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Whistleblower on Florida economic agency fraud wins lawsuit, attorney says

A former employee of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity who uncovered "systemic" fraud within the agency has won a whistleblower lawsuit against the state, her attorney said Monday.

The whistleblower, 30-year state employee Dianne Parcell, discovered 97 instances in which the agency had inappropriately reported Floridians to collection agencies for alleged unemployment overpayments. Parcell reported the findings to her supervisors and the governor's office, but was told to drop her investigation, she said.

Parcell submitted a whistleblower letter in August 2012, she said. She was placed on administrative leave the following day and later fired.

A subsequent investigation revealed that as many as 19,000 Floridians had been wrongly reported to collections agencies, attorney Keisha Rice said.

"These improper referrals can severely and adversely affect someone's credit rating, making it more difficult to buy a house or a car," Rice said.

Rice said one woman who had been improperly reported had already demanded $100,000 from the state. She estimated that the overall liability to the state could be as much as $1.9 billion.

Parcel won her case in Leon County Circuit Court on April 3. A jury awarded her more than $50,000 in damages.

Parcell said she was bringing the case to the media not to affect the upcoming governor's race, but because the 19,000 cases had not yet been resolved.

"I don't have a vendetta against Rick Scott," she said. "I'm a Republican."

In a statement, Department of Economic Opportunity spokeswoman Jennifer Diaz called Parcell's claims "meritless" and said Parcell's Monday morning press conference was "coordinated by a political campaign."

The news conference was organized by Kevin Cate, who consults for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist

But Cate said the event was not related to the Crist campaign. 

"I work for a number of law firms and [Rice's law firm] is one of them," he said.