Former Opa-locka manager deposition in Whistleblower case
The woman who says she revealed the true depths of Opa-locka’s budget crisis in 2016 — and the city’s attempt to hide the dire situation from taxpayers — won a whistleblower case against the city this week when a judge ruled that her 2017 termination was retaliation for exposing corruption and refusing to participate in illegal activities.
Former interim Finance Director Charmaine Parchment was terminated after she ran afoul of her boss, then-City Manager Eddie Brown. He said in a videotaped deposition that he decided he “could not trust her” after she went to the city attorney and said Brown was asking her to engage in corrupt and illegal practices.
Parchment said her transgression, as far as Brown was concerned, was refusing to sign what she called illegal checks for her boss, and willingly participating in an ongoing corruption probe into various city officials. At the time, the nine-year employee had already submitted a letter formally requesting protection from retaliation.
Despite Parchment’s request for whistleblower protection, Brown terminated her on Aug. 22, 2017, effective immediately, according to her lawsuit. Brown gave Parchment just enough time to go to her office to pick up her things before she was escorted from the building.
On Wednesday, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Mavel Ruiz ruled in a partial summary judgment against the city, upholding a motion filed by Parchment’s attorney, Michael Pizzi.
“Charmaine was thrown in the street like a dog because she had integrity. Because she refused to sign checks that she shouldn’t sign,” said Pizzi, a former Miami Lakes mayor. “Today, she got the victory she deserved.”
At the time of her termination, Opa-locka was in the throes of a years-long investigation of bribery and extortion that led to the arrests of, among others, former City Manager David Chiverton, City Commissioner Luis Santiago, Assistant Public Works Director Gregory Harris, and Corleon Taylor, son of the city’s then-mayor, Myra Taylor.
Damages were not determined this week. Parchment is seeking $4 million from the city, which remains financially distressed, and Pizzi said he expects the judge to rule on the amount by the first of the year. Frank Rollason, a member of a state oversight board formed by the state when the city’s financial issues worsened rapidly, said it was unlikely the financially crippled city would have the money to pay a multimillion dollar judgment.
“If they had $4 million hanging around, they would have paid off their debt to the outside creditors they still owe,” Rollason said.
Opa-locka officials declined to comment Wednesday. At the time of the initial court filing, they told the Miami Herald that Parchment had been terminated for “cause.”
During the investigation into City Hall corruption that recently snared longtime fixer Dante Starks, Parchment had cooperated with the probe, a fact she says was improperly revealed in an email to city employees by City Attorney Vincent Brown. By divulging her role as a confidential informant in an ongoing criminal probe, he effectively ostracized her, Parchment said
“Parchment is a extremely humble low-key public servant and all she wanted to do was serve the public with integrity and honor,” Pizzi said.
According to the complaint filed in Miami-Dade circuit court, Parchment wrote a May 22, 2016, email to the city manager, mayor, and city commissioners indicating that after the next payroll “the city would not be able to pay its bills.” Parchment said the budget deficit was three times larger than the city had revealed to taxpayers.
Her information led Florida Gov. Rick Scott to declare a state of emergency in Opa-locka and appoint the financial oversight committee to sign off on every financial transaction made in the city.
According to the lawsuit: “The Mayor and Commissioners thereafter frequently expressed displeasure and anger with Parchment and retaliated against her over the fact that they were required to have their financial decisions reviewed by the financial oversight board.” Then-Mayor Taylor allegedly attempted to have her fired at the time but was unsuccessful, according to the complaint.
Parchment said she got on City Manager Brown’s bad side by revealing his “expressed disdain” for the oversight board, and his wish that staff not cooperate with the process. Eventually, Parchment sent an email to the board, saying that Brown’s refusal to cooperate with the board was impeding the city’s ability to sign checks and pay its bills.
Eddie Brown, who was appointed city manager in late July 2017, also asked Parchment for two weeks of back pay. According to the lawsuit, Parchment refused, saying the Oversight Board would not approve the pay since Brown had not been employed at the time. She said she feared writing the check was illegal. Years earlier, she had also refused to sign a check for Brown’s work consulting for then-City Manager Chiverton. She said Chiverton did not have the authority to singlehandedly authorize a $30,000 payment.
In his deposition, Eddie Brown, who was fired himself in April, provided the following reason for Parchment’s termination: “She said that that I was trying to get her to do something corrupt.· She communicated that I was involved in illegal activity, and I felt as though at that particular time I could not trust her.”
He had her escorted from the building quickly, giving her no chance to say goodbye to her colleagues.
“Charmaine has shown that sometimes the good guys finish first,” said Pizzi, who added the judgment establishes a strong precedent across Miami-Dade.
“I hope the message is clear,” he said. “You can’t get away for punishing people for doing the right thing.”