Woman says DHHR fired her over testimony

By Kyla Asbury | May 21, 2015

CHARLESTON – A former official for the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health has filed a lawsuit in state court claiming she was fired for her testimony to legislators in June about the impact of the Freedom Industries chemical leak.

Karen L. Bowling, the secretary of the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, and the DHHR were both named as defendants in the suit.

Ann Goldberg was employed by the defendants from May 1, 2001, until Jan. 2, according to a complaint filed May 15 in Kanawha Circuit Court.

The chemical spill that occurred in January 2014, in which large quantities of MCHM spilled into the Elk River in Charleston, created a major public health crisis, required immediate and significant responses from the Bureau for Public Health and directly led to legislative action, according to the suit.

Goldberg claims in considering a bill that would address the water contamination crisis and that would attempt to prevent re-occurrences of drinking water contamination throughout the state, the Health Committee of the West Virginia House of Delegates held hearings in February 2014 and asked her to address the committee to provide the BPH's position on the proposed bill.

The plaintiff testified before the committee honestly and in accord with information that she had received, through another staff person, from Bowling, according to the suit.

Goldberg claims following the hearing, she was informed that Bowling was upset by her testimony, despite the fact that it was accurate and was consistent with what she was directed to say.

On June 9, Goldberg received a request to attend and address a meeting of the Joint Legislative Commission on Water Resources during the following week's legislative interim to discuss the BPH's proposed rule.

Goldberg claims she appeared before the commission on June 17, and described the BPH's proposed rule and, in response to legislators' questions, discussed the rule's accompanying fiscal note.

The following day, articles appeared in newspapers about her testimony before the commission and each discussed the estimated costs discussed in the proposed rule's fiscal note, according to the suit.

Goldberg claims Bowling read one or both of the articles, or otherwise learned of their contents, and "was incensed that plaintiff had discussed the costs of the proposed rule with the legislative Commission."

Bowling then ordered Goldberg's immediate supervisor, Letitia Tierney, to reprimand Goldberg at once, for her testimony before the commission, despite the fact that her testimony was truthful, responsive to questions from legislators and consistent with the information known to Bowling.

Goldberg claims Tierney complied with Bowling's directive and gave her an oral and written reprimand for her legislative testimony.

In October, Tierney completed an annual Employee Performance Appraisal of Goldberg, which concluded that her overall job performance exceeded the agency's expectations, according to the suit.

Goldberg claims on Dec. 10 and 11, she received information that Bowling was preparing to terminate her employment and on Dec. 31, Tierney retired from her position as BPH commissioner.

On Dec. 31, the defendants terminated Goldberg's employment by correspondence within the DHHR, effective Jan. 15 and required her separation from the workplace by Jan. 2, according to the suit.

Goldberg claims the defendants terminated her employment in retaliation for her honest and forthright testimony and the defendants' actions were willful, malicious, callous and in violation of clearly established West Virginia law.

Goldberg is seeking compensatory and punitive damages. She is being represented by Allan N. Karlin of Allan N. Karlin & Associates; and Robert M. Bastress Jr.

The case is assigned to Circuit Judge Joanna Tabit.

Kanawha Circuit Court case number: 15-C-955

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