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Ex-sheriff's worker sues city under Georgia Whistleblower Act

TIM CHITWOOD

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.com

Fired, prosecuted and acquitted on charges of revealing coworkers’ private information while reporting alleged wrongdoing in the Muscogee Sheriff’s Office, former sheriff’s employee Regina Millirons is suing the city for more than $4 million on claims it violated Georgia’s Whistleblower Act.

Filed by Columbus attorney Mark Shelnutt, the suit seeks $2.5 million to compensate Millirons for her suffering, $1.5 million in punitive damages to teach city leaders a lesson, $50,000 for attorneys’ fees and an unspecified amount for lost wages and benefits.

The suit’s a new twist in a saga that began June 10, 2010, when Millirons first reported her allegations to Reather Hollowell, then the city’s assistant human resources director.

Millirons alleged workers were falsifying time cards, with one administrative assistant reportedly teaching a college class in a sheriff’s conference room while charging the city for that time, and another not coming to the office at all, but supposedly working from home.

A third worker medically retired, sought part-time work as a court baliff because of his poor health, then in uniform went back to work in the jail, despite his infirmity, Millirons said. She said another issue was whether cash payments to deputies who take jail inmates to family funerals were sufficiently tracked.

Millirons’ lawsuit names the city government, Sheriff John Darr and Hollowell — who since has been promoted to human resources director — and lays out a timeline for what happened after she complained:

It says Hollowell informed Millirons on June 5, 2010, that her complaints were being investigated.

When nothing happened, Millirons consulted Shelnutt, who in April 2011 met with Mayor Teresa Tomlinson and attorneys for the city, who asked him to document Millirons’ complaints.

In June 2011, Shelnutt sent the mayor a detailed letter with documents to support Millirons’ allegations.

On Aug. 2, 2011, Millirons was suspended with pay for violating her coworkers’ confidentiality by illegally revealing personal information such as Social Security numbers and dates of birth.

The sheriff asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to probe Millirons’ alleged misconduct, with the GBI delivering its report to District Attorney Julia Slater on Aug. 17, 2011.

And then … nothing happened, for three years, as Millirons stayed home from work, collected her $40,737 salary and waited to see whether she would be prosecuted. The Ledger-Enquirer reported this lull in the case on Sept. 30, 2014.

On Oct. 21. 2014, a grand jury indicted Millirons on 10 counts, three each of public records fraud and computer theft, and four of public records theft. Her trial started March 2 and ended March 6, when jurors deliberating just 90 minutes found her not guilty on all counts.

On April 22, Millirons returned to work for the city, taking a police department position similar to what she held with the sheriff’s office.

Her lawsuit filed Oct. 20 says prosecuting her for reporting “criminal violations” was “blatant and outrageous retaliation” prohibited by the state whistleblower law.

“It was such a comedy of errors,” Shelnutt said Thursday, recalling the city posted notices promising to protect workers who reported wrongdoing, yet prosecuted Millirons when she did.

The lawsuit demands a jury trial. “They’re the conscience of the community,” Shelnutt said of jurors, adding he believes they would be “outraged” at how Millirons was treated.

Sheriff Darr said Thursday that the suit is “one of the most frivolous lawsuits I’ve ever seen or heard.... I don’t understand the angle she’s trying to play with this.”

The GBI investigation showed Millirons’ prosecution was justified, he said:

“All I have to say is — and I hope you print this — this is an individual that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation felt committed a crime, and then the district attorney’s office here felt committed a crime and should have been charged…. That was their decision. I still think she committed a crime.”

City Attorney Clifton Fay was unavailable Thursday.

Mayor Tomlinson, also an attorney, said city leaders will look at the lawsuit closely. “I don’t know that the city has been properly served,” she said of the suit, but she acknowledged it’s no secret. “We certainly take any lawsuit seriously,” she said.

Enacted in 1993, the Georgia Whistleblower Act in part states: “No public employer shall retaliate against a public employee for disclosing a violation of or noncompliance with a law, rule, or regulation to either a supervisor or a government agency, unless the disclosure was made with knowledge that the disclosure was false or with reckless disregard for its truth or falsity.”

But a subsequent section of the law says that paragraph “shall not apply to policies or practices which implement, or to actions by public employers against public employees who violate, privilege or confidentiality obligations recognized by constitutional, statutory, or common law.”

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