Whistleblower lawsuit filed against Washington County

WASHINGTON COUNTY – A local heavy equipment operator has filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Washington County, alleging not only retaliation, but also that Washington County Board of County Commissioners Chairman Tray Hawkins is guilty of “gross misconduct” and “receiving illegal kickbacks” in exchange for his participation in a government contract.

Wesley Griffin, owner of A&W Excavations, Inc., filed the action, claiming he was retaliated against for reporting unlawful employment practices within the county, resulting in his company being passed over for work in favor of Lagniappe Consulting, a competitor owned by Hawkins’ brother-in-law, Tony Lagman.

“Despite its stellar work performance, [Griffin] has been subjected to disparate treatment and different terms and conditions of its contractual relationship with [the county] because it reported [the county’s] unlawful activities and was subject to retaliation thereafter,” states Tallahassee-based attorneys Marie Mattox and Ronald A. Mowrey in a complaint filed Jan. 12 on Griffin’s behalf. In addition to Hawkins, the suit also specifically names County Administrator Jeff Massey and Director of Operations Kevan Parker.

Griffin was added as a secondary contractor on a county project for ditch cleaning and removal of spoiled material after concerns were raised about original bid winner Lagniappe Consulting not having the equipment and manpower to handle the project alone. Griffin, whose original bid was 25 cents higher than Lagniappe’s, agreed to match their price as part of the agreement.

Lagniappe and Griffin’s company were each assigned to different areas within the county, with Griffin beginning work on Earl Gilbert Road in Chipley on Jan. 18, 2021. According to the lawsuit, the county ordered Griffin to stop work just a little over a week later on Jan. 26 “due to funding” but allowed Lagniappe to continue work for an additional five days.

The complaint’s timeline further states Lagniappe was allowed to begin working again on March 10, nearly two weeks before allowing Griffin to resume working, this time on Duncan Community Road.

Griffin states he discovered Lagniappe was selling the spoiled dirt to a local resident on Hammond Road for $50 a load, an action that is non-compliant with regulations set forth by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection regarding handling of construction and demolition debris.

According to the complaint, Griffin brought the action to the attention of Parker, who was also informed by another witness that he had observed a total of 24 loads of the spoiled dirt delivered to two related residents on the road. Griffin would later state he also had video of soiled dirt being delivered to Chairman Hawkins’ property.

The complaint goes on to allege that Parker told Griffin the dirt was dumped on the private property because Lagniappe’s dump truck had broken down but later stated that “Chairman Hawkins had made up the statement on what happened and why the ditch dirt was dumped on private property so that it would ‘cover their ass’.”

The complaint goes on to allege the county retaliated against Griffin by taking away work, resulting in Griffin having “significantly less work than Lagniappe or no work at all.”

According to the complaint, Chairman Hawkins arranged a meeting with Griffin on May 21 at the Wausau Fire Department station, during which Griffin again mentioned the improper selling and dumping of the spoiled dirt on private property.

According to the complaint, the exchange quickly became heated, with Griffin not only challenging Lagniappe’s qualifications, but also telling Hawkins it was a conflict of interest for him to make any decisions regarding Lagniappe due to his relation to the company’s owner.

“[Griffin] then told Hawkins that he knew [Hawkins] was getting kickbacks from Lagman,” the document chronicled. “Hawkins then replied, ‘Prove it, bit**, lawyer up. My lawyer’s waiting.’”

Griffin states that following the verbal altercation at the fire station, the county continued starting and stopping his company’s work on the project and that when he threatened to take the information public, Massey “repeatedly asked Griffin to not go public and that this issue could be handled privately.”

The Board of County Commissioners has not yet been served in the case; however, Washington County Attorney Matthew Fuqua states once service of process has been made, the county will “vigorously defend” the matter.

“The County believes the records will reflect that any discontinuing of funding on the contracts in question was the result of funding shortfalls or cash flow issues and the contractors were treated even handedly,” said Fuqua. “The County also believes the records will show Mr. Griffin and/or his company was paid over 1.5 million dollars on the projects in question and that A&W was awarded additional contracts after he maintains he was blacklisted.”

Fuqua went on to say that the county will continue to consider any bids submitted by A&W Excavations in the future for projects they are qualified to perform.