Informant's Revenge

A jury sides with a former Tucson Water employee who blew the whistle

Eight years after blowing the whistle on Tucson Water supervisor Mike Ring and the agency, Maria Magda Thompson finally has some satisfaction: She recently won an $80,000 jury judgment against him.

She also has advice for anyone else considering becoming a whistle-blower.

"The employee will be dragged through the gutter the whole time," Thompson says. "They should have a paper trail that focuses not just on what they are letting out, but also what is happening to them."

Thompson's own ordeal began in 1997, when there was an embarrassing acid leak at the Tucson Area Remediation Project facility near Irvington Road and Interstate 10. Contacting the Tucson Fire Department to report the incident and how it was being handled, Thompson kept mum at work about her involvement.

Fingers were soon pointing at Thompson as the whistle-blower, with Ring reportedly calling the anonymous informant "some fucking idiot." Thompson eventually sought a job transfer, and was reassigned to Tucson Water's downtown headquarters.

Believing the employment environment there was also hostile, she stopped going to work. That resulted in her firing, a decision upheld four years ago by the Tucson Civil Service Commission (See "Whistle-Blower's Lament," July 26, 2001).

Seeking judicial relief, Thompson filed suit in federal court against Ring and Tucson Water's director, David Modeer, and the assistant director, Marie Pearthree. "It was a hostile work environment, including physical (actions)," Thompson told the eight-member jury that heard her case. "I was afraid of losing my job, and I was afraid I would be set up."

In a later interview, Thompson said of Ring's behavior: "He's got a violent temper and was obviously very upset with me for calling the Fire Department. My life at work went from being really nice to very hostile. The worst part was other employees would see (Ring's behavior), and it was just acceptable."

The jury agreed with Thompson and found Ring "deliberately subjected (Thompson) to adverse employment actions ... with intent to retaliate against (her)." In addition, they concluded Ring, "made a deliberate decision to allow other employees subject to his control to impose adverse employment actions upon (Thompson), and did so with the intent to retaliate against (her)."

At the same time, the jury found both Modeer and Pearthree innocent.

Awarding Thompson $30,000 in compensatory damages and $50,000 in punitive damages was well justified, according to Thompson's attorney, Steven Sandoval. "Ring was the actual perpetrator," he says, "since he was responsible for the (acid) spill and cleanup. Ring had a finger pointed at him for illegally handling and disposal (of the acid). He had the greatest motivation to fight back. The evidence showed a consistent and on-going pattern (of retaliation) which wasn't stopping.

"No one would have known about this incident if Magda hadn't spoken up. I think this decision is a glimmer of hope for whistle-blowers. The jury's verdict sends a message to supervisors that they can be held responsible for their, and their subordinates', acts."

Whether that message has been received by Ring is uncertain. He hung up when called by the Weekly seeking a comment.

Lyle Aldridge, contract defense attorney for the city of Tucson, sees things differently than Sandoval. He says Thompson pressed the case to get rich and believes the jury was swayed by factors other than the evidence.

"I think the jury got it wrong," he states. "They were confused and sympathetic (toward Thompson). She's a woman, and Mike Ring is a big guy who expresses himself bluntly."

Jury foreman Roy Schwartz counters: "Mr. Aldridge was very fortunate. The jury was very sympathetic toward Thompson, but I was able to convince them that, based on our instructions, Modeer and Pearthree hadn't deliberately harassed her."

Schwartz had less-than-kind words about Tucson Water's leadership. "It wasn't obvious those two tried to correct a dysfunctional organization. It amazed me. I would think a city workplace would be a little more structured. It was not the kind of workplace I would expect.

"Ring's not suited for that kind of job. He's a bully."

Aldridge has additional opinions about the trial's outcome. "Being a whistle-blower is a million dollar industry in this country," he says. "The standard advice from attorneys (to whistle-blowers) is they can blame anything on retaliation. The law needs to recognize what does and does not amount to retaliation. Retaliation (in this case) consisted of dirty looks (and) Ring stomping around and being angry. Those are things that were never conceived as retaliation a few years ago."

With his side prevailing against Ring, after being unpaid for five years for his services, Sandoval will soon seek compensation from the city of Tucson for his fees and expenses. The city has to decide whether to appeal the verdict within the next few weeks.

Back in 1997, Ring earned $44,492 as a water operations supervisor. Since then, after receiving a temporary 12-month promotion, he retains the same job classification, now making almost $73,000.

For her part, having been out of work for several years, Thompson has finally found an intermittent job. Even though the city of Tucson has policies in place which purport to protect whistle-blowers, Thompson doesn't think much of them.

From her harsh experience, she tells those considering blowing the whistle: "If you find yourself with an employer who is not responsive, or will lie, document the incident, and document what's happening to you. Then start looking for another job, because there are no advantages to being a whistle-blower."

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