ATLANTA — A former public affairs officer for the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency (GVRA) filed a whistleblower lawsuit in Fulton County Superior Court.
Stephanie Ramage said she was hired as the public affairs officer in June.
"Shortly after going to work there, my supervisor sent me an invite to the Signal App," Ramage explained.
Ramage claims leadership within GVRA used a phone app known as Signal to communicate on official business. The app is free and all you need is a number to download it. Signal allows people to make calls and message others without leaving any trace of either.
"It was very disturbing to me," Ramage said.
She said she immediately took her concerns to her supervisor.
"I told him I said I’m not going to use that, it’s illegal. That violates the Georgia Open Records Law. He said no, 'It’s just fine. The agency attorney said it’s just fine,'" Ramage added.
She said her next move was to address GVRA's General Counsel.
"He said it was just fine, there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just fine. I use it, we use. I’m an attorney, I know the law," she explained.
Ramage who is a former journalist and communications officer with the City of Atlanta for 11 years. She said while she's no lawyer, she knows Georgia's Open Records Act.
"This communication doesn’t belong to them. This communication belongs to the people of Georgia. It belongs to taxpayers. The residents, they have a right to know what the government does in their names and their tax dollars so I knew that had to be preserved and I knew enough about that app to know it doesn’t preserve that," Ramage said.
During the few weeks Ramage worked at GVRA, she said she felt as an outsider because she refused to use the app and sounded the alarm.
"I was cut out of the loop, I was definitely treated like someone who wasn’t welcome and wasn’t privy to communications by leadership," she said.
Ramage said on Aug. 30 she went to the Inspector General's Office, which is in the same building as GVRA. Ramage made her case on why she's worried about what's happening inside GVRA, with the accusation leadership is using the Signal App for work communication.
"He thanked me for contacting him, he said I was doing brave thing, he said your whistleblower, you have whistleblower protection," Ramage said.
However, Ramage said when she came in the next morning on Aug. 31 she was fired. She said she has no regrets.
"An app that destroys the record of communication has no business in hands in the offices and on phones of our elected officials, their appointees and their employees," Ramage explained.
Ramage believes Signal is being used beyond the walls of GVRA “within the executive branch and agencies of the State of Georgia.”
"If one agency is using it, you have to wonder if other agencies are using it," she said.
In case you have any government contacts on your phone, you can actually find out if they are using Signal. All you have to do is download the app. During the setup process, allow the app access to your contacts. It will then alert you that some of your contacts are already using Signal. Allow it, then a list will populate and you'll see who in your contacts list is using Signal.
It's important to point out the lawsuit does not name Signal as a defendant. Ramage said she has no issue with anyone using the app on their personal phone for personal reasons. She said when it becomes an issue is when government officials, their appointees and employers begin using the app for business reasons.
On Tuesday night, GVRA sent 11Alive a response to the lawsuit:
"The former employee in question was terminated for poor performance. While we cannot comment further on this lawsuit, we are confident the timeline and facts will reflect GVRA'S appropriate handling of the termination process."
Yet Ramage showed us her separation notice, indicating she was given no reason for her termination other than "dismissal from unclassified employment."
11Alive also reached out to the Office of the Inspector General and the Office of Attorney General for comment. The AG's office said the duties of the attorney general include providing representation to agencies of the executive branch of state government, which including GVRA.
"Therefore, this office is legal counsel for the defendant in that case and cannot provide any further comment regarding pending litigation," the statement said.
The Inspector General's Office said the following:
"OIG can confirm that it received Ms. Ramage’s complaint, but is unable to comment at this time as the matter remains open and ongoing."
You can read the lawsuit in full below.