Firing back

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For more than 12 years Chris Lindamood earned high marks from bosses who rated her legal work in the office that prosecutes criminals in Orange and Osceola counties. Even on Jan. 9, 1998 -- the day Lindamood was fired by State Attorney Lawson Lamar's right-hand man -- she received an evaluation for the previous year that rated her "outstanding" or "exceeds requirements" in 40 of 64 categories.

Indeed, there was no explanation of her fall from favor in the two-paragraph termination letter she received from Chief Assistant State Attorney William Vose. It said only:

As you know, your service as an Assistant State Attorney is at the pleasure of the State Attorney. Accordingly, your further tenure as an appointed Assistant State Attorney no longer serves the pleasure of the State Attorney and therefore, effective immediately, today, Friday, January 9, 1998, your appointment and employment are terminated as an Assistant State Attorney.

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Please clean out all of your personal possessions, turn in all of your assigned books, identity cards and keys and arrange forwarding of your payment for your January 1998 salary through personnel.

Lindamood wasn't really surprised. "For two and a half years I lived with the realization that they could fire me at any time, for any reason," she says. "I've got an idea my firing might have something to do with my going after Uncle Mel's retirement."

"Uncle Mel" would be Melvin Jones, chief administrator of Lamar's office. Lamar's friend as well as a trusted colleague, Jones is a retired political science professor who left the University of Central Florida for Lamar's office after helping Lamar to victory in the 1980 sheriff's election -- the first of five consecutive four-year terms of elective office won by the man who, now as state's attorney, is the area's most powerful law-enforcement official.

Jones had received his police training only after joining Lamar's office. Although primarily an administrator, Jones, whose title is director of administration and investigations, had been made eligible for a special-risk retirement package designed for state employees whose job puts them in harm's way, or who supervise such workers. Lindamood felt that was wrong, and wrote a letter to the state Division of Retirement that triggered an investigation into whether Jones, a paper-pushing bureaucrat, and Randy Means, Lamar's press liaison, were appropriately awarded the high-risk benefits, which practically double recipients' retirement payouts.

The complaint was not Lindamood's first. She earlier had filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Equal Employment Opportunity (EEOC) alleging salary inequities by Lamar's office based on age and sex. She had triggered an investigation by the state Auditor General that found inadequate record-keeping regarding personal use of office cars. In fact, since 1994, Lindamood had complained about Lamar's office to everyone from Gov. Lawton Chiles to the Attorney General's Office to the American Civil Liberties Union. She also had filed a grievance with the Florida Bar Association against her supervisor. And she had criticized Orlando Police and the Orange County Sheriff's Department for shoddy preparation of cases that Lamar's office was supposed to prosecute in a timely manner.

Lindamood half expected retaliation for raising such a ruckus. But she also had reason to think that her job was secure. After all, state and federal laws prohibit the firing of whistle-blowers, and that was the exact role she saw herself performing. And if you couldn't trust the law in the hands of Lawson Lamar -- who for more than 20 years has held offices sworn to uphold that law -- who could you trust?

A short woman with tightly curled hair, Lindamood makes no attempt at glamour. Asked to respond to comments from Vose that "she acts and looks a little different from most people" and "marches to a different drummer," Lindamood sets her jaw and replies, "I wear pant suits."

She recalls living as a teen-ager in a house next door to Lamar on Cocoa Lane in Orlando in the late 1960s. Yet she says the families never became friends, exchanging little more than passing pleasantries. Her predominant memory is that Lamar's son feared a neighbor's dog.

After earning her law degree at Florida State University in 1978, Lindamood spent six months in private practice before landing work as a special agent for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. It was a tumultuous time for the agency; in Lindamood's five years there, FDLE had three different directors and was struggling to address allegations of hiring inequities. When she saw a chance to switch to the state attorney's office in Orlando, she jumped.

Hired by Lamar's predecessor, Robert Eagan, in 1985, Lindamood spent much of her time as an assistant state attorney in the intake division, where she judged the strength of cases brought by police and worked out plea agreements. But she was also an effective trial lawyer; in 1992, she succeeded where prosecutors had twice failed, winning convictions against a horse breeder for cruelty to animals. Only four days before her firing, Lindamood was in court representing the state against a teen who had tossed a brick through a car windshield, blinding a German tourist.

"I couldn't have worked any harder than I worked. I loved my job," says Lindamood.

But by 1994, things had begun to sour. Although she was supposed to share responsibility for review of felony cases with another assistant state attorney, Roger Mallory, she found herself buried by work while Mallory launched into an investigation of tax evasion involving State Rep. Alzo Reddick. (Though no charges were filed, Reddick in April 1997 acknowledged ethics violations for failing to declare income from the sale of stock in concessions at Orlando International Airport. He was reprimanded by the House of Representatives and continues to serve his Orlando district.) "While Mallory was doing this investigation of Alzo Reddick, we were falling terribly far behind," Lindamood says. Two days after Christmas 1994, Lindamood wrecked her car. She blamed fatigue and stress -- the result, she says, of having to manage what had become to her an unreasonable workload.

A computer analysis that documented the rising backlog supported her claim. Even worse, she was unable to physically locate files for 349 felony cases. Such problems in Lamar's office were hardly new; two years before, a paralegal was fired for taking home 500 case files in an attempt to get out from under a crushing load.

On Jan. 1, 1995, Lindamood issued her "New Year's Resolutions" in a memo to her supervisor and others that outlined the problems she saw. "That was like telling the emperor had no clothes when he liked going around naked," she says. That July, she was transferred to the Kissimmee office. Despite assurances otherwise, she was sure she was being banished to a "dumping ground."

In September 1995, Lindamood filed her complaint with the federal EEOC and the Florida Commission on Human Relations. She charged that in its work assignments and pay scales, Lamar's office was guilty of age and sex discrimination -- the latter evidenced, she says, by the fact that she had to carry the bulk of the cases in intake while Mallory pursued Reddick. Indeed, Lindamood's documents suggest she processed more than twice as many cases as her male colleague in the same time period.

Moreover, using public records, she produced an analysis that showed many female prosecutors in the office were making thousands less than their male counterparts; comparing the salaries of Mallory and another male attorney with those of nine female prosecutors in the office, Lindamood documented discrepancies that she says cost the women more than $250,000 between January 1989 and December 1997.

After a year in the Kissimmee office, Lindamood asked to be returned to her old job, in lieu of an attorney who she knew was being transferred and who didn't want the position. Vose declined, insisting that the job Lindamood previously had held for several years was staffed in rotation, and her turn was up. Lindamood was instead reassigned to prosecute felony trials in Orlando.

The next month -- August 1996 -- she filed the first of two whistle-blower complaints with the state. She claimed the move to Kissimmee and Vose's refusal to return her to her old job were retaliatory acts resulting from her New Year's memo. Eventually the Office of Public Counsel -- acting in place of the Attorney General's Office, which was representing Lamar in the EEOC complaint -- ruled that Lindamood's move was a lateral transfer, and not a demotion. The case was closed.

But the issues would surface again. When she was fired, Lindamood filed a second complaint with the state -- and this time the Public Counsel agreed, concluding last April that she was axed for blowing the whistle on questionable office practices. Within days she filed suit in federal court under the Civil Rights Act, alleging retaliation and repeating her original age and sex discrimination charges. Told by a judge that she could not drag Lamar into federal court for violating her Florida whistle-blower protection, Lindamood refiled that portion of her lawsuit in state court. That suit is now proceeding toward trial.

Lamar declined several requests for an interview, leaving all inquiries about Lindamood to Vose, his longtime assistant.

Vose answered each accusation bluntly, sometimes crudely. Asked about Lindamood's complaint about wage discrimination against women, he replied, "I don't know anyone who gets paid because he has a dick." Questioned about his office's refusal to rehire Lindamood despite being told to do so by the state Office of Public Counsel, Vose said the office "has its head up its ass." And he summarily dismissed Lindamood and her complaints as the work of a "crazy."

"She hasn't got any idea what she's talking about," he said. "Chris had a great mind. I think it's deteriorated somehow."

Such coarse, reckless utterances can only be explained by the virtual invincibility of Lamar's position.

Given awesome powers by Florida state statutes, Lamar's office prosecutes every criminal case heard before a judge and jury in Orange and Osceola counties; negotiates plea bargains that establish fines and jail terms, and decides which cases go to the grand jury for felony indictment. A judge's signature lets Lamar and his staff subpoena witnesses and secure warrants to search any home or business in the district. With more than 110 attorneys on staff, Lamar's office is the largest law firm in Central Florida, funded at public expense to the tune of $13.1 million this year.

With such power comes tremendous responsibility. Lamar answers to the voters, yet through a combination of good fortune and adroit politics, he has faced no opponent in any of his three elections for state attorney. In addition, as an elected official in one of a handful of states still embracing at-will hiring doctrines, he is largely immune from actions by fired employees -- except those who can prove they were acting in the public interest as whistle-blowers. And in Orange County circuit court, where Lindamood hopes to correct the wrongs that she says have been done, Lamar's influence -- first as sheriff and now as state attorney -- is undeniable.

Anyone requiring proof of that influence need only read Circuit Judge Joseph Baker's explanation for removing himself from Lindamood's lawsuit. "I have known Lawson Lamar and considered him a friend for over 20 years," Baker wrote. "I have worked with him in his several public positions for over 20 years and expect to continue to do so. I am well-acquainted with many members of his office and consider several of them to be good friends."

Publicly, lawyers are reticent to comment on how Lamar wields his clout. But privately, he is described as "the consummate Machiavellian politician," known to use his office to crush those audacious enough to threaten his friends or allies.

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One who did go on the record is William Sheaffer. Then working for Eagan, Lamar had hired Sheaffer into the state attorney's office in 1978. Now a defense attorney, Sheaffer has dealt with Lamar both as a colleague and an adversary. "I always found Lawson to be very bright. He is a master at organization. He is very adept at finding the most qualified persons to fill the positions around him. He is a very good chief executive officer," Sheaffer says.

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But as an opponent, "I would sooner duel with Bill Clinton as a politician than I would Lawson Lamar. You go to war with him. On political terms, he's going to use all the resources available to him to succeed."

Judge Baker assigned Lindamood's case to Judge W. Rogers Turner, who has presided in Orange County even longer than Baker -- more than 29 years. And on June 18, Turner ruled that Lindamood did not qualify for an injunction temporarily reinstating her to her $62,000-a-year job -- although that is what state statutes and the Office of Public Counsel called for while the investigation into Lindamood's firing was conducted.

In a phone interview, Vose bluntly summed up Lamar's response to the Public Counsel's order, pending the result of the investigation that would later find Lindamood had been retaliated against. "We said," Vose says, pausing to blow a loud raspberry into the receiver, "yeah, right." He proceeded to dismiss laws protecting whistle-blowers and public records as "stupid," and concluded, "We don't need attorneys around like her. We've got too much work to do."

In fact, Lindamood was never criticized for failing to carry her share of the workload. But in the months that followed Public Counsel Jack Shreve's conclusion, Lamar's office insisted it need not explain Lindamood's firing at all.

Only in court documents filed in response to Lindamood's state lawsuit is an explanation offered. And this explanation -- an interoffice e-mail she wrote that questioned the office's new security system -- is flimsy at best. Perhaps recognizing its weakness, Vose elaborated in a June 18 hearing, explaining that the e-mail was simply the final straw capping a series of problems dating back several years.

And yet, under questioning from Lindamood's attorney, Ed Gay, Vose admitted Lindamood was the first person he had fired in 24 years with the State Attorney's Office without observing the office's disciplinary policy, which calls for a progressive approach leading from reprimand to suspension and, finally, termination. Asked why he acted outside that policy, Vose said that as state attorney, Lamar has the power to abandon policy as he sees fit.

In other words, Lamar can do anything he wants.

Vose says that -- other than Shreve -- no one who reviewed Lindamood's complaints has ruled against his boss.

That's not entirely accurate. The Auditor General's office did find poor record-keeping related to the use of staff cars, though it could neither prove nor disprove Lindamood's charge that those cars were being used for personal business. And no one has yet ruled on her wage and sex discrimination complaints, the first of which was filed in September 1995.

Yet it is true that other of Lindamood's allegations have been rejected -- or ignored -- by authorities.

Chiles' office replied in a letter that pay inequities were a "management prerogative," and referred Lindamood's concerns about the office's ethical lapses -- her suspicion, for example, that Means was soliciting campaign contributions for Lamar on staff time -- to the state Ethics Commission. (She says she saw no point in following up.) Her grievance against her former supervisor was rejected by the Florida Bar Association. There is no evidence her complaints about poor police work ever prompted any improvements.

None of it slowed her down.

The action that Lamar finally could not tolerate, she believes, was her assault on the retirement packages of his two lieutenants -- Jones, the office administrator, and Means, the media liaison. She first questioned whether it was fair to award them pension payments reserved for special-risk employees in an August 1997 letter to the state's Division of Retirement. After receiving no response, she wrote again last November -- this time, to the department director. Days before her firing, Lindamood says she received a call at work from a division investigator, which she believes signaled Lamar about her allegations.

Suddenly out on the street and frustrated by the belief that those she turned to for help had failed to follow up, Lindamood stationed herself outside the new courthouse on Jan. 12 of this year. She hoped to hand out long explanations of her "whistle-blower termination" to media gathered for a court hearing involving a Miami cop who wrestled with Orange County sheriff's deputies after a traffic stop. The attempt to interest reporters in her story was futile.

"There was no one I could turn to," she says.

The Public Counsel's ruling in April that she was indeed a victim of retaliation finally validated her stance, and led directly to the pending lawsuits. But Lamar's office received an endorsement of its own on July 1, when the state Division of Retirement ended its investigation of Jones' and Means' retirement packages.

In a letter to Lamar, Sarabeth Snuggs, chief of the division's Bureau of Enrollment and Contributions, stated that -- based on information provided by Lamar's office -- "it appears" the two deserve the extra benefits because they supervise workers "whose duties include the pursuit, apprehension and arrest of law violators or suspected law violators." The two will remain in the special- risk class "until such time that it is proven they no longer meet set criteria for this class."

While awaiting the outcome of her lawsuits, Lindamood continues to try to rebuild her life. Although she has distributed more than 160 resumes locally, she remains unemployed eight months after the firing.

Maybe, as Lindamood contends, Lamar's office has blacklisted her. More likely, the widespread knowledge of her running war with the state attorney discourages prospective employers. As an example of the futility of her search, Lindamood relates her experience with an Orlando firm that twice rescheduled an interview with her before finally telling her they had no job openings. Other than volunteering to help friends, Lindamood has been unable to practice her profession. She struggles to find ways to pass the time.

At 47, she is living off income she had set aside for retirement. While she still keeps a 22-year-old horse, she has given up her classes in goju, a martial art she's practiced for 25 years, earning a black belt. She passes the time with her father, who lives next door to her home on a cul-de-sac in northeast Orange County, and her cat, Blackie.

"My career as a lawyer is ruined," she says. "I spend a lot of time on my computer. I spend a lot of time preparing resumes for job applications. I clean up around the house. I rearrange the sock drawer a few times."

Asked what keeps her going, she refers to a passage from Shakespeare's "Othello" displayed on the dashboard of her car: "He who steals my purse steals trash, but he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him and makes me poor indeed."

It may have served as a warning, but it was not a deterrent.

"What they were doing was wrong," she says of her former employer. "I was morally offended by what I saw. I wasn't going to walk away."

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