Whistle-blowers' Firing Sparks Bill

STATE HOUSE WATCH

February 22, 1991|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,Staff writer

The director of a Pasadena group home for girls fired Tina Nickersonand six other child-care workers because they blew the whistle on abuses there two years ago, Delegate W. Ray Huff said yesterday.

Huff, D-Pasadena, asked a House panel to extend whistle-blower protections enjoyed by government workers to private-sector employees like Nickerson, whose company was under contract with the state.

"When you hear six or seven people coming out (with complaints) at the same time, that's more than a disgruntled employee," he told the Economic Matters Committee. "You had better listen, and there has got to be protection."

The employees at the Elizabeth House came forward after police were called to investigate a fight outside the group home during the summer of 1989, Huff said. An investigation ensued.

"The investigation revealed the misuse of funds, false prescriptions, sex and gun threats -- you name it, it happened in this incident," Huff said. "I only wish all the people involved in this case could be here today to testify, but many still fear for their jobs."

After they came forward, the workers were fired for "breach of confidentiality," he said.

Nickerson, who was one of the first to come forward, said she was fired in August 1989. After they were dismissed, Nickerson said,she and the others were harassed and threatened. When they applied for new jobs, they were given bad references, she said. Because they were fired, they were unable to draw unemployment insurance.

"Our social service system is barren," Nickerson said. "You cannot afford to be without some whistle-blowers."

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce opposes the bill, lobbyist Stuart Gordon said. He said the bill "is superfluous" because other Maryland and federal laws already protect whistle-blowers.

He said the incidents at the Elizabeth House should be resolved by changing regulations and contracts used by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Juvenile Services Administration. "This bill is broader than it needs to be," he said.

The director who fired the employees was himself later fired and the group home closed, said Delegate Marsha Perry, D-Crofton,a bill co-sponsor. The home reopened in December.

"What disturbedme the most was that people going to their elected officials about problems with an agency receiving state money could be fired," said Perry, a member of the board of directors for the Martin Pollack Project, which runs the Elizabeth House.

Among other pending legislation:

* The State Highway Administration has again opposed a bill thatwould create special speed zones on highways adjacent to schools. The SHA said creating the special zones at the nearly 200 eligible schools could cost the state $47,000 -- a price tag that could kill the bill in a tight fiscal year.

The bill's sponsor, Delegate Joan Cadden, D-Brooklyn Park, said the estimate is unrealistic. A county wouldhave to request the special speed zone, she said.

Anne Arundel lawmakers first proposed the bill last year after a teen-age girl, crossing Ritchie Highway near Glen Burnie High, was run over by a tractortrailer. The 1990 bill, sponsored by Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, D-BrooklynPark, passed the Senate but failed in the House Judiciary Committee.

The bill went before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

* Delegate Charles W. "Stokes" Kolodziejski, D-Carvel Beach, withdrew his bill Tuesday that would have required seat belts on new schoolbuses.

Kolodziejski, who filed the bill after his grandson was ina bus accident, said he found little support in the State House or at the school board. Both the Anne Arundel County Board of Education and the state Board of Education said they would oppose the bill.

"I guess being emotional about my grandson being hurt, I decided to try it," Kolodziejski said. But, he added, "I don't have an ego problem, I know when I can't get something passed."

* Perry said she wants Maryland to compost yard waste, which accounts for about 17 percentof the trash in state landfills.

She took a bill to the House Environmental Matters Committee on Wednesday that would require countiesto begin composting by the mid-1990s and teach residents how to compost in their yards.

The Maryland Waste Coalition, a Glen Burnie-based environmental group, and the state Department of the Environment praised the educational element of Perry's bill.

"Many residents just do not know how much their yard wastes contribute to the solid waste problem," coalition President Mary Rosso said.

John Chlada, acting deputy director of hazardous and solid waste management, said the department would like to see Perry's bill merged with another bill that would eventually require composting of all organic wastes.

Anne Arundel County and 17 other counties already have proposed composting as part of their state-mandated recycling plans, Chlada said.

Perry's bill would "fill in some of the gaps to make sure we have a totally integrated solid waste program," he said.

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