IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — The lead plaintiff in a class-action discrimination lawsuit filed by black workers against the state of Iowa is expected to plead guilty Wednesday to using her position at Iowa Workforce Development to carry out a fraud scheme in which she embezzled $43,000 in benefits meant for jobless Iowans.
Linda F. Pippen, 41, was charged earlier this month with embezzling federal funds and aggravated identity theft for using another person's name and social security number as part of the scheme. A court filing made public Tuesday showed she plans to plead guilty to both counts when she appears for an arraignment and plea hearing in U.S. District Court in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday.
Pippen is the lead plaintiff for a class of up to 6,000 blacks turned down for state jobs and promotions dating back to 2003. Her claims have been front and center during the lengthy litigation: she says she was passed over for promotions because of systemic racism in Iowa hiring practices, and that state officials later found proof of racism and retaliation but covered it up.
Lawyers for the workers are seeking tens of millions in lost wages and policy changes in the lawsuit, which was originally filed in 2007 and covers about 20,000 employment applications. Judge Robert Blink is expected to rule on the case in coming months after a month long trial that began in September featured testimony from employment experts and current and former state government officials in charge of hiring.
Pippen is one of 29 named plaintiffs in the case, which carries her name: Linda Pippen, et. al., vs. State of Iowa. Lead attorney Thomas Newkirk said he was surprised to learn Pippen was charged, and he said it was an unfortunate coincidence that her name was on the lawsuit.
"This case is about the rights and the needs of many, not the failings of one, but society has a tendency to blame the many when it comes to one's failings when that person is black," he said. "Whatever Ms. Pippen did is truly unrelated to the systemic problems in this class case and the rights of 6,000 individuals."
He noted that details of Pippen's and other individual cases were separated from the class lawsuit and will be tried separately. The charges could come into play during that case, which has not yet been set for trial, he said.
A document filed by assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Deegan on Tuesday says Pippen made fraudulent entries in Iowa Workforce Development's computer system to file applications for unemployment insurance benefits filed under other people's names. She directed money to bank accounts under her control and used it for personal gain, the document said. Pippen used the name and social security number of a person identified only as "R.O.," among others, to fraudulently file for benefits, it said.
Iowa Workforce Development spokeswoman Kerry Koonce said Tuesday that Pippen was fired in July 2010 from her $47,000-per-year job as an adviser at the Cedar Rapids workforce center after 12 years with the agency. She declined further comment, citing the pending criminal case.
Pippen faces up to 12 years in prison, but she is not expected to be sentenced for several months if she pleads guilty Wednesday. Prosecutors are seeking to recover all $43,582 derived from the embezzlement scheme, which allegedly unfolded between May 2008 and November 2009.
A phone number for Pippen could not be found, and her attorney, public defender Jill Johnston, did not return a voice message seeking comment.
Pippen and another black employee claim in their lawsuit that white managers conspired to avoid hiring them for vacant workforce adviser positions in 2001. Her lawyers claim she was viewed as "a troublemaker" because she had previously filed a civil rights complaint when she was employed by the agency in Waterloo and was passed over for a promotion that went to a white woman. Pippen claims she passed a customer service test used to screen applicants, while the white employee failed. Yet a white manager directed the other woman be hired.
The lawsuit claims a manager backed up the two women in 2001, and an investigation "uncovered massive discrepancies in the hiring process at IWD in Cedar Rapids and evidence of discrimination and retaliation." Yet the women were not told of the findings for years, and the state later gave the Iowa Civil Rights Commission a "white-washed" copy of the report that exonerated state officials, the lawsuit says.Lawyers representing the state are defending against the discrimination allegations, saying the hiring and employment practices vary widely by department and position being sought. They say the state has made a number of improvements in recent years such as additional training for managers.