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AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Whistleblower cases cost Fulton County taxpayers $575K, and counting


It was a brazen scheme by a mid-level Fulton County employee to fund a side business using taxpayer money.

Nicola Hosier, a former financial systems supervisor in the Human Services Department, used her county-issued credit card to buy linens, chairs, place settings, silverware and dishes for her private event planning business, Exquisite Events Atlanta LLC, which she co-owned with three other county employees. More than $183,000 – including funds meant for the poor and homeless – got siphoned away.

But when the county's top leaders found out about it, they directed their ire not at the perpetrators, but at the county workers who uncovered the scheme, two lawsuits alleged. The county’s former internal investigator, Maria Colon, was demoted with a $45,000 pay cut. Her supervisor, former Deputy County Manager Gwen Warren, was fired. The women alleged that the county manager at the time, on orders from some elected county commissioners, ordered them to put nothing in writing about the scandal and to keep quiet until after November elections.

"At Fulton County, we don't investigate ourselves," Commissioner Emma Darnell allegedly told the county manager. Over the years, Darnell declined to talk about the accusations.

Colon and Warren both sued under the state whistleblower act. Now, after seven years of litigation, with the county pushing back hard and taking appeals all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court, the cases have reached an end that won't be cheap for taxpayers. The County Commission agreed last week to settle with Colon for $325,000, just as a trial was about to begin. And last month a jury awarded Warren $250,000.

From the Daily Report newspaper:

Still pending in (Warren's) case is a fee request for more than $500,000, including $106,204 in prejudgment interest.

Plaintiffs’ counsel, A. Lee Parks, whose firm represented both women, hailed the outcome of both cases.

“It took seven years, including winning interlocutory appeals by Fulton county to the Georgia Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court, to get these cases to trial,” said Parks. “Every court that took up the case sided with the plaintiffs.”

 

 

In 2013, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution took a hard look at the scandal and found that, despite promises to the contrary, no one from any government or law enforcement agency had  made any meaningful attempt to find out whether top-level officials ordered a coverup. From the AJC:

Three years after the whistleblowers stepped forward, no investigator has ever interviewed them — which would be a first step in any criminal inquiry. Nor has anyone spoken to at least five of the seven commissioners in office at the time the case came to light.

And nothing in either police or prosecutors’ investigative files indicates that other steps were taken to examine the allegations or to refer the case to an outside agency.

Instead, the county’s inquiry seems to have been limited to the theft of funds. The county manager brought in the commission’s own police department to take the lead there. Its investigator zeroed in on one ex-employee: Nicola Hosier.

That case ended quietly in a Fulton County courtroom late this summer, when Hosier pleaded guilty to more than 100 counts of forgery and false statements.

Though Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said in a written statement that no further charges would be pursued, he backpedaled in an interview with the AJC, strongly insinuating he might take the probe further.

"The thing is, it's not over," Howard said at the time.

That was four years ago. No other charges followed.


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About the Author

Johnny Edwards is a member of the AJC’s investigative team, focusing on the private sector and state and federal regulation. He has worked at the newspaper since 2010.