OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - More than 150 current and former employees of the Oklahoma State Department of Health are suing the department for unnecessarily terminating or furloughing them in 2017 and 2018.
The lawsuit filed Monday in Oklahoma County District Court by 156 people alleges wrongful termination, negligence, fraud and violation of the employees' constitutional and due process rights.
The layoffs and furloughs came as department officials said the agency faced a $30 million budget shortfall that threatened its ability to meet its payroll.
An audit and grand jury investigation later found the layoffs and a $30 million emergency state appropriation approved in late 2017 were unnecessary because the agency maintained a "slush fund" hidden from the governor's office and lawmakers that would have covered the alleged deficit.
No criminal charges were filed.
The lawsuit alleges the department mismanaged and misappropriated funding.
The agency "routinely exaggerated revenues and expenses in its annual budget as a way to trick its computer system in order for payroll to post," according to the filing.
Department spokesman Tony Sellars on Wednesday declined comment, citing the pending litigation.
Wendy Morton, one of the plaintiffs, said she worked for the department for two decades before being laid off in December 2019.
"I was sad. I was frustrated but honestly, it didn't surprise me that the leadership had hidden things and had so severely mismanaged the agency," Morton told KFOR-TV.
"I would like to see money back from lost wages and from furloughed days. I would like to see people who want to go back to the agency have that opportunity," said Morton, who said she now works for the state Department of Human Services.
Financial turmoil at the health department resulted in the resignations of Health Commissioner Terry Cline and his top deputy in October 2017. His successor, interim Commissioner Preston Doerflinger, resigned less than four months later after previous allegations of domestic abuse surfaced.
Former First Assistant Attorney General Tom Bates is now serving as interim commissioner.
The lawsuit demands a jury trial and asks for unspecified damages of more than $75,000 in addition to interest, costs and attorney fees.
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