The state Labor Department’s former purchasing agent claims in a federal whistleblower lawsuit that his firing last June came after higher-ups issued a dummy subpoena and obtained his phone records as they hunted for the source of anonymous complaints of purchasing and hiring violations in the department.
James Cryer, a 23-year department employee, alleges that the department retaliated for his efforts to stop employees from skirting purchasing rules. The suit names Director Ken Edmunds, former Chief Operating Officer Jay Engstrom and the department’s chief technology/security officer, Michael Kalm, as plaintiffs. The department declined to comment Wednesday.
Cryer’s claim, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court, also alleges personnel and employment law abuses and government waste, and cites violations of Cryer’s rights to free speech and against unreasonable search.
It alleges that Cryer’s co-workers misused the department’s official subpoena power in an effort to trace the source of anonymous emails sent to state labor and human resources officials alleging wrongdoing. Cryer sent the anonymous complaints in December 2015 and April 2016 when, he said, his efforts to enforce contracting rules and prevent employees from evading them fell on deaf ears within the department.
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“It’s a whole other layer of wrongdoing to create a case, issue a subpoena and get information that you would not otherwise be entitled to get,” Cryer’s lawyer, Erika Birch, said Wednesday. “That’s a huge abuse of government power.”
That’s a huge abuse of government power.
Erika Burch, lawyer for James Cryer, on the fake subpoena used against her client
The department routinely issues subpoenas to investigate unemployment insurance claims and related issues. According to Cryer’s claim, unnamed department employees fabricated a case name and number to issue the concocted subpoena and obtain calling records from Verizon Wireless in “an attempt to identify who was sending the anonymous emails.”
“Instead of investigating the validity of the anonymous complaints or taking measures to address the allegations of illegal activity, (the Labor Department) chose to target the messenger,” the claim states.
The subpoena bore Director Edmonds’ stamped signature and directed documents be sent to a woman identified in the claim as Kalm’s girlfriend, who the claim says worked for Kalm.
The data obtained from Verizon eventually confirmed Cryer as the sender of seven emails, which he had sent using an anonymous email web service. Cryer was placed on administrative leave in May, according to the claim.
In June, he was questioned about the emails by a deputy attorney general and admitted sending them, explaining that his earlier complaints and attempts to stop perceived illegal activities had “gone unaddressed” and that he had been “subjected to heightened scrutiny and pressure because of his insistence” on rules and procedure, according to the lawsuit.
Cryer took over purchasing agent duties in May 2015. According to his claim, he concluded that several employees, including Kalm and two IT division workers, “routinely violated” state purchasing rules or looked the other way when they occurred.
The lawsuit alleges efforts by Kalm and another employee to purchase a $110,000 piece of computer equipment, claiming it was part of a state contract. Cryer rebuffed them, advising that purchasing rules required a competitive bid for the equipment. Cryer’s suit said they worked to get around him and eventually succeeded in obtaining the equipment in December 2015 by having his girlfriend, who then worked in another state department, request it be added to the contract.
Cryer said he began noting other purchasing discrepancies, but when he insisted purchasing rules be followed, department officials chafed, said he was being too strict and pressed him to back off.
His lawsuit cites other examples of what Cryer says were favoritism and cronyism in purchasing and contracting in the department.
In mid-June, after his meeting with the deputy attorney general, Cryer was told that the department was weighing firing him for being disruptive and engaging in conduct that resulted in an “irreparable breach of trust,” according to his complaint. It gave him two days to respond. A week later, Edmunds fired him.
The complaint says Cryer had an exemplary record in the department, and that Kalm, after Cryer’s departure, was relieved of supervising duties and barred from making or approving department purchases or using departmental purchasing cards.
The lawsuit seeks back pay and benefits for Cryer, who now works part-time in a department store, as well as compensatory and punitive damages and potential prospective earnings.