From the moment she was outed last year as a witness in the federal investigation of corruption in Opa-locka’s government, grants administrator Delia Kennedy says her boss treated her like a traitor.
Kennedy claims in a new lawsuit against the city and City Manager Yvette Harrell that she endured daily harassment and threats — including police being sent to her home — until her firing this spring.
“She would come by my office every day and say, ‘I hope you’re not talking to those people because everything has to go through me,’ ’’ Kennedy said about her former boss, Harrell. “I always told her, ‘I’m a grand jury witness.’ ’’
Kennedy’s suit claims that Harrell fired her not because she was an expendable employee during a financial crisis in Opa-locka, but because she was cooperating with the FBI and reporting misconduct. So far, a city commissioner, Harrell’s predecessor as city manager, a public works supervisor and the Opa-locka mayor’s son have pleaded guilty to extortion charges.
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Kennedy was ousted despite helping the impoverished city rake in more than $60 million in county, state and federal grants for a variety of public works and other government projects in less than four years. Hired in June 2013, Kennedy received a salary of $60,000 before getting fired at the end of March.
Harrell, along with city attorney Vincent Brown, did not respond to a request for comment about Kennedy’s lawsuit, which seeks more than $1 million in damages from Opa-locka. It was Brown who initially revealed the identity of Kennedy and about 20 other current and former Opa-locka employees as grand jury witnesses in the FBI investigation last year in an email blast to all city employees. Afterward, Brown said it was a mistake.
In the months leading up to her firing, Kennedy said Harrell harassed her when she took a short break from work after City Commissioner Terence Pinder killed himself in May of last year.
Kennedy said Harrell in one instance arranged to have the city’s police chief send Miami-Dade officers to her home, claiming she was a danger to herself and her family. At the time, Kennedy was caring for her mother and two sons. No action was taken against her by police, Kennedy said.
Kennedy returned to work after seeing a psychotherapist, who issued a letter saying she had mild symptoms of emotional distress due to Pinder’s suicide and the general upheaval at City Hall, but that she was able to continue working as a grants administrator.
Kennedy said in her lawsuit that Harrell, an attorney who recently resigned as city manager, was determined to fire her for being a “whistleblower.”
Before Kennedy was fired on March 31, Melinda Miguel, then head of the state’s financial oversight board, came to her defense in a rebuke unseen since the governor appointed the board a year ago to guide Opa-locka through its difficult financial recovery.
“I need to caution you on taking any retaliatory actions against known FBI witnesses and the costs that has to your city” in potential lawsuits, Miguel wrote in an email to Harrell. “Please advise [on] the status of this employee right away.”
Harrell ignored Miguel’s warning.
In an email, the city manager told Miguel that Kennedy’s firing “was not in any way related to any investigations.”
But Kennedy’s attorneys, Michael Pizzi and Douglas Jeffrey, said in the lawsuit that the firing was clearly retaliatory.
“If the city wants to change its culture of illegality and malfeasance,” Pizzi told the Miami Herald, “then the courts will have to step in and deliver justice for people like Delia Kennedy who did the right thing.”