David Friedman Starts Federal Whistblower Trial

01/17/2007 | Qui Tam/Whistleblower

A fellow attorney, and friend of mine, David Friedman started a federal whistleblower trial yesterday. You may remember David as the local lawyer who argued (and won) a United States Supreme Court case in 2006. In the whistleblower case, David alleges two former employees were terminated after complaining that a council member, his aid, and an MSD board member were using their influence to cut corners on a sewer project and to have excess dirt from the project delivered to political supporters. Based on the story, David has his work cut out for him. But he had his work cut out for him when he argued at the US Supreme Court, too. David doesn't shy away from un-popular cases or challenges. Here is the complete story: Ex-MSD workers' suit goes to trial Plaintiffs link firings to whistle-blowing By Joseph Gerth jgerth@courier-journal.com The Courier-Journal Two Metropolitan Sewer District employees were fired after they complained about "three politicians" meddling in a project, their lawyer told a federal jury in Louisville yesterday. But a lawyer for the agency said one of the employees was first disciplined because of her foul mouth and then laid off because she did little work. The other employee was let go because the project he was working on ended, the agency lawyer said. A U.S. District Court jury of seven women and three men is expected to hear evidence for the rest of the week in the trial of a lawsuit filed by former MSD environmentalist Sarah Lynn Cunningham and former project inspector Ron Barber. Cunningham and Barber say they were fired after they complained that Metro Councilman Bob Henderson; his legislative aide, Larry Mattingly; and former MSD board member Bill Gray used influence to cut corners on a sewer project and to have excess dirt from the project delivered to political supporters. Among other things, Barber contends that an MSD contractor delivered fill dirt to Mattingly's property in the Valley Village area even though, he says, Mattingly didn't go through the required permitting procedures. Henderson and Mattingly have denied any wrongdoing. Gray died in November. The case has gone on for about two years in both federal court and before the Louisville Metro Ethics Commission, where Cunningham has also filed a complaint. The commission has not acted on it. Yesterday's opening statements were peppered with salty words and conflicting accounts of what happened between April 2004, when Cunningham learned of alleged problems on a project to install sewer lines in the Valley Village/Mill Creek area of Valley Station, and December 2004, when she and Barber were laid off. David Friedman, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, told the jury that the case is a simple one: that soon after Cunningham raised the allegations privately with MSD Director Bud Schardein, he began retaliating against her. And seven months after Cunningham filed a complaint with Attorney General Greg Stumbo, both she and Barber were let go. Friedman said Barber was pressured to cut corners and overlook things he knew were wrong. "Ron will tell you the problem, the pressure from the politicians, was worse than anything he had seen in 12 years as an MSD inspector," Friedman told the jury. He also said Cunningham used the vulgar words they would hear throughout the trial in an effort to impress upon Schardein the importance of the allegations after he had ignored warnings. "She used the 'F word,' " Friedman said. "She wanted to get Bud's attention." Friedman also said Cunningham had consistently received good salary reviews and in fact received a favorable review just two months before Schardein stripped her of most of her responsibilities. Larry Zielke, a lawyer for MSD, argued that that was just one of Cunningham's problems. He contends that she used "cunning" to leave out key information in her letter to Stumbo and she "connived" to get fired from a job she really didn't want. "Cussing. Cunning. Conniving," Zielke said. "The three C's that kind of fit Cunningham to a T." He said Cunningham had a history of not being able to get along with others on the job and noted that she once called a developer a "fascist pig." Zielke also said she was removed from a project that turned dried sewage into fertilizer because "nobody could work with her." U.S. District Judge Thomas Russell said the trial could last through early next week. Reporter Joseph Gerth can be reached at (502) 582-4702