Pa. Health Dept. faces whistleblower suit by former high-up employee who alleges retaliatory firing

By Jon Campisi | Jun 12, 2012

A woman who formerly served as a special assistant to Pennsylvania’s Health Secretary

has filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the state Health Department alleging she was fired after a mere year of employment in retaliation for uncovering what she claims was substantial government waste and abuse of public funds.

Francine Del Ciello-Blatt, who served as special assistant to the Secretary of Health of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania from Feb. 28, 2011 until her firing on Feb. 27 of this year, claims in her lawsuit that she attempted to institute safeguards and controls to prevent the waste and resource abuse from continuing into the future, but that she was fired after superiors found out about her actions.

The lawsuit, filed last week at the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas by Philadelphia attorneys Anthony J. Bolognese and Joshua H. Grabar, of the firm Bolognese & Associates, claims Del Ciello-Blatt was fired at the “instigation and behest of those who were responsible for the waste and abuse of funds that she reported, and their supporters, including the defendants named in this lawsuit.”

Aside from the Health Department, those defendants are Anne Baker, who served as deputy secretary of administration; Todd Shamash, who worked as deputy chief of staff to Gov. Tom Corbett; and Michael Wolf, the executive deputy secretary of the Health Department.

The plaintiff alleges in her complaint that the defendants “orchestrated” her firing, without justification, because the woman “uncovered the substantial mishandling and waste of increasingly scarce and vitally needed state and federal healthcare funds, tirelessly and persistently tried to do something about it, [and] spoke out at the Department of Health and to the Commonwealth’s Inspector General’s Office.”

Del Ciello-Blatt took action because it fell “squarely within her job responsibilities,” and because the matters she spoke out against were “severely compromising the mission of the Department of Health,” the lawsuit states.

The complaint alleges that Del Ciello-Blatt was fired only after she responded truthfully to inquiries of the state Inspector General’s Office.

“Rather than try, responsibly, to address the serious mishandling and waste of public funds that plaintiff had uncovered and brought to their attention and to the attention of others at the Department of Health with the power and the authority to investigate such matters … defendants conspired, in essence, to ‘kill the messenger,’” the suit states. “They did so because plaintiff was ‘rocking the boat’ by exposing matters that defendants would rather keep buried …”

Del Ciello-Blatt, a certified public accountant who is also certified in financial forensics, reported in her position directly to Pennsylvania’s Health Secretary, Eli N. Avila.

Avila made headlines not too long ago following a spat with a Harrisburg-area diner owner who claims the health secretary retaliated against him following an incident in which Avila allegedly gave the owner a hard time over a supposed undercooked egg sandwich.

Richard M. Hanna, who owns Roxy’s Café, filed suit in federal court in Harrisburg back in February against Avila, alleging the health secretary retaliated against him by working to prevent Hanna from obtaining a lucrative state contract to operate a café at the state capitol.

That suit is pending in federal court.

In her own suit, Del Ciello-Blatt claims that in her position she had “considerable latitude and authority on a broad range of responsibilities” in order to carry out her watchdog duties.

Some of her duties included analyzing policy and program proposals to ensure compatibility and consumer-friendliness; helping to ensure that the Health Department and its staff followed all required protocols and procedures to make sure Pennsylvania would continue to qualify for, and receive, federal resources; identifying and resolving problems, researching issues and recommending appropriate actions; and providing advice on sensitive department-wide matters.

The lawsuit states that Del Ciello-Blatt performed her job “admirably, diligently and tirelessly,” and received numerous accolades from Avila and others.

Nevertheless, the suit claims, the woman was retaliated against with firing after she uncovered the alleged abuses, the likes of which included lax record keeping, leading to the state missing out on available federal HIV-related funding, and inefficiencies and waste and abuse in connection with a program that funds supplemental food for low-income families.

The lawsuit contains counts of First Amendment Retaliation, violations of Pennsylvania’s Whistleblower Law, civil conspiracy and aiding and abetting.

As a result of her termination, the lawsuit claims, Del Ciello-Blatt has suffered substantial economic losses, and she has experienced pain and suffering, a loss of life’s enjoyment and other non-economic losses.

Del Ciello-Blatt seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, attorney’s fees, litigation costs and other court relief.

A jury trial has been demanded.


The case ID number is 120600604. 

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