Ala. Whistleblower Wins at Supreme Court, but Loses Pay
Edward Lane’s Case Was a Free Speech Landmark, but Did Not Get Him His Job Back
Lane said other state employees warned him there would be a price to pay for telling the truth about an influential legislator, and for him, that price is more than $50,000 annually. Despite his victory at the Supreme Court, he’s still fighting to get his old job back.
“It’s the principle of the thing. They know they did me wrong,” Lane said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Lane was hired in September 2006 to direct a program based at Central Alabama Community College that helped troubled youths get their lives back in order and obtain a high school equivalency degree.
When he was hired, the U.S. attorney’s office in Birmingham had already begun an investigation of corruption in the two-year college system. Lane said it was widely known that federal investigators were looking at state legislators who had jobs in the twoyear college system, and he asked if his program, Community Intensive Training for Youth, had anyone in that category. He was told the program employed Democratic state Rep. Sue Schmitz.
Lane said he couldn’t find any work she had done and asked her about her daily schedule. He said she initially agreed to start going to the program’s Huntsville office each day, but then said she couldn’t do it. He said she reminded him of her role in Montgomery and her ties to influential people. Undaunted, Lane said he fired her in October 2006.
The FBI started looking at Schmitz, and Lane got subpoenaed twice to testify to a federal grand jury. That grand jury indicted her on fraud charges accusing her of doing virtually no work for $177,000 in pay between February 2003 and October 2006.
Lane testified at her first trial, which ended in a hung jury, and her second trial, which ended in a conviction.
But between the two trials, he got laid off by the state, which cited budget problems.
“It was not a problem brought on by bad management,” he said.
Instead, the governor ordered across-the-board cuts for all programs funded by the state education budget, but Lane noted that others in his program got to keep their jobs.
With attorneys hired by the Alabama Education Association helping him, he sued the community college’s former president and current president over his dismissal, claiming it was in retaliation for his whistleblowing about Schmitz. He lost at the trial court and appellate court levels.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said public employees have no First Amendment protections for statements they make as part of their official duties.
The Supreme Court disagreed and said the First Amendment protects employees from job retaliation when they are called to testify in court about official corruption.
While Lane established an important legal standard, the court ruled that the college president who fired him, Steve Franks, is protected by the qualified immunity provided under state law.
The Supreme Court sent the case back to the 11th Circuit to determine if the school’s next president, Susan Burrow, has immunity in her official position.
Since Lane’s dismissal, he’s been working at the Aniston Army Depot in security. He said he started at $36,000 and is now up to $38,000.
That’s not anywhere close to the nearly $95,000 he made in his state job.
The father of three said, “It was drastic, but we adjusted.”
Looking back, Lane said he has no regrets about helping investigators.
“My thinking was that I was not going to jail for this woman. If I allowed it, I’d be as guilty as she was,” he said.