Special thanks to Channel 4 NBC Atlanta, and CBS Channel 46 Atlanta for this special watchdog report
A consortium of groups calling itself Georgia Watchdogs is paying close attention to the racketeering lawsuit filed by former Georgia Perimeter College President Anthony Tricoli.
The lawsuit alleged University System of Georgia officials and GPC budget officials colluded to falsify budget reports to frame Tricoli and that Attorney General Sam Olens is protecting them.
At a news conference Monday, a representative of Georgia Watchdogs drew parallels between Tricoli’s case and the lawsuit brought by the former head of the state’s ethics commission, Stacey Kalberman, who won a whistleblower lawsuit for being unfairly forced from her job as retribution for investigating Gov. Nathan Deal’s campaign.
“This is coming on the heels of the Ethics Commission lawsuit in which Georgia taxpayers ended up having to pay over $3 million because of wrongdoing by state employees,” said Sabrina Smith.
In a DeKalb County courtroom Monday morning, the attorney for former Georgia Perimeter College Anthony Tricoli argued that sovereign immunity does not apply when government workers violate the Georgia RICO statute.
An assistant attorney general argued the Georgia Constitution protects state workers from civil lawsuits.
Judge Daniel Coursey will consider the arguments from both sides. It’s unclear when he will announce a decision.
Tricoli, who says he was framed for financial mismanagement and forced out of his job, said the allegations against him have destroyed his career.
“At 56 years old, I was basically black-balled thanks to the USG (University System of Georgia) and their decision to eliminate me and keep all of this on my shoulders when in fact I was the person who the crime was committed on.”
The suits filed individually by former Georgia Perimeter College president Anthony Tricoli and University of Georgia professor Dezso Benedek accuse various USG officials and Olens himself with violating the state’s RICO statute.
The office of attorney general is constitutionally required to prosecute public corruption within government and defend state agencies in litigation.
When asked why the office had not investigated the allegations, Olens’ spokesperson Lauren Kane said “[n]either Benedek nor Tricoli have made any credible allegations that warrant action by this office.”
“I think this is corruption on a level I can’t even quantify,” Benedek told CBS46 investigative reporter Jeff Chirico during an interview in 2013. “The [UGA] administration reserves the right to cheat and lie and do whatever they please.”
Benedek survived an attempt by UGA administration to revoke his tenure in 2010. According to his lawsuit, a dean manufactured evidence to frame Benedek. In doing so, the lawsuit alleges he shared private student information with a third party.
The lawsuit, which is filed in Fulton County Superior Court, goes on to allege an assistant attorney general who prosecuted the tenure revocation withheld evidence that disproved a major allegation in her case. She’s accused of moving forward with the hearing anyway, telling witnesses their lies would be protected by sovereign immunity.
A panel ruled that Benedek could keep his job but Benedek said the accusations have ruined his reputation. He wants to clear his name by proving university officials conspired to oust him because he openly and regularly criticized the university administration.
“[The attorney general and university administration] attempted to take away [Benedek’s] job, take away his pension, destroy his life and livelihood based on charges they knew were false,” said attorney Stephen Humphreys, who represents both Benedek and Tricoli.
Tricoli claimed he was forced from his job over false financial mismanagement allegations.
“I was set up. I was lied to,” said Tricoli.
Tricoli’s lawsuit contends finance officials manipulated the college budget to frame him. The budget director allegedly told Tricoli GPC’s budget had a surplus while telling the Board of Regents officials that GPC was “careening…into the red.”
It goes on to allege that Rob Watts, USG Chief Operating Officer and Two-Year College Sector Head, withheld budget information from Tricoli “in order to bring about Tricoli’s demise.” Watts assumed Tricoli’s position after he left in 2012 and currently still serves as interim GPC president.
Humphreys said Olens should have investigated the cases instead of defending them.
Olens’ court filings don’t dispute facts in the two complaints but has requested that the court dismiss the complaints because state workers are immune from civil lawsuits.
Humphreys disagrees and says the state’s RICO statute allows him to sue government workers.
“Every time I receive a pleading from the attorney general’s office containing misrepresentations of fact, misrepresentations of law, which they all do, I’m even more determined that this cannot be the way the state government of Georgia conducts itself,” said Humphreys.
It is still not clear how Olens’ office determined the allegations didn’t warrant an investigation.