Whistleblower lawsuit settled against city of Leavenworth

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WICHITA, Kan. — A deal has been reached in a whistleblower lawsuit alleging the city of Leavenworth retaliated against an employee who reported that the city had defrauded the U.S. government.

A trial had been set for June 18 in federal court on a claim of retaliation made by a former employee who says she faced adverse consequences after reporting ongoing maintenance problems and dumping of solid wastes at the city’s waste treatment plant. She alleged the city failed to comply with contract terms that required the city to protect the public health and environment in its handling of sewage disposal and wastewater treatment for three federal agencies.

Michele Coffman, who worked at the plant from 2010 to 2013, alleged in her lawsuit that the city harassed and demoted her, causing severe emotional distress.

U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson had previously ruled in favor of the city on other claims brought in the lawsuit.

The court filing did not detail the settlement terms. The attorney representing Leavenworth did not immediately return a message left at his office.

Robert Collins, Coffman’s attorney, said in an email that the deal limits damages to what the city’s insurer covers. It also allows Coffman to appeal an earlier Robinson ruling on some claims related to environmental compliance and contracts.

At the heart of the whistleblower lawsuit is whether Leavenworth defrauded the Department of the Army, Veterans Administration Medical Center and Bureau of Prisons. The suit alleged the city did not comply with contract terms related to its handling of sewage disposal from those facilities because it failed to follow environmental regulations as the contracts require.

But the judge noted that the three federal agencies never requested the wastewater treatment plant to ensure environmental compliance, which suggests it was not material to payment.

The lawsuit was filed under the False Claims Act, which allows people to sue on behalf of the federal government if they have evidence of fraud in government contracts. Plaintiffs can receive between 15 and 30 percent of anything recovered. The federal government opted in 2015 not to join Coffman’s lawsuit, although it reserved to right to intervene at a later date.

The lawsuit claimed that for 15 months a broken sewer line in front of the plant was allowed to leak into Five Mile Creek, where people swim and fish. It also alleged solid sewer waste removed from the wastewater also was dumped on the ground behind the facility by the truckload, with rainwater washing the exposed sewage into the creek bed that runs into the Missouri River. The area where waste was dumped was also not enclosed to keep people and animals out, did not have a lined pit and contained no warning signs, according to court filings.

Robinson had previously dismissed some claims because Coffman did not notify the city of her intention to sue, but the settlement allows her to now give notice to the city before potentially filing a new lawsuit in state court, Collins said.