Whistleblowers: Homeless money diverted, we lost our jobs
Two whistleblowers are preparing to sue Fulton County Manager Zachary Williams, claiming he eliminated their jobs because they reported waste and fraud in county government.
The potential plaintiffs presented Williams in July with evidence that county funds had paid for lavish linens, Chiavari wedding chairs and other supplies for an employee’s private event-planning business, said their attorney, A. Lee Parks Jr.
The payments were disguised with false invoices, purportedly to buy bedsheets, dormitory-style seating and toiletries for the county’s homeless shelters, Parks said.
Williams fired deputy Gwendolyn Warren and demoted investigative officer Maria Colon in July after they brought him their findings, Parks alleged in a Sept. 17 letter to Williams and the seven Fulton County commissioners. Two weeks later, Parks said, officials eliminated the county’s internal investigative agency, the Office of Professional Standards, which had employed Colon.
The county manager allegedly told Warren, “Certain commissioners want you gone today,” with no other explanation for her dismissal, Parks said. Colon chose a demotion and $45,000 pay cut rather than be fired, he said.
Williams said Monday the personnel actions were unrelated to the allegations, which are under investigation by Fulton County police.
According to Parks’ letter, Colon found:
- More than $150,000 in county funds had been diverted to benefit an event-planning business run by Nicola Hosier, financial systems supervisor for the county’s Health and Human Services agency. (Parks’ letter misidentifed the name of the business, which is registered with the state as Exquisite Events Atlanta LLC.)
- Juanita Jones, rental coordinator for the county-owned HJC Bowden Center, advertised four county multipurpose centers as venues available for rental through her own business, Events by Juanita. Parks said he believed Jones’ business was allowed to use the facilities without paying rent to the county.
- Livia Shepard, purchasing agent for Fulton County’s homeless shelters, prepared false invoices to cover some of the purchases for Exquisite Events
When Colon and Warren told the county manager of the findings, Parks wrote:
“Williams expressed concern over Exquisite co-owner Cheryl Estes’ close ties to Commisioner [Nancy] Boxill, with whom Ms. Estes was planning to travel to South America for a conference. Williams instructed that Warren and Colon ‘not put anything in writing’ and stop further inquiry until after the November 2010 elections because, in Williams’ words, ‘it could get too political.’ “
Later, on July 5, Warren decided to forward Colon’s findings to District Attorney Paul Howard for prosecution. Two days later, Williams fired her effective immediately, “primarily due to the investigations of OPS,” Parks wrote. A week later, Ms. Colon accepted a demotion with a salary reduced from $105,000 to $60,180, according to Parks.
Williams eliminated the Office of Professional Standards on July 20, Parks said.
Parks, whose firm specializes in such cases, said Williams’ actions were “among the most brazen and decisive acts of retaliation against a whistleblower” that he had ever seen:
“Given the massive level of fraud undertaken by the Exquisite group, it is astounding that County Manager Williams, with full knowledge of the content of Colon’s investigation, would urge Colon and Warren to ‘keep quiet’ about their findings, and then eliminate their jobs when they refused. More disturbing still is the action of members of the County Commission to intervene on behalf of the perpetrators of this fraud and demand the dismemberment of the very agency whose job was to uncover fraud, waste, and abuse in Fulton County. The whistleblowers were punished for doing the right thing and protecting the integrity of County funds, while the thieves are still employed to this day … This is among the most brazen and decisive acts of retaliation against a whistleblower that I have encountered in my many years representing whistleblowers.”