HARRISBURG - The reinstatement of a nearly seven-year-old whistleblower case involving the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission means the employee in question will get his day in court.
The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania remanded the case of Ralph Bailets, former employee of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, for further proceedings after the Commonwealth Court had denied relief under the Whistleblower Law.
Paula Brantner is the executive director of Workplace Fairness, an organization dedicated to the fair treatment of employees. She’s been an employment attorney for more than 20 years and told the Pennsylvania Record the Supreme Court’s decision isn’t a victory, but it is a step in the right direction.
“It doesn’t mean that he won his case; it means that a jury will have an opportunity to review it,” Brantner told the Record. “This is as much about summary judgment as whistleblower standards. One challenge we face for employment cases is a judiciary that acts relatively hostile to plaintiffs who bring employment cases.”
Bailets was an employee of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission from 1998 to 2008. He was the manager of reporting and financial systems, according to court documents, who received “outstanding” reviews until he came across what he saw as “improprieties and wasteful practices”.
According to court documents, those improprieties included “EZPass discounts, politically motivated personnel actions, and the use of multiple, unnecessary external investment managers.” Bailets claims he was told not to report his findings, then over a period of five months was demoted and eventually terminated, according to court documents.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission runs on public funds, Brantner told the Record. She said the court should be trying to make sure those dollars are well spent – not dismissing claims.
“If whistleblowers have cases thrown out of court – or are discouraged from reporting impropriety – impropriety is going to thrive, especially in cases involving someone working for a governmental entity,” Brantner said.
“Those are taxpayer dollars and we want government employees to try to get rid of improprieties and root out ways to conserve public funds. You don’t want a court to do the opposite.”
It is often employees who work on the financial side of a company that find these improprieties, Brantner said. They’re employees who do such a good job, they end up getting punished for it, she said.
“They are often in a unique position to see improprieties. And so they are under a lot of pressure, because they’re more likely to run across wrong doing than someone who doesn’t have that intimate exposure to the numbers.”
That’s why having these cases go to trial and be investigated by an unbiased, third party is so essential, according to Brantner.
“They’re very factually intensive; you really need someone who is an objective party to go in and sort it out and determine whether or not there was impropriety,” Brantner said. “And whether this person was retaliated against for bringing it to light.”
It is not an anomaly for this type of case to last 10 years, Brantner said. Bailet’s case has already lasted seven, and has yet to see trial.
“There are so difficulties in the system that are inherently discouraging,” Brantner said. “Certainly having your case thrown out before ever getting a hearing is one of them.”
The Pennsylvania Record reached out to the Turnpike Commission multiple times for this story, but requests for response were not returned.