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Fired Hillsborough County staffer claiming whistle-blower status denied temporary reinstatement

TAMPA — A former Hillsborough County affordable housing official who says he was fired for exposing workplace wrongdoing has lost an initial bid to get his job back.

Michael Rowicki had asked to be temporarily reinstated in the planning post he held until June of this year and be allowed to work until a whistle-blower claim he has filed in state court can be heard. But Circuit Judge Ralph Stoddard ruled that Rowicki has failed to show thus far that he deserves whistle-blower protection under state law.

"Neither his testimony (at a hearing earlier this month), nor his written grievance, support his allegations of having made disclosures protected by the (whistle-blower) Act," Stoddard wrote in an order released last week.

The ruling deals a major blow to Rowicki's lawsuit. While it technically only blocks his temporary return to his job while the case moves forward, the order questions whether Rowicki has a case at all.

His lawyer, Cynthia Sass, said she will seek a rehearing before the judge, and if that is not successful, she will appeal the order. Meanwhile, Rowicki also has a civil service complaint with the county that he will continue to pursue, she said.

"I think it's wrong," Sass said of the judge's ruling. "That's why we're appealing."

Rowicki was one of a trio of affordable housing workers who left their jobs as they were being investigated in connection with poor or questionable work performance. All have challenged the circumstances of their departures, and Sass has managed to poke some holes in the county's depiction of her client's behavior.

In his suit, Rowicki claims he had helped expose a threat that the county stood to forfeit $2 million in federal grant money if it missed a deadline for locking up a plan on how the money would be spent. Ultimately, the county did lose the money, which angered commissioners and put County Administrator Pat Bean under their glare.

Former affordable housing officer Howie Carroll, whom Rowicki blames for missing the deadline, was subsequently removed from his post.

Under state law, workers claiming they were fired for exposing wrongdoing may seek to return to their jobs while their lawsuits are being heard. To do so, they must show that they disclosed potential problems before they were fired and that their allegations had been made in good faith.

To meet that standard, Rowicki noted that he had filed a written grievance with the county in January 2008 and raised the matter again in testimony given as part of a review of the lost money by the county's internal performance auditor. But Stoddard said Rowicki's grievance did not mention the lost grant money.

"The court has reviewed the grievance submitted, and finds it to be a rambling, somewhat disjointed litany of incidents evidencing his view that the workplace was dysfunctional," Stoddard wrote. "There do not appear to be any specific accusations that would constitute a violation of law or rule."

The judge wrote that Rowicki's statements to the auditor came well after it was known that the county would have to forfeit the grant money. He said that Rowicki voiced the allegations as a means of deflecting attention from himself.

Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

Fired Hillsborough County staffer claiming whistle-blower status denied temporary reinstatement 12/30/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 30, 2009 11:56pm]
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