Archive for Wednesday, July 11, 2001

Whistle-blower allegations getting day in court

July 11, 2001


— State investigators in March 1999 may have considered suspending Kansas Sentencing Commission executive director Barbara Tombs, according to a motion filed by a Lawrence woman who has sued the state and Tombs.

Shu Chen, a former researcher at the Sentencing Commission, alleges she was fired by Tombs for blowing the whistle about wrongdoing at the agency. Tombs has said in court documents that Chen was fired for insubordination.

Chen's lawsuit against Tombs and the state went to trial Tuesday and will continue today before a six-person jury and Shawnee County State District Judge Jan Leuenberger.

In a motion filed in the case, Chen wants the state to release a memo from Assistant Atty. Gen. Eliehue Brunson to Deputy Atty. Gen. John Campbell.

The memo is dated March 10, 1999, just 11 days after Chen had spoken with Brunson about alleged improper conduct by Tombs. Part of the heading of the memo, which the state released, refers to suspending Tombs pending an audit.

The state has refused to release the entire memo, saying it can be kept secret because of attorney-client privilege.

But Clint Patty, Chen's attorney, said the memo is not legal advice between an attorney and client, but part of investigation into Tombs and should be made public. Leuenberger said he may rule on the motion as early as today.

Tuesday, Chen testified more than three hours. She said when she was fired, just three weeks after talking with Brunson, she feared that she, her husband and daughter would be sent back to China, a country she decided to leave after the government crackdown on students in Tianamen Square in 1989.

"Losing that job meant losing everything," Chen said. "I didn't know what to do."

On cross-examination, Tombs' attorney Thomas Haney said deportation proceedings were never started against Chen.

But Chen said that was because she was able to quickly find work with the Kansas Juvenile Justice Authority. Her visa required that she be employed.

Chen is seeking about $14,000 in lost wages and benefits and unspecified punitive and compensatory damages.

Tombs and Haney wouldn't comment on Chen's testimony or the motion to produce the memo.

Chen testified she believed Tombs was doing private contracting work on state time and bought clothes for a work-release inmate, which violated state guidelines.

In court documents, Tombs said she fired Chen after Chen wrote a memo that contradicted her and the agency's staff attorney and then gave that memo to commission employees. That dispute was over the treatment of a work-release inmate.

Chen said she was unfairly reprimanded for sharing a soft drink and some lunch with the inmate-employee. She said Tombs had often done special favors for another inmate-employee, including buying her clothes and providing a job when the woman was paroled.

When Tombs sent out a memo reviewing guidelines for the treatment of inmate-employees, Chen said she felt like she was being blamed for violating the guidelines. Chen said she then put out a memo to all the employees to clarify what had happened.

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