The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently affirmed a District Court ruling that a Philadelphia School District administrator, who filed a federal whistleblower lawsuit, was exercising his right of free speech as a citizen (as opposed to speaking as a school district administrator) when he told the Philadelphia Inquirer about government contract fraud occurring in the school district.
The whistleblower, a former Philadelphia School District administrator, was fired after telling a local newspaper about a $7.5 million contract for security camera installation that was unlawfully steered to IBS Communications Inc.
In many cases, government agencies must go through a prescribed bidding process before awarding a contract. In addition, government officials are not permitted to use their power to award government contracts to benefit themselves. This is done to protect against government officials using their authority to award contracts to contractors who will provide the official with kickbacks or other forms of compensation.
In this case, the government contract whistleblower told the local paper that the former school district superintendent had steered the security camera contract to a small firm with little district experience and was not on a state list of vendors approved for emergency work. The whistleblower was subsequently fired from his position with the school district.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in November 2010, that Superintendent pushed aside a firm that had already begun work on the emergency project to install the cameras in several schools the state had deemed dangerous. Instead, sources said, the superintendent ordered the contract awarded to IBS. While SDT was on the state list of vendors approved for emergency work, IBS was not.
The whistleblower was placed on administrative leave in December 2010 while the school district investigated the source of the leaked the information. Four months later, the whistleblower was fired, allegedly for violating school district policies regarding forwarding work emails to outside accounts. He then filed a federal whistleblower lawsuit in 2012.
The School District denied that the whistleblower was fired in retaliation for exposing the fraudulent practices involved with the awarding of the camera contract. It also argued that the whistleblower could not use the First Amendment’s protection because he was a high-ranking administrator in the school district and his actions had caused disruption to the school district.
The Court disagreed with the School District stating “Dougherty’s report to The Philadelphia Inquirer exposing Dr. Ackerman’s alleged misconduct is the archetype of speech deserving the highest rung of First Amendment protection,” U.S. Circuit Judge Michael D. Fisher said in an opinion for a three-judge panel.
The appellate court agreed with the U.S. District Court that a jury could reasonably find that the school district caused far more disruption than the whistleblower. In its opinion, the court stated that it would not rule against an employee “where the disruption ‘was primarily the result, not of the plaintiff’s exercise of speech, but of his superiors’ attempts to suppress it.’” Therefore, the whistleblowers lawsuit was allowed to proceed.
The whistleblower is represented by Alice W. Ballard, widely regarded as the best employment attorney in Philadelphia.
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Ross M. Wolfe and the Weiser Law Firm litigate whistleblower lawsuits on a contingent fee basis, so whistleblowers do not pay attorneys’ fees or court costs unless there is a recovery.
Please contact Ross M. Wolfe if you would like to speak with a whistleblower attorney for more information about fraud in government contracts or to schedule a free consultation to confidentially discuss your potential case.