A former executive director of a state transportation commission has filed a lawsuit alleging she was forced to resign in retaliation for exposing a $5.5 billion budget “irregularity” proposed by the Florida Department of Transportation.
Teddi Pitts also accused the chairman of the Florida Transportation Commission of sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the lawsuit filed last week in Leon County circuit court.
Pitts resigned as executive director of the commission in January after working for the state for nearly 30 years, starting as a mail clerk at the Department of Transportation and later holding staff positions in the Legislature.
While working for the commission, Pitts “identified and reported defendants’ violations of one or more law (sic), rules, regulations and/or malfeasance, misfeasance, and/or gross misconduct, and thereafter was subject to retaliation by defendants,” the lawsuit, filed by Tallahassee attorney Marie Mattox, alleges.
The lawsuit accuses commission members Ronald Howse and Jay Trumbull, as well as former Department of Transportation Secretary Mike Dew and his chief of staff, Shannan Schuessler, of retaliating against Pitts and accuses Howse of sexual harassment.
When asked Tuesday to comment on the lawsuit, Department of Transportation spokesman Tom Yu said the agency had not received the complaint, which names the commission and the department as defendants.
The lawsuit details a series of events dating back to December 2017, when Pitts flagged a $5.5 billion “significant irregularity” in the Department of Transportation’s $49 billion five-year tentative work program. The transportation commission is set up in state law to provide oversight of the Department of Transportation.
Pitts raised questions about reserve funds with transportation department staff members, who “failed to identify any statutory or other lawful authority for the reserve funds,” the lawsuit said. On Dec. 18, 2017, Pitts also informed Trumbull, the transportation commission’s chairman at the time, of the $5.5 billion “reserve irregularity” and “the wholly inadequate legal justification” provided by DOT, according to the lawsuit.
Two days later, Trumbull told Pitts that then-Gov. Rick Scott’s office “was displeased by her inquiry, and wanted the inquiry dropped immediately,” the lawsuit said. Scott’s staff also requested a performance review of Pitts.
After that, Pitts “was subject to systemic and pervasive hostile treatment, and a hostile work environment, as retaliation for her whistleblowing activity in questioning the reserve funds,” the lawsuit alleges.
Howse, a commission member who now is the chairman of the panel, contacted Pitts and told her to start looking for another job, saying Dew “wanted her removed” and that her relationship with the transportation agency “was irredeemably broken,” the lawsuit alleges. Howse also said that Pitts’ assistant would be fired. The lawsuit alleges Howse had previously made discriminatory remarks about Pitts’ assistant, regarding her race and disability.
Efforts to reach the Florida Transportation Commission on Tuesday were not successful. Howse did not respond to an email seeking a response to the lawsuit.
Pitts met with Schuessler on Jan. 17, 2018, to try and ascertain her “status, outlook and longevity” as the commission’s executive director. Schuessler confirmed that Pitts lacked the support of the governor’s office and the Department of Transportation and “needed to find another job,” the lawsuit says.
The same day, Pitts met with Dew and asked the transportation secretary if she would be fired, “to which Dew ominously replied, ‘That very well could happen!’” according to the lawsuit.
Later in January, Pitts made a written complaint to Dew, outlining the reserve irregularity in the department’s tentative work program, “Howse’s inappropriate discriminatory remarks, and the retaliatory and hostile treatment … by Dew, Trumbull, Schuessler, Howse and others,” the lawsuit alleges.
In April, Pitts was summoned to meet with Trumbull in Marianna, where he warned her “it would be ‘her bloodbath’” if she did not resign prior to the commission’s meeting later that month, according to the lawsuit.
The following month, Pitts filed whistleblower charges of discrimination with the Florida Commission on Human Relations, in which she complained of retaliatory conduct toward her, including “constant threats to terminate her employment, and the harassment and hostile work environment,” the lawsuit says.
The retaliation against Pitts “was briefly less overt” following the filing of the whistleblower complaint but ramped up again after the November 2018 election results were final, according to the lawsuit.
Shortly after Gov. Ron DeSantis took office in January 2019, Howse, who was the new chairman of the transportation commission, demanded the resignation of Pitts and other commission staff members, prompting Pitts to file a second whistleblower complaint with the Commission on Human Relations.
The retaliation against Pitts didn’t end when she lost her job, the lawsuit alleges. Pitts “sought numerous job opportunities for which she is well qualified.” But, she alleged, although the application process generally proceeded well, she was “ultimately derailed by negative job references” from the defendants.
Pitts filed a third whistleblower complaint with the human relations commission in March, accusing the defendants and the governor’s office of “retaliation and interference” with her business relationships.
The lawsuit also accuses Howse of sexual harassment and alleges he treated Pitts “differently based on her gender.”
Howse called Pitts on her personal cell phone, commented she was “cute,” told her “you need to remember that I’m only married 75 percent of the time,” and “repeatedly asked plaintiff to have drinks with him and loosen up,” the lawsuit alleges. It contends she was “terminated/constructively discharged” after rejecting the advances.
Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.