The former chief operating officer of the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles won a round in court Thursday in his lawsuit claiming he was wrongfully fired in 2017 after blowing the whistle on HACLA’s payment of allegedly bogus legal bills issued by the City Attorney’s Office.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rafael Ongkeko denied a motion by HACLA lawyers to dismiss the second of two whistleblower allegations in Ken Simmons’ lawsuit. Defense attorneys maintained there were no facts showing Simmons engaged in “protected activity” and that he was discriminated against for doing so.
Protected activity in the workplace means that workers may engage in some conduct without fear of retaliation by supervisors or employers. Simmons alleges he was retaliated against for trying to stop alleged fraudulent billing by the City Attorney’s Office to HACLA in violation of the state False Claims Act. The lawsuit, filed Feb. 14, alleges the amount of excess billing to be more than $500,000 per year.
“Plaintiff repeatedly brought up his concerns with the City Attorney’s Office’s inflated billing…,” Ongkeko wrote, adding that HACLA is not immune from liability for the alleged retaliatory termination of Simmons’ employment.
Simmons served as COO for HACLA for nearly a decade before being fired in August 2017, according to his court papers. His duties included advising and assisting in the development and implementation of a financial strategy to ensure the availability of funding sources for HACLA’s projects and activities.
Simmons alleges that the City Attorney’s Office was issuing bills to HACLA containing hundreds of thousands of dollars of false and/or inflated legal fees, and that HACLA was paying those bills without question. Simmons further alleges that when he brought the issue to the attention of HACLA President and CEO Douglas Guthrie, he was rebuffed for causing problems and ultimately fired in retaliation.
HACLA has an annual budget in excess of $1 billion and receives funding from federal HUD subsidies and capital funds, Section 8 administrative fees, rent paid by public housing residents and other grants.
HACLA, the largest provider of affordable housing in Los Angeles, contracts with the City Attorney’s Office to handle much of its internal and external legal matters in exchange for hourly legal fees, according to the lawsuit.
Simmons says that in early 2017, he found out about a quarterly bill from the City Attorney’s Office for work allegedly performed by four different lawyers, even though two had been on medical leave. He alleges that in another case, the City Attorney’s Office billed $20,000 in legal fees for a month’s work by a single lawyer that was unjustified given the work performed.
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