There was a huge loss for whistleblowers and taxpayers in Indiana this month.
The Indiana Supreme Court ruled against a former state employee who filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the state, alleging she was fired for speaking out against the misuse of state tax dollars and a lack of oversight governing how taxpayer money is spent.
According to Indianapolis’ CALL 6 Investigates, Suzanne Esserman, a former senior environmental manager who worked for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) for 25 years, said she refused to rubber-stamp claims and sought oversight for the Excess Liability Trust Fund Program, a fund used to clean up leaking underground storage tanks.
Indiana taxpayers contribute to the fund every time they pump gas, and gas station owners and others with underground storage tanks also pay into the fund through state fees.
“I was fired because I asked too many questions,” Ms. Esserman told CALL 6, saying she took her responsibility “very seriously.”
“I refused to sign authorizations for payments unless I had looked at the claims and they made sense to me. I saw myself as the steward of state tax dollars, and that’s a very big responsibility.”
But in a split decision, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled against Ms. Esserman, upholding the Marion County Superior Court’s dismissal of her lawsuit against IDEM. According to CALL 6, most of the Supreme Court justices said the state is immune from non-tort claims because Indiana’s whistleblower act does not clearly show the state may be sued for violations of the whistleblower statute.
Ms. Esserman’s lawyer told CALL 6 that the people of Indiana should be concerned about the Supreme Court’s ruling because it makes it more difficult for state employees to expose wrongdoing.
“Ms. Esserman and I are very disappointed about this decision,” Ms. Esserman’s lawyer told CALL 6. “This decision has the effect of insulating the State from liability for its own misconduct and penalizes the employee who tries to stand up for the taxpayers.”
“You’ve been paying into this fund,” Ms. Esserman told CALL 6 in an earlier report. “But nobody knows how much is going in and how much is going out, and nobody seems to care. That’s the part that really bugs me.”