A Commonwealth Court judge has ordered the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to pay $3.2 million in lost wages and other damages to a former staffer who prevailed in a wrongful termination case earlier this year.
Senior Judge Rochelle Friedman held Thursday that the former employee, Ralph Bailets of Mechanicsburg, should receive $1.6 million for lost pay, based on the likelihood that he would have worked till age 67.
And then, in a stern rebuke to Bailets’ former employers, Friedman also ordered payment of an additional $1.6 million to compensate for “major disruption” the commission’s wrongful termination caused to Bailets’ life – including mental anguish, humiliation and reputational damage.
The verdict, according to attorneys familiar with employment law, is significant when compared to other successful public-sector whistleblower cases.
But Friedman pointed to prior Supreme Court rulings that “employee reporters” like Bailets provide a benefit to all citizens and it is imperative they “ultimately be put in no worse a position for having exposed the wrongdoing.”
Bailets, who also served as a prosecution witness in the state Attorney General’s pay-to-play cases against several top Turnpike Commission officials, was reserved about Friedman’s judgement when reached by telephone, saying he wanted to wait and see whether the Turnpike Commission appeals.
Even so, Thursday’s order caps a remarkable saga.
Bailets, now 56, maintains he was fired in November 2008 because of his complaints about an agency contractor, Ciber Inc., whose principals had cultivated preferred status with Turnpike Commission leaders through gifts and targeted campaign contributions.
His case was initially thrown out by Friedman, but then revived on an appeal to state Supreme Court.
Even though much of the leadership at the Turnpike Commission has changed since Bailets’ termination, present-day agency leaders refused to concede any specific targeting of the one-time manager of financial reporting and systems.
Bailets was, they noted, one of about 15 people cut in a rare round of layoffs at the agency that fall.
The stalemate resulted in a rare civil trial in Commonwealth Court earlier this year.
Attorneys for the Turnpike argued new data systems coming on-line had simply made Bailets’ job – at a time of agency-wide belt-tightening – a luxury they could no longer justify.
Friedman found differently, citing the stream of warnings Bailets had received from his immediate superiors about “making waves” with the Ciber contract.
In addition, the judge held that the Turnpike’s claims of economic reasons were belied by actions like:
* Top Turnpike officials ordering hand-picked candidates hired to other jobs within weeks of Bailets’ termination, while other employees in the finance department were reclassified and received pay raises.
* Despite a history of consistently strong evaluations at the Turnpike, Bailets was never considered for any of several other financial positions that came open at the agency in the year after he was laid off.
Ciber was awarded a large computer networking contract in 2005, and Bailets was placed on a commission team assigned to assist the vendor in implementing new data systems for financial reporting.
In that role, Bailets testified, he became an early and persistent critic of Ciber’s work, despite occasional warnings from superiors that “making waves” with Ciber could be bad for one’s career.
Bailets complained about what he saw as “make-work assignments” for Ciber employees that he came to view as ways to justify Ciber’s $58 million pricetag.
He also voiced concerns about the lack of a plan or progress on the “knowledge transfer” needed so the Turnpike could take its new system and continue to operate it long-term.
Bailets told superiors it looked to him like Ciber was setting the stage for a new contract, to complete the parts of the job left unfinished in the initial deal. In fact, in 2008, the company received a follow-up, $19.3 million contract.
Years later, and well after Bailets’s firing, Ciber was ultimately sued by the current generation of Turnpike leaders for failure to deliver on the same contract that Bailets’ had been complaining about.
In her 26-page opinion, Friedman stated the Turnpike’s 2015 breach of contract allegations “mirror the complaints Bailets regularly and continuously made… from 2004 to November 2008.”
Turnpike Commission officials also declined comment on Friedman’s ruling Thursday.
The agency’s immediate avenue of appeal, should they choose to pursue it, is with Friedman for a reconsideration of her decision. That would also preserve its right for a later appeal to the state Supreme Court.