A former Camden Parking Authority employee has filed a whistle-blower lawsuit against the agency and her former boss, alleging public corruption, bid-rigging and payroll fraud, and saying she faced retaliation for disclosing the wrongdoing.
In a civil lawsuit, Nicole Rojo of Pennsauken said she was fired in March by Willie Hunter Sr., the authority’s executive director, when she reported her concerns. She also alleges racial discrimination and said Hunter began treating her differently when he learned that she was of Greek heritage and not Hispanic, as he believed when he hired her.
Hunter did not respond to telephone and email messages Monday seeking comment. Michael Ash, general counsel for the authority, did not immediately respond to a message left at his office. Brett Wiltsey, special counsel to the authority, said he had not seen the complaint and declined comment.
Rojo was recruited in March 2018 from BB&T Bank by Hunter to serve as his executive assistant at a yearly salary of $52,000, according to the lawsuit filed last week in Superior Court in Camden. She was promised a promotion to project manager in three months and a $13,000 salary increase, the suit said.
Two months later, the terms of her employment “suddenly and drastically changed” when Hunter learned that Rojo is not Hispanic, the lawsuit alleges. Job responsibilities were taken from Rojo and given to Hunter’s secretary, and Rojo was arbitrarily disciplined and excluded from executive meetings, the suit said.
In the lawsuit, Rojo said the trouble began when she “objected to acts she believed to be illegal or in violation of public policy” in the procurement of contracts by the authority. Rojo said she expressed concerns to Hunter about his actions and those of others.
Karl Walko, president of Communications Workers Local 1014, which represents about two dozen meter readers and office workers at the parking authority, said he, too, had concerns about alleged improprieties at the authority, and reported that to the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office several months ago.
Walko said he did not know whether the Prosecutor’s Office planned to investigate. A spokesperson for the office declined comment Monday.
“I told them about what was going on. I left it up to them,” Walko said.
Walko said he reviewed documents for $16,000 in payments during a six-week period to a vendor to clean gravel parking lots last fall. He said the amount seemed excessive.
“There’s no way you should spend that much,” Walko said.
In the lawsuit, Rojo says Hunter “enriched himself” by directing the authority to award contracts to preselected contractors to circumvent the competitive bidding process in exchange for kickbacks. The authority favored the same contractor by splitting a single procurement into two or more purchase orders or contracts below competitive bid limits, according to Rojo.
She said she learned about other contract schemes by the authority that included: accepting multiple bills for work performed only once; multiple awards for similar work; accepting the same or similar documents to support billings on different contracts; and excessive purchases of services.
When Hunter learned that Rojo had knowledge of the bidding scheme, he demanded that she turn in her key to a filing cabinet that contained bidding files, the lawsuit says. A locksmith later changed the locks to the filing cabinets and Hunter had the only key, the lawsuit says.
Rojo also alleges in the lawsuit that she discovered in summer 2018 that a maintenance worker was working at night “off the clock” painting the authority’s parking garage, in addition to working his regular job during the day.
The worker told Rojo that he was being paid “under the table” by a contractor hired to paint the garage, the lawsuit says. She sent an email to Hunter expressing concern about the employee’s working off the books, but did not get a response, the lawsuit says.
Rojo says she was terminated on March 1 because she “blew the whistle” when she refused to participate in the wrongful activity and reporting that activity to Hunter. She says Ash and Michael Alejandro, the authority’s operations manager and Hunter’s second-in-charge, came into her office and began screaming, “Get your belongings and get out!”
According to the lawsuit, Rojo “feared for her safety because she was alone in the room with both men behind a closed door, and they were screaming in her face and standing over her in a threatening and violent manner.”
Alejandro did not return a message seeking comment.
Rojo saysthe authority failed to give her final paycheck in the amount of roughly $2,100. She alleges that Hunter directed payroll not to pay her. The parking authority is a public entity funded by fees and parking revenue.
Her attorney, Ian M. Bryson of Philadelphia, said Monday that Rojo was “a conscientious worker who took the risk of losing her job to expose government corruption.”
In the 40-page lawsuit, Rojo also alleges wrongful termination, civil rights violations, unlawful withholding of wages, and breach of contract. The lawsuit seeks damages for lost wages, mental pain and suffering, humiliation, and emotional distress.
Hunter, a politically connected former member of the authority’s board, took over as executive director in 2012. In 2016, Hunter got a raise of about $18,000 that brought his annual pay to $115,000. At the time, he made more than then-Mayor Dana Redd, who was paid $102,000. He started with a salary of $62,500.