Opinion

Examiner Local Editorial: D.C. attorney general SLAPPs whistle-blower

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Opinion,Local Editorial

In 2010, D.C. passed the Anti-Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation Act. Council Judiciary Committee Chairman Phil Mendelson noted in a memo to council colleagues that thousands of citizens throughout the nation "have been sued into silence." Since the ultimate goal of SLAPP lawsuits is to use the long, costly legal battle as a weapon to punish and intimidate people for political activity, the new law is meant to protect D.C. residents from being sued for speaking out. It does so by providing for "the quick and efficient dismissal of strategic lawsuits against public participation."

But the District is now trying to use that same law -- one of the strongest in the country -- to punish a former employee for speaking up about improprieties surrounding the city's lottery contract, which is now under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Eric Payne, the former contracting director for Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi, had already filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the city, claiming that he was fired in 2009 for not succumbing to political pressure from Gandhi and Council member Jim Graham to change the lottery contract.

In a separate $3 million lawsuit that Payne filed in D.C. Superior Court in July, he charges that Gandhi defamed him by emailing a Washington Post reporter from his private email account that Payne had been fired "because of his poor performance issues" and copying the city's top business and civic leaders.

In a sworn deposition on Aug. 20, OCFO spokesman David Umansky testified that he never asked to see any of Payne's personnel evaluations before he, Gandhi and other employees came up with one "talking point" ("that [Payne] was not let go because of the lottery contract") in response to published allegations that Payne was first demoted and then fired for resisting the political pressure.

However, Payne's performance reviews, obtained this week by The Washington Examiner, show that he exceeded expectations when he worked for Gandhi. So not only is Gandhi's email assertion at odds with his own agency records, it contradicts sworn testimony he submitted to the court. "Simply put, either Gandhi lied in his email or he lied to the court," Payne says.

But instead of letting the court determine the truth of Payne's accusations, D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan is trying to use the SLAPP law to get Payne's suit dismissed. This is precisely the opposite of what the law was intended for.

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