‘Whistle-blower’ suit filed

Advocate staff photo by ADAM LAU -- Semi-trucks used to stage FEMA supplies, including ice, in early September following Hurricane Issac fill the parking lot at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by ADAM LAU -- Semi-trucks used to stage FEMA supplies, including ice, in early September following Hurricane Issac fill the parking lot at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales.

Ex-state worker says his objections about waste of Isaac supplies got him fired

A former state employee filed a whistle-blower lawsuit Thursday saying he was fired for complaining about the state’s allegedly excessive ordering of ice and other emergency supplies during Hurricane Isaac and wasting them, at great expense to taxpayers.

Bruce Ellis, who worked for the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness from 2006 until his termination on Sept. 14, claims in the suit that GOHSEP officials intercepted two emails he sent Sept. 12 documenting the alleged misuse and waste of taxpayer money.

Ellis’ suit states he was told he was terminated “because of his emails” — one to several other employees outlining his opposition and criticisms, and the other detailing his notes regarding many of the alleged improprieties he observed.

The suit, filed in the 19th Judicial District Court, contends Ellis “enjoyed clearly established rights to protest, oppose, and report misuse and abuse of State and Federal monies …”

“Mr. Ellis stood up for what was right. Unfortunately, he paid a very dear price,” his attorney, Jill Craft, said. “He serves honorably in our military and could not silently sit by while taxpayer monies and precious resources were being needlessly wasted.”

“We can’t speak to the allegations because GOHSEP hasn’t been served with a lawsuit, and contact with his legal counsel after the termination was the first time we’d heard of Mr. Ellis allegedly acting as a ‘whistleblower’,” GOHSEP said in a statement released through spokeswoman Christina Stephens.

“In every disaster, we hope for the best, but prepare for the worst, and our response to Isaac was no different,” the agency said in its statement.

Ellis’ suit says truckloads of ice were taken to Pelican Ice’s “dry/unrefrigerated” warehouse in Lacombe and to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola after the storm where the ice was allowed to melt, costing the state more than $2.5 million. Pelican is the state’s ice vendor.

The suit says 350 truckloads of ice were taken to Angola.

“The ice truckloads were hidden from public view at both Angola and the Pelican warehouse. The unnecessary ice was then downloaded, Pelican was paid, and the ice was allowed to melt outside of public view at both locations,” Ellis alleges in the suit.

“In videos taken at the Pelican warehouse, several workers can be seen playing ice-skating rink with forklifts in the melting ice,” the suit adds.

“The ‘ice operation’ was deliberately undertaken to hide the massive quantities from media and the people of this State,” the suit alleges.

The suit notes that The Advocate filed a public records request Sept. 12 for information regarding the melting ice.

“In response, and over (Ellis’) protest, the Baton Rouge Advocate was deliberately not informed of the melting ice at the Pelican facility in Lacombe,” the suit states.

In addition to the ice, Ellis opposed the placement of generators — one requiring the help of a military helicopter to place it on the roof of a water treatment facility — that were “entirely unnecessary and many of which went unused,’’ the suit says.

Ellis also opposed the “redundant and wasteful purchase” of more tarps that ultimately resulted in the state nearly tripling the amount of tarps in its stockpile from a pre-storm total of 17,000 to the current stock of 65,000, the suit states. Those 65,000 tarps cost $5.2 million, the suit says. Some 132,000 tarps were purchased in response to Isaac at a cost of $11.9 million, the suit adds.

Stephens has said previously that the state ordered a seven-day ice supply based on projections for Isaac as well as the state’s experience with previous storms and the power outages expected.

Isaac knocked out power to 903,000 customers, she said, but most of the state regained power in three to four days, meaning the need for ice was drastically reduced and shipped-in ice was left unused. She has said the state makes no apology for being over-prepared.

Stephens has said recipients of unused ice included the state Department of Corrections, state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, points of distribution for hurricane aid, sites where disaster food stamps are being distributed, and Pelican Ice.

A seven-day ice supply consists of about 900 tractor-trailer loads of ice and is expected to cost the state $2.4 million under its 25 percent share of the total cost, Stephens has said. The federal government will cover the remaining 75 percent.

The state is seeking a 90 percent federal share, which, if approved, would reduce Louisiana’s cost to less than $1 million, she has said.

Ellis’ suit has been assigned to state District Judge William Morvant.