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Former DeKalb Schools COO says he was fired after acting as whistleblower, lawsuit reads

In the lawsuit filed in March, Ben Estill claims he reported several possible violations of district policy or state law.

ATLANTA — The former chief operating officer for the DeKalb County School District filed a lawsuit recently claiming he was fired after acting as a whistleblower and raising red flags about how taxpayer dollars were allegedly being mismanaged.

Ben Estill was hired as the school district's COO in March 2020 and was employed by the district for approximately nine months.

"Our claim is under the Georgia Whistleblower Act which is a state law that protects government employees from being retaliated against for raising just the red flags that you described," said attorney Steven Wolfe with Decatur-based law firm Legare, Attwood and Wolfe.

Wolfe is representing Estill and in the lawsuit, the former DCSD employee claims he found several possible violations of both district policies and state law.

Those violations alleged in the lawsuit included employees, with their manager's knowledge, leaving work early, over-recording their hours and being paid for hours they didn't work.

He also alleges the district failed to conduct critical building inspections, his immediate subordinate allegedly moved $12 million between district accounts without required approval and an unexplained $135 discrepancy was found in the district's (Educational Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) ESPLOST funds. 

Estill said he reported those issues and more during his employment to then DCSD Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris and other superiors, but no investigations or actions followed.

"It is always possible the whistleblower is wrong in what he is reporting, but that doesn't matter. They make a whistleblower complaint and it is made in good faith, the law requires the employer not to retaliate against that person," Wolfe said. 

But Wolfe added after nine months on the job, Estill was retaliated against and suddenly fired by Watson-Harris for no longer being "a good fit for the District," the lawsuit reads. The court document goes on to include details of how specifics of the firing weren't provided to Estill as required by state law according to his attorney.

DeKalb County Schools on Tuesday declined to comment on the active lawsuit.

Estill's attorney said they're seeking a jury to find the DeKalb County School District violated the state's whistleblower act, award him lost wages and benefits, plus any other damages a jury sees as being appropriate under the state law.

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