By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
A former employee at the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) won a lawsuit against the state. In the suit, she claims the DEO inappropriately reported thousands of Floridians to collections agencies, which has resulted in botched credit scores for many.
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.
…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.
Back in August 2012, Parcell received whistleblower protection and was fired after two months of administrative leave. While the state claims Parcell was fired for misbehaving at work, a jury in April found that she was actually fired in retaliation for her interest in what was happening with those collection agencies.
In total, Parcell has won a $250,000 judgment against the state–$53,000 in damages, the rest in attorneys’ fees.
According to the News Service of Florida, this could also result in a serious tab for the taxpayers to pay, if many of the Floridians affected come forward and seek damages.
The News Service reported:
Florida taxpayers could be on the hook for nearly $2 billion in legal claims according to a whistle-blower 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.
Gov. Rick Scott claims the lawsuit is a campaign stunt crafted by the Crist campaign.
As The Tallahassee Democrat noted, the press conference in which Parcell announced the lawsuit was orchestrated by someone with ties to the Crist campaign:
Parcell discussed the case, with her attorneys at her side, during a news conference outside her Jefferson County home. The event was organized by Kevin Cate, a spokesman and adviser for former Gov. Charlie Crist, who is running for governor as a Democrat against Gov. Rick Scott.
Frank denied that the case was being made public now because of the governor’s race.
“We didn’t coordinate with the Crist campaign,” he said. “We retained the services of someone who also works for the Crist campaign.”
Scott’s campaign also said in a statement to the media that “Florida’s government has over 150,000 employees – and, in a system that large, there are always bound to be employee conflicts.”