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CALL 6: Whistleblower claims state fired her for calling out misuse of funds

Indiana Supreme Court decision could impact others
Posted: 3:59 PM, Oct 20, 2017
Updated: 2017-10-20 23:48:12Z

INDIANAPOLIS -- An Indianapolis woman is taking her case all the way to the Indiana Supreme Court, alleging she was fired for blowing the whistle on misuse of state tax dollars.

Suzanne Esserman, an ex-state employee with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, told Call 6 Investigates she refused to rubber stamp claims.

Esserman had worked for IDEM for nearly 25 years and was terminated on January 17, 2014, while working as a senior environmental manager.

“I was fired because I asked too many questions,” said Esserman. “I refused to sign authorizations for payments unless I had looked at the claims and they made sense to me.  I saw myself as the steward of state tax dollars, and that’s a very big responsibility.”

Esserman became concerned about payment practices in the state’s Excess Liability Trust Fund Program, which is funded through gas taxes you pay at the pump as well as tank fees paid by owners and operators of underground gasoline storage tanks.

The money is used to help clean up underground storage tanks.

“You’ve been paying into this fund,” said Esserman. “But nobody knows how much is going in and how much is going out, and nobody seems to care. That’s the part that really bugs me.”

The state claimed it fired Esserman because she failed to meet her work expectations, goals and deadlines.

But Esserman said it was retaliation for speaking out about IDEM employees misusing state funds.

“I take what I do very seriously,” said Esserman. “There’s just some things you have to say ‘it stops because it’s just dog gone wrong.’”

Esserman filed a lawsuit arguing her firing violated Indiana’s False Claims and Whistleblower Protection Acts.

The Marion County Superior Court decided IDEM had immunity and dismissed the case.

In December, the Indiana Court of Appeals overturned the dismissal of her whistleblower lawsuit and the case is now in the hands of the Indiana Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in May.

A decision from the Indiana Supreme Court is expected any day now and the stakes are high, according to Esserman’s attorney Mary Jane Lapointe.

"For state employees, there are huge, huge implications," said Lapointe.

If Esserman wins her case, and the Supreme Court decides the state is not immune from whistleblower lawsuits, it could pave the way for others to speak out about misuse of tax dollars.

"I think this will really encourage state employees to come forward,” said Lapointe. “I think it’s our civic duty to oppose clear violations of the law, and this is such a compelling case.”

Esserman wants her job back and to prove a point and said taxpayers should be concerned about the lack of oversight involving the Excess Liability Trust Fund program.

“Every taxpayer has a right to know where their money is going,” said Esserman. “There’s no accountability here. There’s no one watching.”

Esserman encourages others to fight back if they see something amiss, and to start by documenting the problem. 

“Document as much as you can with hard copy paper,” said Esserman. “If you’ve got an hour for lunch, don’t’ be gone for 61 minutes, because they’ll get you for that. You don’t’ want to give an employer any opportunity to say ‘we gotcha.’”

A spokesperson for IDEM told Call 6 Investigates that the agency does not comment on pending litigation. Call 6 also reached out to the Indiana Attorney General’s office for their response and we have yet to hear back.

There is currently $82,006,403 in the Excess Liability Trust Fund program, according to the spokesperson for IDEM.

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