Phyllis Holliday has never been to war. But she's taken on corruption and the pit bulls that guarded it. And that may be just as difficult - and heroic.
When the local mental health activist challenged the disreputable goings-on at the Community Mental Health Center of East Central Georgia in 2001, she was told more than once in a public meeting by a red-faced bully to "sit down and shut up." She was called "stupid."
And, worst of all, Holliday - executive director of the National Mental Health Association of Augusta - and her board members were sued by the mental health center's regime at the time.
For $10.2 million.
That's what you call intimidation.
"It takes your gut and just wrenches it," she recalled this week. "You begin to think you're the one at fault. You sort of feel like the lamb before the big lion."
Sharon Haire took on the lion, too - and was fired for her trouble. The then-deputy director for clinical services at the Community Mental Health Center of East Central Georgia wrote a two-page letter detailing alleged corruption by the regime of then-director C. Michael Brockman.
Ms. Haire was a whistle-blower, and paid a severe price for it.
M.J. Shirey, a past president of the Augusta Alliance for the Mentally Ill, spoke out strongly in a letter to the center's governing board after services were cut. The board's response? "They beat me up at their meeting," she said. "Their attitude was, how dare I question them."
Today, Holliday, Haire and Shirey - and others like them - are quiet heroes, having taken on corruption and won. Brockman and four cohorts, including former state Rep. Robin Williams, were found guilty by a federal jury of looting more than $2 million from the mental health center.
Holliday doesn't look so stupid now, does she?
We all need to remember that whistle-blowers pay a heavy price for alerting the rest of us to crime and corruption. We need to remember that people such as Phyllis Holliday, Sharon Haire and M.J. Shirey stick their necks out for all of us.
And we need to understand that those corrupt officials who are being questioned don't hesitate to lop off whistle-blowers' heads if they can. That's why Sharon Haire was fired. That's why Phyllis Holliday was told to sit down and shut up - and then was hit with a $10 million lawsuit to try to have the courts force her to sit down and shut up.
Thank goodness good-hearted lawyers such as Jerry Wood were there to protect Holliday and her colleagues pro bono; as it turns out, they learned, a state-funded entity such as the mental health center is barred by law from suing an advocate.
Otherwise, the weight of the courts might have fallen on this good soul.
The jury's message to the Phyllis Hollidays, Sharon Haires and M.J. Shireys of the world is loud and clear:
Do not sit down. Do not shut up.
Eventually, you will be heard.
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