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    Dodge, attorney's estate sue Lockheed Martin

    By GRAHAM BRINK, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 15, 2003

    TAMPA -- In what could be the story line from a legal thriller, two government workers say they discovered potential fraud by a huge company with a multimillion-dollar job training contract.

    The company, hoping to keep the contract, hired an agitator named "Momma Tee" to conduct a smear campaign against the workers. Momma Tee called the workers racists and vowed to "get" them.

    Ultimately, one of the workers lost his job, the other committed suicide.

    That's the scenario described in a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday by former Pinellas County official Rick Dodge and the estate of a rising young lawyer, Janet Gifford-Meyers, who died of a barbiturate overdose in April 2001.

    The lawsuit is the latest chapter in a 3-year-old controversy over the way a division of Lockheed Martin ran Pinellas County's $15-million welfare-to-work program.

    "This suit is to honor the memory of my wife, who is unable to pursue it herself," said Gifford-Meyers' husband, Steven Meyers. "Above all, we want to get to the truth."

    A company spokeswoman, Kara Ross, said Tuesday that officials were aware of the suit but would not comment on pending litigation. In the past, the company has denied any fraudulent activity.

    Theresa "Momma Tee" Lassiter, a Pinellas County activist, confirmed Tuesday that she worked for Lockheed Martin. But she described her role as a "community liaison" and called allegations that she harassed Dodge and Gifford-Meyers "totally false."

    In 1999, the county hired Lockheed Martin IMS Corp. to coordinate the county's worker training programs. In 2000, Dodge and Gifford-Meyers investigated complaints from people who said they could not get the training or other help they wanted from the Lockheed program, according to the lawsuit.

    Dodge had been a long-time administrator with the city of St. Petersburg. He helped lead the effort to build a domed stadium in St. Petersburg and is credited with helping bring Major League Baseball to the city. Gifford-Meyers, a lawyer, had worked with Dodge to help secure the baseball team, and later on county economic efforts.

    After their inquiry into the Lockheed-run programs in 2000, Dodge and Gifford-Meyers concluded that Lockheed engaged in a pattern of double-billing, overpayment and the creation of inaccurate participant lists.

    That's when Lockheed hired Theresa "Momma Tee" Lassiter, the suit states.

    Originally, Lassiter had complained about the Lockheed programs. Then, in a turnaround, she agreed to go to work for the company in April 2000 for between $1,500 and $2,000 a month.

    According to the suit, Lassiter's goal was to run a smear campaign to discredit Dodge and Gifford-Meyers. The idea was to keep the fraud allegations from taking root.

    If substantiated, such allegations would have jeopardized Lockheed Martin's contract with Pinellas County and other similar government contracts. The allegations also could have torpedoed Lockheed Martin's efforts to sell the job training division.

    Lockheed, best known for its work as a defense contractor, became a leading national provider of welfare services in the 1990s. Lockheed sold its job training division to ACS State & Local Solutions Inc. for about $825-million in 2001.

    According to the suit, Lassiter attacked Dodge and Gifford-Meyers at several public meetings, calling them racists, and insisted that Dodge had been fired from his city job. She ordered copies of both of their personnel files and left "an endless stream of phone messages," Dodge said.

    On a voice mail message left at Gifford-Meyers' office, Lassiter said: "After next week, hum, I doubt you'd even be here. You'll probably be history, because I'm after your job, understand that."

    The suit states that Lassiter also asked Gifford-Meyers, who had one child and was visibly pregnant with her second, "How would you like to wake up tomorrow and not be a mother anymore?"

    Lassiter said Tuesday that she didn't recall making the first two statements. The last one she called a "bald-faced lie."

    "I'm Momma Tee," she said. "I love children."

    Gifford-Meyers bought a bulletproof vest. An armed guard was assigned to meetings she attended, the lawsuit states.

    Gifford-Meyers had a history of mental health problems, including a bi-polar disorder, although she had kept it in control. Dodge, for instance, said that despite working with her for 10 years, he didn't know she suffered from mental illness.

    But Lassiter's attacks got to her, the suit states. Her bi-polar disorder flared up. She suffered from insomnia. She asked her bosses for a transfer, which they granted. Despite the move, she was scared all the time, her husband said.

    Gifford-Meyers, 41, killed herself a few weeks after giving birth to her daughter. The timing of the suicide raised questions about whether postpartum depression played a role.

    Tampa lawyer Greg Kehoe, who is representing Dodge and Gifford-Meyers' estate, said she had had a baby previously without suffering from depression. He also pointed to her top-notch work record.

    "The new variable, the one that contributed to all this happening, is the harassment she received at the hands of Lockheed Martin," Kehoe said.

    A few weeks after the suicide, Lassiter appeared before the Pinellas County Commission asking for $15,000, the amount she said Lockheed owed her but hadn't paid. She had billed Lockheed and the company had then passed the bill along to the county.

    At the meeting, she told the commissioners that Lockeed officials had told her "where to show up" to "wage war" on Dodge and Gifford-Meyers.

    She still hasn't received the money, she said Tuesday.

    "They ripped me off, and now I'm being called a harasser and other names," she said. "I feel like they prostituted me. They used me. I am livid. This isn't right. It's not right, at all."

    County Administrator Steve Spratt fired Dodge in August, saying he could no longer rely on him. Dodge left in a cloud of controversy, which included the Lockheed Martin affair.

    Dodge, 58, said Lassiter's attacks left him with high blood pressure and clinically diagnosed anxiety. He hasn't been able to find work.

    "She was a hired assassin. She did her job and did it well," Dodge said. "Now we get to go after the truth."

    -- Graham Brink can be reached at (813) 226-3365 or .

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