Fulton County: Whistleblowers cannot sue us
By JIM WALLS
Two Fulton County employees who lost their jobs are not whistleblowers, attorneys for the county say, but even if they were, they can’t sue the county.
Gwen Warren, former deputy county manager, and internal investigator Maria Colon filed suit last month, claiming they got caught up in the backlash against a politically sensitive probe of the misuse of county funds. Warren was fired and Colon demoted in July, the women say, because they planned to turn their findings over to prosecutors.
Now Fulton County, in its legal response, argues it is immune from claims filed under Georgia’s whistleblower statute. The county’s position, if upheld by the courts, could undermine whistleblower suits across the state.
The county invokes the principle of sovereign immunity — derived from the doctrine in English common law that “the king can do no wrong” — in court papers filed recently.
Under the Georgia Constitution, that immunity can only be waived by statute when the Legislature has specifically included language to do so, county attorney say. The whistleblower law, they say, does not contain such language.
Even if it did, the attorneys argue, the law only protects whistleblowers who have tried to expose misuse of state money:
“The Georgia Whistleblower Act applies to the receipt by a public employer of complaints or information from any public employee concerning the possible existence of any activity constituting fraud, waste, and abuse in or relating to any state programs and operations under the jurisdiction of such employer.” O.C.G.A. 45-1-4(b). The Act is clear that the activities sought to be protected are complaints or disclosure of information relating to state programs and funds. …
“While the purpose of the Act, to discourage fraud with respect to the use of state funds in connection with state programs and operations, is an admirable one, it does not apply to the instant matter. The complaint is entirely devoid of any allegation that any alleged complaint or information provided to Warren by Colon was related to state funds or a state program or operation.”
Colon, hired by County Manager Zachary Williams to handle complaints of waste and misconduct in county government, uncovered evidence of at least $180,000 in misspent money in the county’s human services agency.
Much of the money was allegedly diverted to benefit an event-planning business owned by four employees of that agency, Colon wrote in a July 27 memo to Williams that summarized her findings. One of those employees — Nicola Hosier — was arrested Nov. 4 on 15 counts of forgery and credit card theft.
Colon, who reported to Warren, was demoted in July with a $45,000-a-year pay cut. Williams fired Warren a few weeks earlier.