(CN) - A whistle-blowing Pennsylvania prosecutor can pursue defamation claims against Gov. Tom Corbett in state court, a federal judge ruled.
Thomas Kimmett, a lawyer and accountant, joined Pennsylvania's Office of the Attorney General's financial enforcement section in November 2006 as a senior deputy attorney general.
The office said Kimmett was hired to fix a problem in the administrative collections unit, as some private collections agencies that collect debts on behalf of the state had not been paying interest.
Kimmett claimed, however, that he was hired solely because of his background as an accountant, and that he discovered waste, fraud, and wrongdoing in that his department had inappropriately paid the private agencies at least $300,000 in commissions, costing taxpayers millions of dollars.
Whenever Kimmett reported these issues, however, the office would allegedly try to sweep them under the rug. Kimmett was fired in November 2008, a few months after he sued the office; 12 of its employees, including former attorney general and current Gov. Thomas Corbett; and five anonymous state agents.
After years of wrangling that dropped certain parties and claims from the action, the defendants moved for summary judgment as to all remaining claims: defamation, violation of the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Law and First Amendment retaliation.
A magistrate judge urged closing the case in favor of the state, but U.S. District Judge Matthew Brann found that recommendation incomplete Monday and said the case would fare better in state court.
Though Brann said Kimmett did not have a constitutional claim, he noted that the lawyer "spoke on a matter of public concern."
"This point is undisputable," Brann added. "The alleged waste and mismanagement of commonwealth funds, i.e. taxpayer money, is of concern to all taxpayers in the commonwealth."
Ultimately, however, the office "had adequate justification for treating Kimmett differently from any other member of the general public as a result of the statements he made and the lawsuit he filed."
"Kimmett's allegations mayor may not be true and, as of the date of the instant memorandum and accompanying order, the veracity of his allegations will be left for a jury in the Court of Common Pleas to determine pursuant to Kimmett's whistleblower and defamation claims," the 36-page ruling states. "As a matter of law, however, one cannot dispute that accusing ones co-workers publicly of fraud would impair discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers and would have a
detrimental impact on the close working relationships for which personal loyalty and confidence are necessary. Furthermore, these accusations may impede the performance of Kimmett's duties or may interfere with the regular operation" of the office.
Noting that the First Amendment retaliation claim alone afforded the court federal question jurisdiction, Brann dismissed the defamation and whistle-blower claim without prejudice so Kimmett could pursue them in state court.
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