Attorney fired from Georgia health agency seeks compensation

Georgia

ATLANTA (AP) — A longtime state government attorney is seeking almost $800,000 after being fired as chief legal officer for the Georgia Department of Public Health.

Jennifer Dalton has filed a letter seeking compensation under Georgia’s whistleblower protection law, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

Dalton said she was unlawfully fired in retaliation for questioning a $14 million, eight-month contract for scheduling COVID-19 vaccinations. The contract was awarded without competitive bidding.

Dalton’s letter said she faced reprisals for releasing emails that became the basis for a Journal-Constitution article about Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Dalton said she was asked to redact the emails, but she believed doing so would have violated the state’s Open Records Act.

The state health commissioner, Dr. Kathleen Toomey, fired Dalton four days after the article was published.

“After a lifetime of public service, she was perp walked out of DPH with a security escort in tow,” Dalton’s lawyer, Kimberly Worth, wrote to Toomey and Kemp.

Worth wrote Dalton’s reputation “is now tarnished by her sudden and unlawful termination,” making it impossible to obtain another state government job. Dalton is seeking almost $800,000 in lost pay and retirement benefits and to cover legal costs.

Toomey spokeswoman Nancy Nydam said the health agency does not comment “on matters of potential, pending or post litigation.” She declined to answer questions about the contract awarded to Reston, Virginia-based Maximus Inc. Kemp spokeswoman Mallory Blount also declined to comment.

Dalton spent 23 years in the Georgia attorney general’s office before joining the Department of Public Health in October. She discovered the health agency’s legal office was a “fiasco,” her lawyer’s letter said. Dalton said the office failed to respond to “thousands” of records requests.

Dalton overhauled the agency’s response process and cleared the records requests in her first few months in the job, according to her attorney.

Worth said despite pandemic demands, Toomey assigned Dalton in February to research a private legal matter involving Abit Massey, president emeritus of the Georgia Poultry Foundation, and his wife, Kayanne. During that time, the Masseys’ son — Lewis Massey, who was Georgia’s secretary of state from 1996 to 1999 — was lobbying the health agency to award a contract for a vaccination call center to one of his clients, Maximus Inc.

Lewis Massey told the Journal-Constitution on Monday he couldn’t comment on the contract because of possible litigation. He said any allegation involving his parents is untrue.

He first contacted the health agency on behalf of Maximus in October, records show. By the time Dalton received a draft agreement for review in February, the contract had apparently been in the works for several weeks but had not been put out for bids, according to her lawyer.

Dalton said she told other officials that public health districts already had vaccination scheduling systems. Her attorney said Dalton worried that by rushing through the Maximus contract, the agency “would be viewed as sneaking the contract through a non-bid process costing taxpayers millions of dollars for no reason.”

The Maximus contract was handled by another office in the health agency.

On March 16, Kemp’s general counsel, David Dove, summoned Dalton to his Capitol office, according to Dalton’s lawyer. Dalton did not report to Dove, but he urged her to resign from the health agency and then apply in six months for a part-time state job with lower pay and no benefits. In a March 22 email, Dalton rejected Dove’s suggestion.

The Journal-Constitution published an article March 26 based in part on the emails Dalton provided. It reported Kemp repeatedly disregarded advice from Toomey and other public health experts and the state withheld information showing the pandemic was worsening as Kemp relaxed virus-control measures. A Kemp spokesman disputed some of the points and said many other states “fared no better against COVID-19 than Georgia did.”

Dalton lost her job March 30. A human resources letter gave no reason for the termination, other than her “failure to satisfy” a six-month probationary period.

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