The former executive director of Spirit of Athens and the employee she hired have filed a federal lawsuit against the nonprofit for wrongful termination after they questioned accounting practices and hired an auditor.
The suit was filed Sept. 28 in U.S. District Court Northern District of Alabama by Eric Artrip of Mastando & Artrip of Huntsville. He is representing Dana Hickman, who was hired in January as executive director, and Robbin Hines, an SOA board member who was hired by Hickman in April.
In a written response provided to The News Courier by SOA president Doug Gates, he said the employees were not fired due to their questions about financial records, which he said were always available. He said Hickman was fired because of dissatisfaction with her job performance and Hines, her part-time assistant, was fired because there was no need for an assistant and because of the money her position cost.
SOA’s mission since its inception in 2006 has been been economic development, historical preservation and promoting tourism in the city. The SOA oversees the SOA’s many events and activities as well as the Athens Arts League.
After former SOA executive director Trisha Black was hired by Main Street Alabama, Hickman was hired as her replacement.
The lawsuit claims Hickman and Hines were fired in July while trying to bring financial transparency and accountability to the nonprofit corporation, which receives federal money from TVA. Specifically, they claim they tried to investigate and secure an audit of SOA’s financial records in order to expose potential fraud upon the government for failing to account for spending federal dollars from TVA. They say firing them was a violation of the retaliation provisions of the False Claims Act.