by: Richard Belcher Updated:ATLANTA —
A Channel 2 Action News investigation has found that a state agency did very little to investigate conflict-of-interest questions raised by one of its inspectors.
In fact, the Georgia Department of Driver Services fired the woman who raised those questions.
Channel 2's Richard Belcher says the whistleblower was told she had conducted an unauthorized investigation. Driver Services says former employee Karen Miller had a history of problems at the agency.
"Ms. Miller's termination was based upon repeated misconduct," said Jennifer Ammons, director of legal and
investigative affairs for Driver Services.
But Miller had a different perspective.
"I just thought I was doing my job," Miller said.
A state employee for nearly 14 years, Miller's job was inspecting DUI schools when she was fired last spring.
Her personnel record does show that Miller had two earlier disciplinary problems. But it was also clear the final straw was her raising questions about a DUI school. The owner of the school also worked for a non-profit that provides services to the same court system that might order defendants to attend a for-profit DUI school.
"Did you have any doubt that, if there was this relationship, it was a conflict of interest?" Belcher asked Miller.
"I felt it was a conflict and that I needed to pass it on to my supervisor," Miller replied.
Belcher asked her why she believed it was a conflict.
"It would give you a very unfair advantage," Miller
Belcher found Gary Pennell at his school in Dahlonega.
Pennell says he didn't know until months later that Miller had been fired soon after she started asking questions about his for-profit school.
The legal counsel for DDS says Miller's suspicions proved unfounded.
"It was investigated very thoroughly. We looked at the documentation," Ammons said.
But Belcher found nothing in the DDS file about anyone asking even a single question to Pennell.
Pennell, meanwhile, says a DDS official didn't speak to him until more than four months after Miller was fired.
"[The] conversation lasted about a minute. He asked me what our role was. I told him that we run the treatment program, and that we weren't even going to be doing that any more. We've had nothing to do with it for months," Pennell said.
Belcher told Pennell this conversation wasn't mentioned in the DDS report.
"Like I said, I've had one conversation that there was a complaint," Pennell repeated.
"How seriously can I take an investigation, if that's what we want to call it, where the primary, central figure isn't questioned and isn't questioned for longer than 45 seconds, for four and a half months?" Belcher asked Ammons.
"I can't speak to when the conversation took place or the length of the conversation," Ammons replied.
Adding to the confusion, Pennell wrote a judge in his circuit last April, saying he was leaving the courts to prevent possible conflicts of interest.
But according to that same judge, Pennell held both jobs until last fall.
"Well, we're happy to look at any information that you have. We're happy to go back and
re-investigate it," Ammons said.
Belcher asked former employee Miller what the message is for other DDS employees.
"Don't make waves," Miller said. "Keep your head down and fly under the radar and you can keep your job."
Driver Services disputed Miller's contention, but the department's legal counsel did send an email saying that DDS shared our concerns about "the discrepancies between the information
provided ... by Mr. Pennell and what was sent to the department ..."
DDS said it will address anything specific that Channel 2 Action News uncovers and share whatever the department uncovers.