Two former officials in the office of Orange County Property Appraiser Rick Singh have filed a federal whistleblower lawsuit against him alleging that he manipulated finances, reports and audits to cover up unethical and illegal activities, led a hostile work environment that included sexual and racial harassment, and then terminated them in retaliation for earlier, internal complaints they had filed.
Singh’s office responded Thursday by calling all of the allegations baseless and attacks on his character.
The lawsuit, from former OCPA Finance Director Aisha Hassan and former OCPA Communications Director Laverne McGee, follows a complaint the pair filed internally in 2017 covering many of the same issues addressed in the new federal lawsuit, which was filed Nov. 6 in Orlando in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida.
The lawsuit also makes Civil Rights complaints against Singh. It alleges, among other things, that Singh had used racial slurs, conducted sexual harassment of the plaintiffs and others in the office, and had brought strippers up to the office, which is on the 17th floor of a downtown Orlando bank building.
The suit also alleges that Singh mixed official and campaign work within his office during his 2016 re-election campaign. Singh, a Democrat, was first elected in 2012.
Singh’s statement noted that the earlier, internal complaints had been found to be baseless, and Thursday’s response characterized the new lawsuit allegations as “completely baseless and clearly made with the sole intention of damaging Mr. Singh personally. Mr. Singh vehemently denies these malicious attacks on his character.”
Hassan and McGee both were terminated on Aug. 24 for “excessive violations of agency policy” and “unethical behavior,” not because of their internal complaints, according to Singh’s office.
Their earlier internal complaints, initiated in June 2017, had been turned over to an outside counsel — retired Orange County Chief Judge Belvin Perry of Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit — for investigation. According to his final report, Perry interviewed Singh and 11 of his staff members all under oath, and interviewed Hassan and McGee (though not under oath), and reviewed documents and affidavits.
Perry wrote that he “could not find the existence of a hostile work environment created by Mr. Singh nor illegal activity as alleged.”
However, the federal lawsuit contests Perry’s findings and challenges his independence to conduct the investigation, since Perry is an attorney at Morgan & Morgan, which also employs OCPA’s private counsel, Frank Kruppenbacher.
Hassan’s and McGee’s federal lawsuit includes most if not all of the allegations brought up in the internal complaints and adds more.
Among dozens of allegations in their federal complaint:
– Singh removed or altered public records, or instructed others to do so, in advance of a 2015 audit by the Orange County Comptroller in order to cover up evidence of public money misspent on his personal travels.
– He forced staff members to work on his re-election campaign, on public time, and also spent public money on campaign items.
– He perpetuated an environment of sexual and racial harassment, at one point telling McGee to pose as “a hot black chick”; making “thinly veiled” sexual propositions toward Hassan; and bringing women, including strippers, into the office after hours.
– He manipulated property appraisals to benefit friends and punish enemies.
– He set up a non-profit organization called Florida Diversity to promote himself and collect sponsorships, but that the money did not come back to the office.
It’s the second recent lawsuit of its type filed against Singh.
In August, former OCPA Human Resources Manager Willis C. Perry III filed a whistle-blower lawsuit against Singh, charging similar allegations of manipulated finances, reports and audits to cover up improper activities, sexual harassment, and a hostile workplace.
Indeed, many of the specific allegations contained in Willis Perry’s suit also were itemized in Hassan’s and McGee’s lawsuit. One difference: Willis Perry also criticized Hassan and McGee, charging that they helped Singh, and then received better treatment from Singh after their internal complaints than Willis Perry did after his.
Willis Perry was terminated on Jan. 6, 2017.
Singh’s office responded to Willis Perry’s lawsuit with a statement declaring: “The Office of the Orange County Property Appraiser is committed to the highest of ethical standards in its dealings with the taxpayers, the community and among the staff members. We take all allegations to the contrary quite seriously, and look forward to defending the honor of this Agency – and of the Property Appraiser – through all available legal means.”
Singh’s office’s full response to Hassan and McGee’s lawsuit reads:
“The Office of the Orange County Property Appraiser holds itself to the highest professional standards and is committed to providing a safe and productive work environment for our employees. We respect the rights of all employees and take any concerns very seriously.
“The majority of the allegations contained in this lawsuit have been previously investigated by former Chief Judge Belvin Perry and were found to be without merit. We look forward to presenting the facts in court in a fair and impartial manner and to vigorously defending the integrity of this office.
“These allegations are completely baseless and clearly made with the sole intention of damaging Mr. Singh personally. Mr. Singh vehemently denies these malicious attacks on his character.”