Louisiana’s Suit Against Katrina Whistleblowers Dismissed

By Michael Kunzelman | August 29, 2011

A federal judge on Aug. 24 dismissed a lawsuit by the state of Louisiana accusing two self-described whistleblowers of illegally copying and circulating documents containing confidential information about homeowners applying to a Hurricane Katrina grant program.

U.S. District Judge James Brady ruled he doesn’t have jurisdiction over the state’s case against Christy Weiser and Thomas Pierson, who were hired by The Shaw Group Inc. to work on the state’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program after Katrina and Hurricane Rita struck in 2005.

Brady dissolved a court order that had barred Weiser and Pierson from disseminating documents involving the $750 million program, which awards federal funds for residents in flood-prone areas to elevate their homes.

But the parties have agreed to keep the documents under wraps while Weiser and Pierson pursue their own lawsuit against the state and The Shaw Group, in which they describe a program tainted by corruption.

Jill Craft, an attorney for Weiser and Pierson, said they were “thrilled” with the judge’s ruling.

“My clients did nothing improper or illegal in the first place,” she said.

Weiser and Pierson’s lawsuit, filed May 31 in a Baton Rouge state court, accuses state officials of selling confidential information about homeowners and steering work to contractors in exchange for meals and gifts, including jewelry.

They claim they were pressured to show preferential treatment to certain contractors, making sure their contracts were approved and paid ahead of others. Their suit also alleges that some contractors submitted forged bid documents, including one that charged homeowners for moving gas lines when those homes didn’t have gas service.

They say they reported “numerous instances of unlawful conduct” to Shaw and state officials but were demoted, threatened and told to keep quiet.

Weiser, who also claims she was sexually harassed by a state official, says she resigned under pressure. Craft said Pierson was suspended for giving interviews about the allegations in their suit.

Shaw spokeswoman Gentry Brann wouldn’t comment on Weiser and Pierson’s allegations.

“However, I can tell you we intend to vigorously defend this matter,” Brann wrote in an email. “Shaw takes very seriously our obligations to maintain a workplace free from discrimination and harassment, and we do not tolerate any form of retaliation for raising complaints.”

The state sued Weiser and Pierson after the two gave interviews to the news media.

The state Office of Community Development, which administers the grant program, launched an internal probe of the program’s policies and procedures after Weiser and Pierson made their allegations. Two state officials — the program’s operations manager and production team leader — have been placed on paid administrative leave while the allegations are investigated.

“That’s been done out of an abundance of caution,” office spokeswoman Christina Stephens said.

Stephens said the office also is cooperating with related reviews by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general and Louisiana Attorney General James “Buddy” Caldwell’s office. The Office of Community Development turned over a computer to Caldwell’s office as part of that review, she added.

Gov. Bobby Jindal has issued an executive order that calls for a state licensing board to suspend or revoke the license of any contractor funded by the Hazard Mitigation Program if they are found to be performing shoddy work. The order also calls for creating a process for dissatisfied grant recipients to change contractors.

In a court filing prior to the Aug. 25 hearing, Craft argued that the state’s suit against her clients didn’t belong in federal court because they weren’t government employees. Brady agreed that the case didn’t involve a “federal question” for him to decide.

“I find that the actions in this case are too far removed from the various and sundry agreements between the federal government and its agencies and the state of Louisiana and its agencies,” he said.

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