Long ordeal for Seattle worker who exposed veteran's fraud

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Posted: Jun 06, 2016 6:36 PM
Long ordeal for Seattle worker who exposed veteran's fraud

SEATTLE (AP) — A federal employee in Seattle helped expose a fraud in which an Army veteran lied his way to a Purple Heart and hundreds of thousands of dollars in government benefits.

Her reward?

The agency Cristina Jackson works for repeatedly tried to punish her for what it said were violations of the man's privacy, according to an AP review of hundreds of pages of personnel and investigative records.

U.S. Commerce Department officials proposed suspending her for at least a month — even as they reached one of two settlements with the veteran. Darryl Lee Wright was paid for skipped work and legal fees he incurred complaining about a hostile work environment.

They tried to downgrade Jackson's annual rating, then proposed a shorter suspension.

Jackson says she has racked up $20,000 in legal bills fighting the discipline. The Commerce Department, which did not respond to requests for comment, has refused to reimburse her.

"To this day I don't understand it," Jackson, 55, said. "What does 'vindication' even mean when the agency I work for doesn't see it that way?"

Wright, 48, pleaded guilty to federal charges in February, more than six years after Jackson told her bosses that he had submitted fake National Guard orders to be paid for a week of missed work. He's due to be sentenced in August. Through his lawyer he declined an interview request.

"Cristina Jackson's willingness to come forward was critical to uncovering the truth," Assistant U.S. Attorney David Reese Jennings said. "But for her actions, law enforcement would not have had what they needed to uncover the fraud."

Wright joined the Economic Development Administration, a job-promoting agency within the Commerce Department, in 2008. His absences quickly mounted, and he announced he was dealing with PTSD stemming from service in Iraq.

Jackson, the office's administrative director, oversaw his attendance records.

Late in 2009, Wright asked to convert missed work into paid leave for "emergency" National Guard duty. The orders he provided were unsigned or didn't have his name.

Jackson, who previously worked in administrative roles with the Navy and Army reserve, asked for more documentation. He told her to check with the Washington National Guard.

With permission from her boss, that's what she did. The Guard determined Wright "purposely falsified Washington Military Department orders to defraud his civilian employer," according to a December 2009 investigation report .

The Commerce Department began planning to fire Wright, according to a memo written by Jackson's immediate boss.

But Wright went on the offensive. In 2010 he accused Jackson of violating the Privacy Act by informing the National Guard about his PTSD, the records show. The federal law governs disclosure of personal information kept by federal agencies.

Officials quickly reached the first settlement with Wright. They agreed to allow him to convert up to 240 hours of missed work to sick leave, paid $5,500 for his legal fees, and even required Jackson and others in the office to take a class about PTSD and other combat injuries.

After Jackson learned about that settlement, she filed a complaint with the Commerce Department's inspector general, who in 2011 recommended Wright be disciplined "based on the gravity of his misconduct." Those findings made their way to federal prosecutors.

In a 2014 indictment, they alleged an audacious scam stemming from a single lie: that Wright was injured in Kirkuk, Iraq, on Aug. 30, 2005.

Wright, then a first lieutenant with the Idaho National Guard, was near a battalion headquarters building when two rockets landed about 100 yards away, he and others in his unit wrote. Their reports referenced no casualties.

"As far as anyone on our team getting hurt, no, that didn't happen," then-Capt. Mark Moeckli said last month.

But in 2010, Wright successfully applied for a Purple Heart. In his paperwork, he claimed he "was violently thrown and knocked unconscious from the percussion of the rockets' impact."

Wright also claimed Social Security disability benefits, insisting he was frequently bedridden. Social Security paid his sister to be his live-in caregiver, though she performed no such service. By May 2013, the siblings were bringing in benefits totaling $10,000 per month, prosecutors said.

Meanwhile, Wright was employed by the Commerce Department until 2012, coaching high school basketball in the Seattle suburb of Woodinville, and serving on the planning commission in Snoqualmie, the city east of Seattle.

Jackson's direct boss, A. Leonard Smith, defended her. In 2011, when he learned a human resources investigator proposed suspending Jackson for at least a month, he wrote a blistering memo , calling the investigation of her "severely deficient." He noted that the Privacy Act typically does not bar the release of information gleaned outside agency files and that Wright had spoken freely about his purported medical condition.

"It is an egregious mistake to penalize an employee who has done nothing in this case other than what is expected of her position," Smith wrote.

The 30-day suspension was never imposed.

"They were false charges with regard to C.J., if you want my opinion," said Bettye Atkinson, Wright's former supervisor, who retired after 40 years at the Commerce Department. "A lot of this was handled out of the D.C. office and they didn't listen to us in the regional office."

The department did eventually propose firing Wright. In response, his attorney blamed Wright's actions on war injuries and recommended in 2012 the department allow him to pursue a disability retirement instead. A settlement that year resulted in his departure from the agency.

But Jackson's troubles continued. Even after receiving Smith's memo, Thomas Guevara, the Economic Development Administration's deputy assistant secretary for regional affairs, docked her annual rating for 2011 and in early 2012 proposed suspending her for two days . Guevara declined to answer questions from the AP.

Jackson's lawyer, Saphronia Young, helped have Jackson's excellent annual rating re-instated, but the proposed two-day suspension has not been withdrawn, Young said.

"She went from being this highly regarded, stellar employee with an unblemished record to being treated like dirt," Young said. "It's just not fair."

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Documents referenced in this story are available at https://www.documentcloud.org/public/search/projectid:%2027289-commerce-department-whistleblower-documents

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