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Whistleblower suit alleges retaliation

(Published August 13, 2001)

By KATHRYN SINZINGER

Staff Writer

As a D.C. health department employee, Madeleine Fletcher revealed massive spoilage of food at a school warehouse and hazardous health conditions at the D.C. Jail.

Then she lost her job.

Now she’s asking D.C. Superior Court to discipline city officials, restore her $52,000 a year job and award her damages from Dr. Ivan C.A. Walks, the city’s health director.

Her lawsuit may be the first test of a revision to the city’s whistleblower protection law that allows public employees to hold city officials personally responsible for alleged retaliation, according to her attorney, F. Douglas Hartnett of the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower support group.

"There is a remedy in the new statute that says a court can order an employee to be disciplined for retaliation. Lying is not part of Dr. Walks’ official duties," Hartnett said, noting that his client’s lawsuit in part charges Walks with making "several patently false statements about Dr. Fletcher" at a D.C. City Council hearing in April 2000.

Peter LaVallee, a spokesman for the D.C. Corporation Counsel’s Office, said city lawyers would have no comment on Fletcher’s lawsuit until they file their official response with the court. The response must be filed by Sept. 24.

Fletcher’s suit, which names the D.C. Department of Health and Dr. Walks as defendants, was filed July 25. In addition to seeking compensatory damages from the city, Fletcher is seeking a $1 million damage award from Dr. Walks personally for alleged "defamation, negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and for violation of civil rights."

A former health department epidemiologist, Fletcher discovered nearly 200 tons of outdated, spoiled and contaminated food in a D.C. Public Schools warehouse during a December 1999 inspection that was prompted by a complaint she received about moldy food being fed to schoolchildren. She also was part of an inspection team that discovered potentially hazardous health conditions at the D.C. Jail after a correctional officer contracted a near-fatal case of Legionnaire’s disease in June 2000.

Fletcher contended that she was pulled off the food warehouse investigation after she forwarded a copy of her inspection report to D.C. Inspector General Charles Maddox. Her contract to work for the city was not renewed when it expired at the end of August 2000, despite the objections of her immediate supervisor, Dr. Martin E. Levy, who described her as an "essential" employee. Levy, who was chief of the city’s Bureau of Epidemiology and Disease Control, has since then lost his job.

Fletcher is the second city worker who was involved in the food warehouse investigation that has filed a lawsuit alleging whistleblower reprisal. Alfred Jacobs, a 13-year employee of the D.C. Public Schools food services department who accompanied Fletcher on her December 1999 tour of the Northeast Washington warehouse, was fired from his job last year and filed suit in D.C. Superior Court after unsuccessfully challenging his dismissal through administrative proceedings.

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator