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Published: Friday, 4/1/2005

ODOT whistleblower wins suit against pair

BY JOE MAHR
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Larry Dargart's boss took away his office keys and state vehicle.

The Ohio Department of Transportation middle manager was told he could not make his own photocopies or dial his own phone.

And the 35-year veteran's office was moved from a cozy suite to an old storage room, a judge concluded, all because of one thing.

Mr. Dargart accused his boss of wrongdoing.

Martinko Martinko
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After a bitter, five-year legal battle, a state Court of Claims judge ruled last week that ODOT Director Gordon Proctor and a top aide, Richard Martinko, unfairly forced Mr. Dargart to retire in 2000. The retirement came 14 months after Mr. Dargart accused Mr. Martinko of falsifying payroll records and using state time to lobby political operatives for a promotion.

While not ruling on the merit of those allegations, Judge Joseph T. Clark wrote that agency administrators made Mr. Dargart's working conditions "so intolerable that any reasonable person would have felt compelled to resign."

While ODOT claimed that Mr. Dargart slept on the job and sexually harassed women, Judge Clark wrote it "strains the credulity that the performance of a loyal employee had changed so drastically in his final two years on the job that [ODOT's] persistent, excessive, responsive actions could possibly have been warranted by anything other than retaliation."

ODOT spokesman Brian Cunningham said the agency was "disappointed" in the ruling but would not comment other than saying Mr. Dargart was an "underperforming administrator."

Proctor Proctor
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The case highlights the internal and external politics surrounding one of Ohio's biggest state agencies.

Mr. Dargart, a registered Republican from Maumee, fought the department in the 1980s, complaining in a federal lawsuit that an ODOT stocked with Democratic political appointees harassed him.

He lost the case but won a promotion in 1991 after Republican George Voinovich became governor. Mr. Dargart became the deputy director of administration for ODOT's District 2, based in Bowling Green. In that role, he said, he frequently spoke to Republican Party leaders across the area in search of "qualified Republicans" for ODOT openings.

But an internal firestorm began in 1999, after district director James McCarty retired and ODOT temporarily replaced him with Mr. Martinko.

By then, Mr. Dargart told The Blade, he was quietly investigating allegations that Mr. Martinko skipped work. And by the summer of 1999, Mr. Dargart said he learned Mr. Martinko may have met with area Republican Party leaders on state time to lobby for the permanent job of district director.

In June, 1999, Mr. Dargart sent a two-page memo to ODOT's legal office in Columbus noting the allegations and included payroll records that he said may have been falsified by Mr. Martinko.

It was a highly charged time. Five months earlier, an anonymous letter was circulated claiming that Mr. Martinko was rarely in the office. That prompted an Inspector General's investigation that cleared Mr. Martinko of any wrongdoing.

Mr. Dargart's complaints would not make it that far. ODOT's legal division dismissed the allegations in three days, saying there was no proof of falsification of records. As for meeting with local leaders to seek a promotion, the legal division concluded that was "appropriate" to do on state time.

Mr. Dargart also sent his memo to Mr. Proctor's home, but that backfired, he said.



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