Harris County sued by former employee

July 21, 2010 4:47:44 AM PDT
Harris County is facing a lawsuit from one of its former employees. The sheriff's office's former IT director says he was illegally fired for being a whistle blower. The lawsuit filed Monday names the county, but the focus is on the sheriff's office and the sheriff himself.

Months after taking office in 2009 and inheriting a computer system from an administration that had been in office for years, Sheriff Adrian Garcia, according to a spokesman, wanted to make sure the system was secure.

But how he wanted it done and who allegedly became a casualty as a result is the subject of a lawsuit filed Tuesday. In it, Wilfrido Willie Mata, the former IT director for the Harris County Sheriff's Office, says he was fired and just for blowing the whistle.

"You can't say to somebody, 'Thanks for reporting. You're fired,'" KTRK legal analyst Joel Androphy said.

According to the lawsuit, Mata claims he was essentially asked to look the other way while an outsider hacked into the county's computer system. And Mata says he was told not to tell the county about it.

Instead, the lawsuit says he went to the FBI, who asked him to wear a wire. In October, he disclosed his FBI cooperation to the sheriff's office. In February, the suit says his performance review was rated average. In May, he was fired.

"That timing is too close to not raise a lot of suspicion that he was fired because of complaining," Androphy said.

The lawsuit alleges the sheriff's offices violated the Whistleblower Act. In a statement, the sheriff maintains the allegations have no merit and are unfounded. He says Mata was terminated because his performance failed to meet expectations for which he was hired.

But according to the lawsuit, Mata had no prior disciplinary problems and received years of superior job performance reviews.

"The best evidence for the whistleblower is his past employment," Androphy said. "If he was a good employee, then obviously a jury is more likely to believe he was retaliated against. If he was a poor employee, then the jury is probably going to believe the sheriff did the right thing by getting rid of him."

Mata had been working at the sheriff's office since 1999. A sheriff's office spokesperson tells Eyewitness News the security audit of the computer system never happened and he says at the request of sheriff himself in October 2009, the Harris County District Attorney's Office launched a criminal investigaton. The district attorney's office told Eyewitness News no crime was committed.

However, the county and the sheriff still have to answer to the civil lawsuit filed by Mata on Tuesday.

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