TAMPA — Gov. Rick Scott said Friday that a successful whistleblower lawsuit against his administration concerning thousands of unemployed people improperly referred to collections agencies is “nothing but Charlie Crist trying to come up with a way to complain.”
Scott was dismissive of the lawsuit, in which the state paid a former state employee $250,000, as “all basically Charlie Crist. It’s run by his campaign to bring up lawsuits because he doesn’t have a record.”
Scott’s comments, during an interview with the Tampa Tribune editorial board, were the first time he has publicly addressed the matter.
After the whistleblower outlined her charges against the state earlier this week, administration officials referred reporters’ questions to Scott’s re-election campaign, calling the charges a campaign stunt.
The woman, a 30-year state employee named Dianne Parcell, held a news conference Monday to announce that she had won the lawsuit against the state Department of Economic Opportunity where she formerly headed a unit whose job was to recover improperly paid unemployment benefits.
Parcell said she found in July 2012 that more than 19,000 people had been improperly referred to collections agencies, even though their excess benefits were uncollectable because, in some cases, they were bankrupt, dead or already repaying the benefits as result of civil settlements.
When she brought that to her supervisor’s attention, she said, she was told to ignore it. She was also rebuffed when she referred the matter to the Governor’s Office, and was fired in October 2012.
A jury awarded here $53,000 in back pay and more than $195,000 in legal fees.
Parcell’s lawyer, Patrick Frank of Tallahassee, said at least one of the people improperly referred to a collections agency has filed a claim against the state for $100,000 and the claim was settled. He said he doesn’t know for how much.
Frank said he doesn’t know whether any of the other benefits recipients have filed claims.
State officials maintained Pwarcell was fired because of her aggressive behavior during a meeting held to discuss problems with the state’s effort to track down people who had been overpaid.
After her news conference Monday, Department of Economic Opportunity spokeswoman Jennifer Diaz declined to discuss the lawsuit other than to say Parcell’s claims were “meritless.”
She said that because Parcell’s news conference was handled by Kevin Cate, a public relations consultant who also works for the Crist campaign, questions about it should go to the “various political campaigns.”
Scott’s re-election campaign spokesman Greg Blair responded to the questions by criticizing Crist and saying that in a large government there are “always bound to be employee conflicts.”
Asked whether he intends to look into the matter, Scott told the Tribune Friday, “This is just Charlie Crist trying to come up with a way to complain. There’s over 100,000 state workers. State workers have disagreements. The Department of Economic Opportunity is working hard to make sure that we have an unemployment system that works.”
Asked why questions about the case should be referred to his campaign, he said, “This is all basically Charlie Crist. It’s run by his campaign, to bring up lawsuits because he doesn’t have a record. He can’t run on anything. So what he’s doing is just going and trying to create dirt. That’s all he does. He’s a mudslinger.”
During the interview, Scottalso emphasized his sympathy for people who are unemployed, citing his own origins in a working class, financially stressed family and his stepfather, a truckdriver subject to frequent layoffs.
Parcell’s lawyer, Patrick Frank of Tallahassee, said calling her lawsuit “some kind of political sneak attack is crazy,” in part because it “far predates Mr. Crist’s candidacy.”
Frank said Parcell is a lifelong Republican and he is also a Republican who has done work for the state Republican Party.
“She identified this problem that could cause catastrophic damage to the state budget, and to thousands of people and their credit rating. She brought this to light, and it wasn’t politicial,” he said.
He said he hired Cate because his client “wanted to get this information out to people. Her reputation meant everything to her. Kevin is a topnotch public relations guy so we hired him to do that.”
Cate said he works for numerous clients including the Crist campaign, and that he first learned of the Parcell case when he was approached by Frank’s law firm and hired to arrange the news conference five days before it took place.
“This was a two-year-long process,” he said. “They they fired her, they called her names, and then the independent commission called on to investigate it, the Florida Commission on Human Relations, and a jury of her peers, both sided with her.”
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report