A former Richland County employee is suing the county, alleging that she was fired after she raised concerns about various contracts activated under the penny sales tax referendum.
“Jones reported serious fraud, wrongdoing, and violations of the law, regulations, public policy and standards of conduct, in writing as well as orally ...,” according to a civil lawsuit filed by former employee Justine Jones that seeks damages under provisions of a state whistleblower law.
As a result of Jones’ allegations, she was fired, her lawsuit alleges.
In a reply to the lawsuit, Richland County said Jones’ whistleblower allegations should be dismissed.
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Jones, who described herself in the lawsuit as a black female, also has claims of race and gender discrimination and receiving unequal pay with white colleagues, her suit said.
In its reply to the suit, Richland County denies Jones’ claims of unfair treatment, saying “any wage differentials plaintiff experienced were based on factors other” than sex or race.
It is Jones’ claim of being fired for trying to bring questionable contracting matters for the penny sales tax to superiors’ attention that may receive the most attention as the lawsuit goes forward.
Jones said she found out that some ineligible businesses received contracts that they shouldn’t have gotten under the rules, her lawsuit said.
Those events allegedly happened during the time when country officials were setting up mechanisms to spend the money generated by Richland County’s penny tax for transportation, Jones’ lawsuit said.
Narrowly approved by voters in 2012, the penny sales tax is designed to collect some $1 billion for 22 years through a 1 percent sales tax. Those funds are supposed to go to road, bike, greenway and walking projects, her lawsuit said.
Jones worked at the county from December 2012 through March 2015. During that time, she implemented a major data management system with a budget of $500,000, helped write laws, made presentations to County Council and was an expert in the Small Local Business Enterprises program, her lawsuit said.
The lawsuit was filed in state court in January, one month after S.C. Department of Revenue Director Rick Reames notified Richland County officials that his agency had found evidence of possible fraud, corruption and waste in how the penny sales tax money was being handled. A DOR investigation is continuing.
At the request of Richland County, the lawsuit was transferred to federal court in Columbia in February.
The lawsuit has been somewhat vetted by the U.S. Justice Department, which gave Jones a notice of her right to sue.
Jones is represented by Columbia attorneys Lewis Cromer, Shannon Polvi and James Johnson, members of Cromer’s law firm, which specializes in employment law and worker’s rights.
Richland County is represented by private Columbia attorneys Hayne Hodges III and Linda Edwards, who specialize in representing employers.
Federal Judge Margaret Seymour is handing the case.