Whistleblowers win big over small town of Pendergrass

- They admit they almost gave up.

But eight years after two Pendergrass employees argued their complaints about alleged corruption cost them their jobs, a jury agreed and ordered the city pay $1,065,600 in back pay and damages.

"Hey folks, these are big numbers," agreed their attorney Nancy Val Preda. "But it's also been eight years."

The FOX 5 I-Team first met former Pendergrass city clerk Katherine Rintoul and police lieutenant Bill Garner in 2009. They showed us what they had earlier brought to the mayor -- recordings of city manager Rob Russell admitting that he fixed traffic tickets for certain people in Pendergrass.

“Like I said, this is situational ethics," Russell said on one recording to a police officer. "That you have to look out for the family. That's what you and Bill don't. But sometimes you got to look out for the family.”

Russell told us back then he only tore up traffic tickets that would have been tossed anyway when they got to court. He even alluded to that in another secret recording laced with profanity.

“So you're telling me all this f---ing s--t is because a few f---ing tickets got chucked out the window. They were going to get chucked any --d ---n way.”

But Russell also admitted using city dollars to help city employees with their personal debts, even as the city suffered a significant budget deficit.

He insisted they were loans and the money was eventually repaid.

“They say everybody does it," remembered former clerk Rintoul. "Just because everybody does it, doesn't make it right.”

When the whistleblowers went to Pendergrass mayor Monk Tolbert with their concerns and evidence in 2009, he took no action. Instead, the city came up with an answer to the budget shortfall: lay off five people... including city clerk Rintoul.

Police lieutenant Garner would quit a short time later claiming a hostile work environment. Garner says he couldn't find another job in law enforcement because Pendergrass wrongly reported to POST that he had resigned while under investigation.

He would wind up working as a mall security guard. A subsequent GBI investigation into the city's finances didn't go anywhere.

“That's the only thing I regretted is that I truly believed other people would do what was right," sighed Garner.

Rintoul claims she was also blacklisted, had to sell her house in Pendergrass and move away. The two hired local attorney Nancy Val Preda on contingency, meaning she would not get paid unless they won their lawsuit against the city.

She took it as a crusade against corruption, a true David versus Goliath.

“Either you're ethical or you're not," she insisted. "There's no such thing as situational ethics. You either do the right thing or you don't do the right thing. And Katherine and Bill did the right thing.”

If the wheels of justice do grind slowly, this one was barely on the rails. A federal judge dismissed their case in 2011, so they filed under the Georgia Whistleblower statute. That case bounced around Jackson County for years because all the sitting Superior Court judges recused themselves. A retired senior judge agreed to hear the case. Then he died. Finally, in mid-November, they got their day in court, and the verdict for which they had long been waiting.

The jury took a little more than an hour to rule in favor of the whistleblowers. Eight years of tears came pouring out at the plaintiff's table.

“I didn't mean for the floodgates to happen," remembered Rintoul. "But instantly the validation that these jurors walked it with us. We didn't do it by ourselves. You know we weren't alone. That was big.”

So was the judgment. For violating Georgia's Whistleblower Act, jurors ordered the city of Pendergrass to pay $1,065,600.

A hearing is scheduled in January to see whether Pendergrass will also be responsible for an estimated $300,000-plus in legal fees.

The city's entire annual budget is $339,000. The city doesn't carry insurance that covers lawsuits.


Throughout the eight years, Rob Russell has continued to manage Pendergrass. By phone he told me the city is "extremely disappointed. We hope we can be successful in an appeal."

Russell said the city has spend more than a half million dollars defending itself against the whistleblower lawsuit. If it loses again, one option could be that the city of Pendergrass files for bankruptcy protection. Another: it could decide to cease being a city and unincorporate

“They can try to blame us, but we were the ones trying to do what was right, standing up for them and their tax money," vowed Rintoul. "It's the choices the mayor and city council made that brought us to this point.”


"Quite frankly, no amount of money is going to bring back the last eight years of my life for what they did," insisted Garner who said the verdict was worth more than judgement.
 
“We were right. They were wrong.”

 

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