Opinion

Alexandria whistleblower wins wrongful termination suit

|
Opinion,Local Editorial

Henry Lewis was just doing his job when, as senior project manager of Alexandria's $81 million police headquarters project on Wheeler Avenue, he refused to authorize payments on invoices submitted by contractor Whiting-Turner that were insufficiently documented, including one for a million dollars that was post-dated a week in the future. Other invoices were for materials stored off-site — with no proof they had been purchased. The Howard-educated architect also refused to sign off on moldy, warped, wooden trusses that the contractor tried to install in a related project on Quaker Lane.

Lewis should have been commended for his careful oversight. Instead, just three months before the headquarters' grand opening in 2011, he was fired. Vindictive city officials compounded the injury when they gratuitously kept his name off the building's dedication plaque.

Four months earlier, Jeremy McPike, Lewis' supervisor, who, according to the wrongful termination lawsuit Lewis filed, "authorized payment of more than $2,102,580 in invoices for the purchases of materials that were not verified to exist," was promoted from acting director to director of the Department of General Services. After overriding Lewis' perfectly reasonable insistence that "work must be done in accordance with the contract" and signing his name on the line reserved for Lewis' signature, McPike is still employed by the city.

Threatened with dismissal for insubordination, Lewis did not back down. "Because you are my supervisor does not give you the right to demand that I sign what I believe to be an illegal document," he wrote to McPike. "[I]f I sign a document that I believe not to be in accordance with the contract and payment is made on that document — I have committed fraud. I will not sign an illegal document at your direction."

The tables turned last month when an Alexandria jury found that Lewis had been wrongfully terminated — the first case won under anti-retaliation provisions of the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act, which allows local and state government whistleblowers to sue for retaliatory job actions against them. The law was passed by the General Assembly in 2011 over the vociferous objections of local governments — for obvious reasons.

The irony is that Alexandria taxpayers will have to pay Lewis up to a half-million dollars in well-deserved backpay, benefits and legal fees for trying to protect them from fraud while also paying the salaries of McPike and other city officials who stood in his way.

View article comments Leave a comment