Ex-official sues Flint mayor, city for wrongful firing

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Former Flint city administrator Natasha Henderson is suing Flint Mayor Karen Weaver and the city for wrongful termination, alleging her rights under the Whistleblower Protection Act and the First Amendment were violated after she reported that Weaver was redirecting charity cash.

In a lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Flint, Henderson is seeking unspecified damages related to her firing on Feb. 12 when Weaver announced that Henderson had been “relieved of her responsibilities.”

The complaint alleges Henderson’s termination was in retaliation for disclosing an alleged redirection of charity funds. Henderson was fired after reporting the information to the city’s interim chief legal counsel Anthony Chubb, Henderson’s attorney Katherine Smith Kennedy said.

“In a community where the current water crisis repeatedly exposed how people failed to do the right thing, Ms. Henderson did the right thing and was fired for it,” Kennedy said. “Her goal was to ensure the integrity of the city at a time when its reputation has taken many blows. Instead, she was penalized for bringing forward these concerns"

Flint spokeswoman Kristin Moore said the city does not "respond to allegations made in civil litigation matters.”

“Responses to allegations made in any civil complaint are provided by legal counsel retained by the city of Flint,” she said.

City attorney Kendall Williams was not available to discuss the lawsuit.

Kennedy said Henderson, who was hired on Feb. 23, 2015, under a five-year contract for $140,000 a year, ended up the victim of retaliation, which has harmed her reputation because she was publicly fired.

“Her unfair dismissal has had a further chilling effect on city employees, who now fear that they will also be fired for daring to speak up,” she said.

The lawsuit also alleges that the firing breached Henderson’s contract with Flint.

According to the lawsuit, an assistant to the mayor told Henderson that Weaver instructed that money sent to Safe Water/Safe Homes, an official donation fund to help provide clean water to families in Flint, instead go to a different fund.

That fund, named “Karenabout Flint,” was believed to be a political action committee or campaign fund created at the direction of Weaver, the complaint says.

“Karenabout Flint” is not listed in any county, state or federal campaign finance records. However, a “Caring for Flint Fund” was incorporated in early February by an attorney from the Miller Canfield law firm, who indicated at the time it would operate as a tax-exempt political organization under Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code.

Henderson verbally reported this issue to Chubb on Feb. 9, then renewed her concerns via email on Feb. 10 and Feb. 12, the lawsuit said.

Within hours of her Feb. 12 email, Weaver terminated Henderson.

According to the lawsuit, Henderson asked Weaver why she was being fired. Weaver said she had met with state authorities who said the state could no longer fund Henderson’s salary.

“Plaintiff Henderson pointed out that the State did not pay her salary, the city of Flint did. Defendant Weaver had no response to this and demanded Ms. Henderson to turn in her keys,” the lawsuit says.

In March, Henderson publicly addressed media reports that she tried to discourage Weaver from declaring a state of emergency in Flint in December.

In a statement issued by attorney David Sanford, Henderson said she provided Flint with a comprehensive analysis that looked at the consequences of declaring an emergency including a negative impact on the county’s bond rating and declines in property values.

Henderson agreed to mediation to settle this dispute, Kennedy said, but the issues remain unresolved.

“The last resort was to file this lawsuit,” the attorney said. “Time was running out for us to seek the justice that Ms. Henderson deserves.”

“She took this job in order to help solve Flint’s problems. While she does not relish this action, she also has a right to a fair remedy for these wrongful actions against her.”

Henderson was city manager in Muskegon from 2008-2015.

JChambers@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Jonathan Oosting contributed