Ex-DNR employee to get 2nd chance

Appeals court orders state to consider rehiring

February 25, 2005|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Maryland's second-highest court ordered the state yesterday to consider the rehiring of a self-described "whistle-blower" who claims that he was forced out of his job running a state marina on the Eastern Shore after he alleged that his bosses had misspent more than $80,000.

James Heller, 62, a Vietnam veteran and former Bethlehem Steel manager, worked as manager of the state-owned Somers Cove Marina in Crisfield from October 1998 until April 2001.

The marina is well-known as home of the annual J. Millard Tawes Crab and Clam Bake, which draws politicians and supporters from across the state for fried clam strips and gossip about politics.

After he had been managing the marina for about a year, Heller told his bosses at the Department of Natural Resources that they were illegally using the marina as a "cash cow," according to court records

The marina was raising money that, by law, should have been spent maintaining the marina, Heller said. Instead, one boss used the money to buy a $24,000 truck that he used at his job at a state park, Heller said.

About $40,000 was improperly redirected to Somerset County's Great Hope Golf Course, among other "improper and illegal fiscal practices," according to Heller's claim.

After passing these charges up the chain of command, Heller said, his supervisors retaliated by transferring him to a lesser job, a so-called go-fer position, at Pocomoke River State Park.

Heller said his supervisors "cooked up" a false sexual harassment complaint by a female assistant as a pretext for demoting him.

"He was basically banished from the marina and given a made-up job in the Pocomoke swamp, and he held that position until they laid him off last spring," said Heller's attorney, Robin R. Cockey of Salisbury.

"He'd love to get his job back and also his attorney's fees and costs," Cockey said.

Yesterday, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals ordered the state Office of Administrative Hearings to hold a hearing into Heller's allegations that he was fired because he was a "whistle-blower."

The three-judge panel did not say whether they believed Heller should be rehired or whether his allegations were true. But the judges said a state administrative law judge and the Circuit Court for Somerset County had wrongly dismissed the case.

Heather Lynch, a DNR spokeswoman, said the agency is studying the court's decision.

"The attorneys for the department are reviewing the opinion, and we have no further comment," Lynch said.

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