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Boca whistle-blower case settled before going to trial

By Jane Musgrave - Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

A whistle-blower trial that was expected to expose allegations of wrongdoing in Boca Raton water plant operations ended Tuesday before it began.

Called to the Palm Beach County Courthouse to begin jury selection for what was supposed to be a roughly three-week trial, attorneys announced they had reached a conditional settlement with former water utility programs coordinator Christine Ferrigan. The 23-year utility worker claimed she was fired in December 2008 for alerting state regulators to problems that she believed were contaminating city water, putting 128,000 customers at risk.

If the Boca Raton City Council blesses the deal next Wednesday, Ferrigan will receive money from the city’s insurer, Star Insurance, said attorney Daniel Abbott, who represents Boca. He declined to say how much Ferrigan would be paid. Her attorneys didn’t return emails for comment.

In return, the city agreed to pick up $137,000 in legal costs that Star claimed it wasn’t obligated to pay. Since the city has already paid $250,000 toward the defense of Ferrigan’s lawsuit, the total cost of the litigation to the city will be $387,000, Abbott said.

He described the proposed settlement as a good one. “The city’s position was it was an employment case and the amount of damages claimed were substantial,” he said. “Juries are sympathetic to people who have lost their jobs.”

City officials never worried about Ferrigan’s claims that she was fired for reporting problems to the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation, which turned the investigation over to the Palm Beach County Health Department, he said. Among Ferrigan’s claims were that water pressure in some parts of the city dipped below state standards and that steps weren’t taken to assure the city’s unique reclaimed water system didn’t mix with potable water supplies.

Based largely on Ferrigan’s allegations, the health department initially came down hard on Boca, even suggesting it be fined as much as $54,000. In a 2010 case report, investigators accused city officials of intentionally not reporting problems.

“The main concern is the city’s apparent ‘Cleaning of the Crime Scene’ before the division can respond to a complaint or conduct an investigation,” public health officials wrote.

Last year, however, the health department and the city signed a settlement that assessed no fines.

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