Mar 14, 2023 - Politics

Whistleblower lawsuit alleges illegal procurement practices at DHS

Illustrated collage of a whistle over square abstract blocks.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Axios and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which are jointly owned by Cox Enterprises, collaborated on this story.

Half a dozen former employees of the Georgia Department of Human Services allege they were fired after refusing to break the law at a manager's behest, according to a new whistleblower lawsuit filed against the state.

Why it matters: DHS has a nearly $2 billion budget and a mandate to provide a broad range of services to millions of Georgia's most vulnerable, including foster care and child welfare support, aging services and the distribution of federal and state low-income assistance.

Driving the news: In a March Fulton County Superior Court complaint, plaintiffs allege that a nearly two-decade veteran of the agency and procurement supervisor, Vermisha Guider, was fired in early August after she reported a manager who was pressuring her "to commit fraud, waste, and abuse contrary to the policies, procedures and regulations" of the agency.

  • Soon thereafter, the complaint outlines, five members of Guider's procurement team were also fired.
  • They allege their terminations also came in August — days after they reported agency procurement procedures as "clearly in violation of the current state law" in a meeting with management.
  • A lawyer for the plaintiffs declined to comment.

The other side: Kylie Winton, a spokesperson for the department said in a statement they have not yet been served in this lawsuit. "We comply with all applicable law, rules, and policy," Winton said.

Zoom in: In the complaint, Guider alleges she was pressured into using non-approved vendors, approving contracts without following proper protocol and directing her own team to do so as well.

  • Procurement staff handles agency business completed with outside vendors. Per the complaint, that included contracts for everything from lawn care at division offices to IT services, from reviewing procurement card purchases to conducting audits.

Threat level: Georgia law protects state employees from retaliation for "disclosing a violation of or noncompliance with a law, rule, or regulation to either a supervisor or a government agency."

The big picture: DHS has been under scrutiny. A recent AJC investigation illuminated alleged abuse and neglect in the state's foster care system — prompting a federal inquiry into the matter.

  • A joint AJC/Axios investigation last fall explored the chaotic rollout of a cash assistance program that left many Georgians without their promised payments. Some reported falling victim to fraud, which the state is investigating. Experts also said the rollout might have violated federal privacy laws.

What we're watching: The plaintiffs are seeking money for damages and have asked for a litany of documents from the agency, including their own employment files.

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