- Associated Press - Monday, June 23, 2014

MONTICELLO, Fla. (AP) - The state of Florida has agreed to pay nearly $250,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a former state employee who said she was fired for raising questions about the way the state treated people who received unemployment compensation payments.

State officials have labeled the lawsuit by Diane Parcell “meritless.”

But a Leon County jury this spring sided with Parcell and concluded the state fired her in retaliation for her actions. The state, without admitting wrongdoing, recently agreed to settle the case by paying more than $53,000 to Parcell for back pay and more than $195,000 for attorney fees.

“At great cost to me and my family I had to pursue this through the courts to get the justice I felt I deserved,” said the 65-year-old Parcell, who had been a longtime state employee.

Parcell came forward on Monday to discuss the case, which was just wrapped up earlier this month. She spoke to reporters in front of her north Florida house in an event that immediately became linked to the ongoing governor’s election since a top consultant for former Gov. Charlie Crist helped organize it. Crist is running as a Democrat against incumbent Gov. Rick Scott.

But Parcell’s lawyers said they hired the consultant, Kevin Cate, not the Crist campaign. Parcell also said she is a registered Republican.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Economic Opportunity declined on Monday to discuss the lawsuit other than to say Parcell’s claims were “meritless.” Jennifer Diaz said that since Parcell’s appearance was coordinated with a political campaign she referred any additional questions to the “various political campaigns.”

Greg Blair, a spokesman for Scott’s re-election, said in a large government there are “always bound to be employee conflicts.”

“But in typical trial lawyer fashion, Charlie Crist and his campaign are doing what they’re good at - using lawsuits for partisan political purposes,” Blair said.

Parcell was fired in October 2012 after she had requested protection because of her whistleblower status. State officials maintain that she was fired because of her aggressive behavior during a meeting held to discuss problems with the state’s effort to track down people who had been paid too much in unemployment benefits.

But Parcell’s attorneys say she was fired because of a “cover-up” in the Scott administration. Parcell said she found instances where people who had received overpayments were improperly referred to debt collection agencies by the state.

While the state is allowed to seek repayment, there are instances where it is not allowed, such as in bankruptcy cases or when the person has died.

Parcell said a state official told her that there could be as many as 19,000 cases where people were improperly referred to a debt collection agency. She said she warned her superiors about the potential multi-million dollar liability to the state.

Patrick Frank, a lawyer for Parcell, said that while the state may have not admitted to wrongdoing in the settlement their decision to end the case was significant.

“I have never known a defendant to fall on their sword purposely,” Frank said.

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Follow Gary Fineout on Twitter: http://twitter.com/fineout

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