled the comparable ethics agency salaries that she forwarded to the commissioners, Keebaugh said.

    “Jennifer’s position is that she did what she was instructed to do,” the attorney said.

    Thompson, in an interview, disputed Ward’s account of the circumstances surrounding his pay.

    Thompson said the commission, when he was hired, promised to raise his annual salary to $140,000 after a year on the job. When the time came, he said, he asked Ward to research comparable salaries for the commission members’ review.

    “They already promised it, and they just wanted to see what other people made,” Thompson said. “I saw what she gave them. It looked right to me.”

    Thompson earned about $136,000 in fiscal year 2008 and $144,000 in fiscal year 2009, the state auditor’s salary database shows. He stepped down in October.

    Ward filed suit last month under Georgia’s whistleblower statute, which allows reinstatement and back pay for a state employee who can prove unlawful termination.

    In the lawsuit, Ward said she complained to Thompson last August and September that Plank and another commission staffer, Yasha Heidari, were abusing sick leave and running a private law practice on state time. (Thompson said he recalls an employee informing him of the law practice, but he does not believe that it was Ward.)

    Ward’s attorney said she did not complain to the Office of the Inspector General until Nov. 16, when she learned she was about to be fired.

    Inspector General Liz Archer had already opened an investigation after receiving several e-mails about the law practice a few weeks earlier from a source identified only as “Citizen Pain.”

    Keebaugh said Ward’s whistleblower case would be bolstered if she were Citizen Pain, but she wasn’t.

    “To be honest with you, I wish it was Jennifer,” he said.

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