Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Politics

Former state worker wins whistle-blower suit; taxpayers' liability could reach $1.9 billion

TALLAHASSEE — The state's economic development office improperly reported thousands of Floridians to collection agencies, a former employee said Monday.

Dianne Parcell, a 30-year state employee, won a whistle-blower lawsuit against the state in April. She went public with the case on Monday, saying the fraudulent practice had yet to be corrected and could damage the credit scores of thousands affected.

The state called Parcell's claims "meritless."

Still, her victory in court was a knock against the Department of Economic Opportunity, which struggled with the launch of its $63 million unemployment benefits website earlier this year.

Gov. Rick Scott controls the agency and is running for re-election. His campaign dismissed the news conference as a "stunt" orchestrated by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist.

"Florida's government has over 150,000 employees — and, in a system that large, there are always bound to be employee conflicts," campaign spokesman Greg Blair said in a statement. "But in typical trial lawyer fashion, Charlie Crist and his campaign are doing what they're good at — using lawsuits for partisan political purposes."

Parcell's lawsuit dates back to July 2012. At the time, her job entailed making sure unemployment benefits were not being overpaid.

It was then Parcell discovered that the state had inappropriately reported 97 people to collection agencies, she said. The veteran employee alerted her supervisor, but was told to ignore the matter. The governor's office had a similarly chilly response, she said.

Parcell, 65, sought whistle-blower protection in August 2012. She was placed on administrative leave the following day and fired two months later, she said.

The state said Parcell had lost her job due to inappropriate conduct at work. But in April, a jury found that Parcell had been fired in retaliation for raising questions, and awarded her more than $50,000 in damages. The state agreed to pay her another $200,000 for attorneys' fees.

Parcell did not collect unemployment insurance while she was out of work, her attorney said.

On Monday, Parcell's attorney, Keisha Rice, said as many as 19,000 Floridians had been wrongly reported to collection agencies.

One Floridian had already demanded $100,000 in damages and settled with the state, Rice said. If all 19,000 were to make similar claims, it would cost the state $1.9 billion, she added.

Parcell said she was bringing the case to the media not to affect the upcoming governor's race, but because the cases had not yet been resolved.

"I don't have a vendetta against Rick Scott," she said. "I'm a Republican."

Still, the news conference raised questions, in part because it was organized by Crist consultant Kevin Cate.

Cate said the event was unrelated to the campaign. "I work for a number of law firms and (the firm that represented Parcell) is one of them," he said.

Crist, too, denied having any involvement in the lawsuit or the news conference. But he did not shy away from sharing his opinion on the case.

"It sounds awful to me — 19,000 people thrown into the briar patch," he said. "What a disservice to people, having your credit screwed around with like that."

Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Contact Kathleen McGrory at [email protected]

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