Both suits allege retaliation for exposing fraud
By RON AIKEN
As reform of the South Carolina Department of Transportation has become a wedge issue in the gas-tax debate at the State House, two former DOT employees — an environmental scientist-turned-whistleblower and the former top internal investigator — have filed lawsuits featuring scathing allegations ranging from malfeasance, corruption and millions of dollars in waste to a culture of intimidation and retribution at the agency against anyone who cries foul on its people or practices.
At the heart of both cases are the alleged consequences of telling the truth to high-level managers about fraud, waste and abuse at the agency to the tune of millions of dollars over a long period of years.
For Jeffrey West, a DOT biologist for nearly 30 years whose specialty is surveying an endangered mussel species called the Carolina Heelsplitter, crying foul on agency practices and his superiors is not new.
Back in 2011 he filed a lawsuit against three DOT supervisors — Randy Williamson, Ronald Patton and John Walsh — whom he accused of denying him promotions after he raised concerns that specific agency practices he witnessed that led to “millions of dollars in infrastructure funds used improperly and mismanaged while highway travel infrastructure continued to deteriorate, crumble, and remain in serious need of repairs.”
That suit ultimately settled out of court in April 2014, with the result being a financial settlement and a promise that West would be allowed to continue to work until his retirement date of 2017, though mostly from home.
His latest suit, filed Tuesday, addresses alleged violations of that settlement agreement that include an organized campaign of defamation of character, intimidation and retribution against him that led to his ostracization by agency personnel, inability to work and persistent defamation of character. The suit names names both Williamson (environmental manager) and Patton (director of planning) from the previous case while adding Heather Robbins (National Environmental Policy Act coordinator) and DOT as a whole.
While West’s suit details what he calls a “civil conspiracy” to prevent him from working or engaging with colleagues, former Chief Internal Auditor Paul Townes’s suit, filed in November, details a prolonged battle with both supervisors and DOT Commissioner Mike Wooten for control of the office’s direction, including Towne’s right to investigate the agency’s biggest cases.
The deputy internal auditor since 2008 before taking the top post in 2012, the suit alleges Townes’ reputation for viewing his responsibility as being to the taxpayer rather than management ran him afoul of DOT commissioners “because he refused to look the other way, play good-ol-boy politics, or be a ‘yes man.'”
“(DOT) has long struggled with fiscal responsibility, transparency, and has had serious problems with waste, fraud and abuse.”
That relationship with the commission deteriorated further with the addition of Commissioner Mike Wooten in 2013. Wooten took issue privately and publicly with Townes’ approach, one the suit alleges saved DOT millions of dollars over the years.
As Townes fought unsuccessful public and private efforts by Wooten to have him fired, which included “an arbitrary, capricious and false written reprimand” in July, 2015. A month later before the Legislative Oversight Committee, Townes testified that “we used to do fraud investigations at the (DOT), but we’ve been prevented from doing those now.”
Despite stating at the same meeting to former Rep. Ralph Norman that he would fire Townes at the next commission meeting, Wooten lacked the authority to do so and was not able to. A year later, however, Wooten’s lobbying efforts bore fruit, the suit alleges, when Townes was transferred by legislative amendment to the State Auditor’s Office in July 2016. On Aug. 9, Townes was told he was being replaced, and shortly thereafter was told he could retire or be terminated effective Sept. 5.
Townes’ suit alleges defamation, retaliation and wrongful termination.
Townes and West were well acquainted during their time at DOT. West states in his suit that he turned in his “captured reports of financial waste and mismanagement” to Townes, “who produced reports and was also retaliated against for exposing fraud and waste.”
“Meanwhile, SCDOT concealed wrongful activities by employees wherever possible. The public mistreatment and abuse of whistleblowers such as Messrs. West and Townes was also intended to send a warning to any potential future whistleblowers that they would suffer similar consequences.”
For Townes, the consequences of changing audit priorities away from criminal investigations are obvious — in July 2016 three DOT employees in three separate investigations were indicted by a state grand jury for crimes ranging from bribery to fraud to a kickback and corruption scheme that operated for six years. Combined, the activities defrauded taxpayers of more than $400,000.
Charles Shirley, one of the three indicted men who served as a field operations manager, reportedly received $360,000 himself from business he steered to a company he had his neighbor create. Shirley died suddenly two months after the indictments in what has been reported as a suicide.
“When we see the sad state of affairs with our bridges, highways and roads and the current issue of raising taxes, reports from men like Townes and West make us wonder if these are not some of the things that have gotten us into this miserable state,” attorney for the two men J. Lewis Cromer said in a release.
Reach Aiken at (803) 200-8809. Email him at email@example.com, and follow him on Twitter @RonAiken and @QuorumColumbia.