The office of Attorney General Greg Abbott — the Republican gubernatorial candidate — is appealing a whistleblower's lawsuit and $1.2 million verdict, arguing that an El Paso jury was wrong when it decided that the agency fired an employee in retaliation for alerting supervisors to internal wrongdoing.
The jury awarded damages last year to Laura Rodriguez, a veteran employee of the agency who argued that she was fired after blowing the whistle on alleged insurance fraud by a coworker. Abbott’s office says there is a “complete lack of evidence” that she was fired in retaliation.
It is the second whistleblower lawsuit against the office of Abbott to grab recent headlines. It comes amid a pitched political battle between Abbott and state Sen. Wendy Davis, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, who has made the whistleblower cases a campaign issue.
In the El Paso case, an appeal that Abbott's office filed last week outlines Rodriguez's allegations. Rodriguez was working as an office manager in December 2008 in the attorney general's El Paso Child Support Division when she discovered potential insurance fraud in her office, according to court documents. She learned that her executive assistant and longtime friend, Debra Galindo, was requesting to add a child as a dependent to her state-provided insurance plan. In her request, Galindo claimed that the child in question was her niece, but Rodriguez knew that the child was actually the girlfriend of Galindo’s son. Rodriguez reported the matter to an ethics adviser in the AG's office on Jan. 5, 2009, and Galindo was suspended for five days, according to the legal filings.
Rodriguez was fired on April 8, 2010. Less than a month later, she filed a lawsuit against Abbott's office under the Texas Whistleblower Act, arguing that she was terminated because she had reported her coworker's misconduct. The AG's office contended that Rodriguez was fired for many reasons, including a “significant backlog” in her office. The state lawyers argued that there was insufficient evidence to link the firing to Rodriguez’s whistleblowing.
A jury in El Paso, however, decided it had sufficient evidence of retaliation and awarded Rodriguez $1.2 million.
“This lady had been with the AG’s office for 29 years or so,” said Rosemary Morales Marin, Rodriguez's lawyer. “She was an exemplary employee in every position that she held in the agency, even to the point that her supervisor had written a letter to her parents telling them what a fantastic employee she was.”
Lauren Bean, a spokeswoman for the AG’s office, said in an email, “We believe this case was wrongly decided, and we will continue our appeal.”
Last Monday, in a different lawsuit, a Texas appeals court ruled that a former assistant attorney general in Abbott’s office, Ginger Weatherspoon, could proceed with her case against the AG's office. Weatherspoon argues that she was fired for refusing to lie under oath. Abbott's office fought for five years to get the case dismissed, contending that Weatherspoon did not make a "good faith" effort to blow the whistle to the appropriate party.
Davis has been quick to link the whistleblower lawsuits directly to Abbott and make them a campaign issue. Last week, her campaign issued a statement saying that it sent a shipment of whistles to Abbott's office.
“It’s been made clear there are other potential whistleblowers,” Zac Petkanas, a spokesman for Davis, said in a statement.
Representatives for the Abbott campaign did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Jay Root contributed reporting to this story.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/06/24/democrats-pounce-second-ag-whistleblower-case/.