By Melissa Quinn
A circuit judge has agreed a city employee lost his job for raising concerns about potential fraud during the police headquarters complex’s construction, the first case tried under the state’s new whistleblower law.
Former city architect Henry Lewis, who served as project manager for the $81 million complex, accused General Services Director Jeremy McPike and contractor Whiting-Turner of failing to abide by the parameters set forth in the original contract between the city and the company, according to court documents.
Lewis, an architect for more than 35-years, believed McPike overstepped his authority by signing invoices on materials located off-site, violating the terms of the agreement between the city and Whiting-Turner, court documents stated. The practice also went against the architect’s better judgment.
“Lewis further informed McPike that his ultimate responsibility was to the taxpayers of the City of Alexandria to ensure that they received full value for their money and to ensure that the taxpayers were not defrauded,” the complaint stated.
Despite Lewis’ concerns, McPike continued to approve materials and documents where the architect’s signature was needed, according to court files.
In another instance, this time involving the removal of soil at the site, McPike approved the excavation without Lewis’ knowledge — a decision outside the scope of the general services director’s authority.
When Lewis alerted his supervisor of the wrongdoing, McPike responded by saying, “Failure to follow direction provided will be considered insubordination and will be subject to disciplinary action,” the court documents stated.
Lewis argued it was his responsibility to protect city taxpayers from fraud and false claims associated with the police facility. He alleged McPike was known to approve costly orders submitted by the company, court documents stated.
After several meetings with McPike, Lewis — who received “outstanding evaluations” — was asked to resign, which he refused to do. The architect was fired on August 3, 2011.
Lewis filed a lawsuit against the city citing a violation of the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayer Act, which was passed by the General Assembly several months before his job was terminated. The act serves as a safeguard against whistleblowers, allowing them to sue for retaliatory job actions such as cut wages and benefits.
Lewis alleged his firing stemmed from his complaints against Whiting-Turner, which, according to court documents, strained the city’s relationship with the contractor.
His attorney, Zachary Kitts, who did not respond to multiple media inquiries, sought double Lewis’ back pay. The judge awarded the architect half — $104,050. Under the Act, though, Lewis would receive twice that amount, or $208,100.
The architect also is seeking an additional $246,528 for loss of benefits and payment for attorney’s fees, bringing the city’s potential compensation to more than $450,000.
But officials maintain there was no wrongdoing and will appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court, said City Attorney Jim Banks.
“It’s almost stark,” Banks said. “There was no fraud, there was no retaliation. It’s really not any more complicated than that.”
“The police facility came in on time and under budget,” he added. “There was no evidence and no proof by him that there was anything the city paid for [that] they didn’t get.”
While Banks was unable to win his case in the lower court, he did succeed in getting allegations against McPike dismissed — the VFATA protects employees from their employers, not supervisors or managers. McPike continues to serve the city as director of General Services.