Just after a Miami-Dade County judge ruled Thursday that former Opa-locka Finance Director Charmaine Parchment was improperly fired for reporting corruption at City Hall, her attorney Michael Pizzi started preparing for a similar case against the city.
Pizzi filed a new lawsuit on behalf of former City Manager Newall Daughtrey on Thursday. Daughtrey was fired on Oct. 2 from his position because he exposed even more corruption in Opa-locka, Pizzi said.
Daughtrey’s, like Parchment’s suit, was filed citing Florida’s whistleblower statute.
Parchment’s fight with the city of Opa-locka is not over. She has a pending lawsuit that alleges she was sexually harassed when she worked there. And there are other women who have filed similar lawsuits, which paint the previous Opa-locka administration as gender biased and riddled with
corruption, and exposed the torrid operations of city government. Members of the new administration, sworn in last week, promise to clean up City Hall.
Daughtrey was fired after he attempted to collect debts from residents who owed more than $100,000 to the city for water services. The former mayor, Myra Taylor’s business, Vankara Educational Center, owes about $119,000. The city currently owes millions to various creditors including $7 million to Miami-Dade County, and is being monitored by a state financial oversight board.
The new lawsuit said the former mayor asked Daughtrey for a “favorable assignment” for her son at City Hall. Daughtrey was also told to cancel a competitive bidding process in order to select a particular contractor, MYLAWN, even though it would cost the city 20 percent more than other bidders.
Daughtrey and his attorney are seeking $2 million in damages and his job back.
“The people like Daughtrey, who refused to do the special favors, got thrown out,” said Pizzi. “I will leave it to people to speculate at how other people managed to stay.”
The Daughtrey and Parchment lawsuits show the extent of the political pressure being placed on Opa-locka employees to participate in unethical behavior, said Pizzi. But people who report wrong doing by their employers are protected.
“The Florida whistleblower statute makes it illegal for employers to take adverse action against employees because those employees either report or participate in investigations about malfeasance, illegally or gross mismanagement of public funds,” said Pizzi, who is a frequent speaker on the Florida whistleblower statute and has filed 10 such cases in the last year alone. “Once the employee does that, it is illegal to retaliate against that employee by taking adverse action against them. The statute is designed to encourage public employees to show integrity and report corruption. Parchment and Daughtrey are classic whistleblowers. They reported corruption and were fired.”
Pizzi acknowledged the complexity of these cases and thanks his co-counsel on the Parchment and Daughtrey cases, Douglas Jeffrey and David Reiner, and noted the importance of a team approach.
Parchment, a former city employee of nine years, was fired four days after publishing a memo that warned federal authorities that she was being retaliated against for not signing off on unapproved retroactive payments to former City Manager Eddie Brown and other employees. Parchment and her attorney filed the lawsuit against Opa-locka in October 2017, asking for $4 million and an apology for her wrongful termination.
Brown said he can’t understand how Parchment could be considered a whistleblower “when everyone was there when she and several others received subpoenas,” he said Tuesday.
Miami-Dade County Judge Mavell Ruiz found that Parchment was wrongfully terminated and granted Pizzi and Parchment the win on Thursday.
"It has been a very long and hard journey to victory. I want to thank everyone who stood by me and the judge for her sense of justice,” said Parchment. “I hope that my struggle for justice encourages other public servants to be that lonely voice that say no to corruption and yes to integrity.”
During the past year, three female employees have been fired in Opa-locka in a span of six months, but no males, another lawsuit alleges. They are Parchment, grants administrator, Delia Kennedy and utility billing supervisor, Patsy Williams.
The other two women have also sued the city.
Pizzi filed a gender discrimination lawsuit on Oct. 16, in which he alleges Parchment was denied promotional opportunities; given unequal pay and benefits; and faced a hostile workplace and sexual harassment.
Parchment describes a hostile working environment, where she was discriminated for being a woman. She was terminated before the issue could be addressed.
According to the $5-million suit, former Assistant City Manager William Green would often put Parchment in an uncomfortable position.
“Mr. Green frequently came to Parchment’s office and closed the door, which made her uncomfortable as if he wanted to socialize,” states the lawsuit. “Mr. Green spoke to Parchment in a condescending manner and was physically threatening.”
The city of Opa-locka is in default in this case because its attorney has not addressed the issue as of Nov. 26, according to Steven Larimore, U.S. Southern District of Florida clerk of court.
It is not the first complaint of gender discrimination against Opa-locka officials.
In May 2017, Pizzi filed a lawsuit on behalf of City Clerk Joanna Flores.
That lawsuit said that Flores had been mistreated “beyond any form of human decency based on her national origin and gender” by late Commissioner Terence Pinder.
Members of the new government said they will be setting ground rules to stop the cycle of corruption. Newly elected Commissioner Sherelean Bass said she plans to implement an open-door policy to tackle the unethical behavior.
“First of all, we need to have open dialect with all the people in Opa-locka to let them know that we are trustworthy, that they can come to us when they are pressured to do things that are not legal,” Bass said.
Bass also said the Commission is going to have to make decisions about who stays and who goes in order to stop corruption.
“We are going to have to, for a lack of better word, fire some people, and bring on some people,” she said.
Bass said, however, she could not comment on Daughtrey’s fate until the “time is appropriate.”
Opa-locka Mayor Matthew Pigatt said the lawsuits just add to the debts the city must pay.
“All lawsuits are paid by the people, either through our high insurance premiums or directly through our tax dollars,” said Pigatt.
Opa-locka Attorney Vincent Brown could not be reached for comment.