Former employees of Orange County Property Appraiser Rick Singh allege in a federal lawsuit that he brought strippers into his office after hours and spent taxpayer money on personal trips.
The lawsuit was filed earlier this month by the office's former finance director Aisha Hassan and communications director Laverne McGee in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida.
In a statement, Singh's office said it "holds itself to the highest professional standards and is committed to providing a safe and productive work environment for our employees." Singh, a Democrat, was first elected to the position in 2012.
"We respect the rights of all employees and take any concerns very seriously," OCPA said. "The majority of the allegations contained in this lawsuit have been previously investigated by former Chief Judge Belvin Perry and were found to be without merit. We look forward to presenting the facts in court in a fair and impartial manner and to vigorously defending the integrity of this office."
Among the more serious accusations, Hassan and McGee allege they were subjected to sexual harassment and a hostile work environment by Singh.
"McGee was presented by Singh to his male friends as if she was part
of Singh’s harem along with other females," the lawsuit said. "Singh directed McGee to act flirtatious with male vendors."
McGee said her boss instructed her to "cover" for him and lie to his wife when he brought strippers to the office after hours.
"Singh referred to women as 'bitches,' 'whores,' and 'skanks,'" the complaint alleges. "Singh referred to an African-American reporter as a 'black bitch' and 'n——r.'"
OCPA spokesperson Beth Watson said an investigative report conducted by Judge Perry found "no evidence" to support McGee and Hassan's allegations. Watson added that the two women were terminated last August after several months of paid leave during the investigation for "excessive violation of agency policies and unethical behavior."
"These allegations are completely baseless and clearly made with the sole intention of damaging Mr. Singh personally," the office said in a statement. "Mr. Singh vehemently denies these malicious attacks on his character."
Hassan and McGee further alleged that Singh spent thousands in taxpayer funds for personal trips, to the point of telling McGee to create a document listing places he wanted to go and come up with justifications to support the trips.
"When McGee resisted this plan, Singh directed her to 'write up something and make it sound like it’s legitimate,' and to 'make up something that we can justify why the office is involved,'" the complaint said.
The lawsuit details allegations about multiple taxpayer-funded trips, including:
- While Singh was traveling to a conference in Sacramento, California, he made an unnecessary in Dallas, Texas on a layover so he could attend a wedding. He had a physician friend draft a letter about a "purported back condition" to support the layover in Texas but accidentally revealed to staff later that he attended a wedding. The extra flight and lodging were paid by taxpayers.
- In 2013, at an International Association of Assessing Officers conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Singh upgraded his room to receive "concierge access" at taxpayer's expense. During an audit, Hassan alleged he directed her to convince the hotel to say the room was booked at the regular rate. Before the IAAO conference started, Singh allegedly rented a vehicle that he used for a personal trip to Chicago that lasted several days. He later charged the car rental to his OCPA credit card and falsely reported that he shared the vehicle with other staff.
- In April 2013, Singh attended a Curry Festival in Tampa as a personal trip but charged his gas and lodging to the OCPA office. When questioned by auditors, Singh said the property appraiser's office was a sponsor at the festival, which was false. He also allegedly directed a staff member to "photoshop a banner with a picture of Singh showing his alleged participation in OCPA business at the festival."
- Again in 2013, Singh attended another IAAO conference in Hollywood Beach, Florida. After the conference was over, he stayed an extra night and checked into the Hilton in Fort Lauderdale at taxpayer's expense because of "inclement weather," despite the rest of his staff who accompanied him leaving back to Orlando that night.
- In 2017, Singh spent almost $8,343 on hotels and business-class flights for the International Real Estate Federation conference in Andorra, Spain. Singh was not invited to the conference but said he had been asked to attend in his official capacity, the lawsuit alleges.
- In June 2017, Singh and his wife went to Boston, Massachusetts, because
he was scheduled to attend a course at the Harvard Kennedy School Executive Education. But the couple went three days before his course was supposed to start – taxpayers paid $944 for Singh and his wife to stay three extra nights. While in Boston, Singh called Hassan and asked her to find "
higher cost price [flight] to Orlando, so I can justify me flying to Ft. Lauderdale" to attend a Democratic Party event. Hassan sent him information regarding a flight from Orlando to Boston that was $894 and one from Boston to Fort Lauderdale for $718. Singh asked Hassan to book him the flight to Fort Lauderdale using taxpayer funds.
Additionally, McGee and Hassan accused Singh of directing staff to "deliberately delay and deny public records requests from the media, attorneys and other government offices," even going so far as to create "unjustifiably high invoices" in the range of $353,000 and $392,000 for public records.
The lawsuit also accuses Singh of using taxpayer money to pay for hand towels, T-shirts, baseball hats and plaques through a friend's business for a trip to Pune, India. McGee alleges Singh instructed her to draft correspondence to the mayor of Jagtap to make it "appear that it was an official visit" to India, though in actuality, the purpose of the trip was to visit Singh's son.
Both employees are demanding financial relief, as well as back pay, front pay, compensatory damages and attorney fees.
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