Florida taxpayers could be on the hook for nearly $2 billion in legal claims according to a whistleblower who says the Department of Economic Opportunity wrongly reported 19,000 Floridians to collections agencies.
Gov. Rick Scott's administration called the claims "meritless," but a jury this spring concluded that the state fired veteran worker Dianne Parcell in retaliation for raising questions about nearly 100 cases where DEO had improperly reported overpayments to Floridians receiving unemployment benefits. The state later settled with Parcell for $250,000.
According to Parcell, she learned of the issue after an individual demanded $100,000 from the state for being wrongly referred to a debt collection agency. The 30-year state worker continued to raise questions about the erroneous referrals to collections agencies of individuals, some of whom were dead, who had filed for bankruptcy or were already paying through the courts. But Parcell said her DEO supervisors told her to quit investigating the cases, put her on administrative leave after she filed a whistle-blower notice in August 2012, and fired her two months later.
Parcell, joined by her lawyers Keisha Rice and Patrick Frank at a press conference outside her Jefferson County home Monday morning, told reporters she was disappointed by how the state agency treated her.
"I was meant to serve as cautionary tale to other state workers, that if you want to speak up, try to do the right thing, and take action, here is what's going to happen to you," she said.
The Department of Economic Opportunity called Parcell's claims "meritless" and referred questions about the case to Scott's campaign. Scott's campaign spokesman Greg Blair called Monday's press conference a political stunt orchestrated by Democratic opponent Charlie Crist's campaign aides.
"Florida's government has over 150,000 employees --- and, in a system that large, there are always bound to be employee conflicts. But in typical trial lawyer fashion, Charlie Crist and his campaign are doing what they're good at --- using lawsuits for partisan political purposes," Blair said in a statement.
Public relations consultant Kevin Cate, a close advisor to Crist, organized Monday's press conference. But Cate said his clients also include several law firms, and Frank said that there had been no coordination with Crist's campaign.
A statement attributed to Rice and released by Cate on Monday afternoon blasted Scott for directing inquiries regarding the whistleblower to the governor's political campaign.
"Doing so only reinforces that this is a top down corporate coverup culture built by Rick Scott," the statement reads. "It was his administration that ignored repeated pleas from the whistleblower to do what's right. It was his administration that then attempted to assassinate the character of the whistleblower. Taxpayers and state employees deserve better from Rick Scott. They deserve action. And two years later, all they are getting is more cover ups."