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Attorney general’s office sued by one of its lawyers

A lawyer for the Texas attorney general’s office has filed a whistleblower lawsuit against his employer and Attorney General Greg Abbott, alleging the defendants retaliated against him after he complained of illegal conduct within the law enforcement defense division.

Michael Ritter, who was hired by the department in March 2012, says he has reported issues of a hostile work environment, discrimination, misuse of taxpayer dollars and falsification of hourly timesheets, but was ignored and forced to transfer to the transportation division, losing oversight over four of his cases set for trial, according to civil records filed this week in Travis County district court.

He is seeking injunctive relief, asking that a court order the state office to return him to his civil jury trial assignments, the documents state. In a phone interview, Ritter said that Judge Amy Clark Meachum on Friday had denied a restraining order in which he asked for officials to refrain from reprisal but that the lawsuit would move forward.

In a statement, a spokesman with the attorney general’s office said: “We are pleased — and not surprised — that the Court rejected the plaintiff’s request and instead ruled in favor of the State.”

A response to the lawsuit filed by the office asks a judge to dismiss the claims without prejudice, saying the court does not have jurisdiction over the case. The plaintiff, it says, fails to prove each specific element of the Whistleblower’s Act, which protects public employees “who make good faith reports of violations of law by their employer to an appropriate law enforcement authority.”

Ritter, who is representing himself in the case, filed an 866-page petition that includes numerous exhibits. It says officials have mischaracterized his move to the transportation division as voluntary, as he expressed concerns that he was bullied and was not receiving enough trial experience in the law enforcement division.

On one occasion, he complained about a female supervisor who kept hollow-point bullets with the names of current and former male employees on them, a joke he was told other staff members took lightheartedly but that he said was evidence of a harmful workplace, according to court records.

Human resources officials brushed away his complaints and one of them “insinuated that by writing and sending my letter I was essentially having a childish temper tantrum,” he said in the petition.

Still, he says the transfer is not due to his safety or professional development but rather three reports of violations since August, the first verbally to human resources, the second in writing through the fraud, waste and abuse prevention program and the third through a letter directly sent to Abbott and human resources.

In those complaints, he said he described a “consistent pattern” of senior attorneys in the law enforcement division working less than 40 hours a week, and rarely, if ever, reporting when they would leave the office early.

Ritter said he found the discrepancies in reviewing the department’s daily reports from mid-2011 to 2013 and suggested employees were misrepresenting the hours they worked on their time sheets. He also said senior lawyers were dumping pretrial research and writing on less experienced employees, “swooping” in only when the case was ready for deposition or trial.

Junior attorneys “were thereby forced to work extraordinarily long hours without getting the experience they had been promised,” the lawsuit states.

At the same time, Ritter alleges, the senior lawyers were abusing the travel budget by “expending excessive and unnecessary” work-related trips, even as the division ran out of funds several times in the 2012-2013 fiscal year.

In one instance, Ritter said he presented a travel budget report to management from a prior year showing that a particular senior attorney’s travel accounted for 50 percent of all of the division’s travel expenditures, likely exceeding $100,000, the courts state.

“I … calculated that this senior attorney, who already makes over six figures, took home an extra $4,000–$5,000 in per diem that year,” Ritter says in the lawsuit.

In a phone interview, Ritter, 27, said the decision to file the lawsuit was difficult but that he is trying to look ahead.

“It does not matter whether I win or lose. I just want these issues brought to the public’s attention, so that the public knows about it,” Ritter said.

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