FOR A MAN WORTH ALMOST $20 million, George Green lives pretty low on the hog. His home is a cluttered trailer on a hillside near Austin, Texas; his best meals are the freebies he gets from his aging parents; and when he fell ill with a bleeding ulcer in 1992, he had to seek help at an Austin clinic for indigents.

The reason is that Green, 47, is a millionaire only on paper. In 1991 a jury awarded $13.7 million to the former Texas Department of Human Services architect, finding that he had been unjustly harassed and fired in retaliation for exposing wrongdoing on state construction jobs. Despite the jury's verdict—which was subsequently upheld by both a court of appeals and the state supreme court—the Texas legislature has refused to pay, even though interest on the debt is piling up at the rate of $5,000 a day.

"There's not that much money in our budget. We're not an insurance company," said Rep. Robert Junell, 48, the Democrat who keeps a tight grip on state purse strings as the chairman of the house appropriations committee and objects to what he regards as Green's excessive award. Democratic state Sen. John Montford, 51, chairman of the senate finance committee, also decries the size of the jury's award, but concedes, "The guy has a judgment against the state of Texas. It's final, and we ought to pay it." If they don't, Green has vowed to fight on in federal court.

Green, a 1972 graduate of the University of Texas, first joined the state's Department of Human Resources (the agency later changed its name) in 1983. He was the only architect among the department's 18,000 employees and was responsible for monitoring scores of state building projects all across Texas. Soon he became alarmed by signs of. corner-cutting and corruption among state-hired contractors. He found that wiring at a DHS storage facility in Austin was so slipshod that interior electrical panels vibrated and were warm to the touch. "I was concerned about loss of life and property," says Green. "I didn't want that on my conscience either privately or professionally." Even at DHS headquarters in Austin, the fire alarm system was useless, and the building was beginning to shift atop a crumbling foundation.

Green reported these disasters-in-waiting to his superiors, citing patterns of kickbacks, fraud and mismanagement. Then he waited for the department to act.

It did—launching a vigorous attack on Green himself. In 1989 a DHS investigator appeared in Green's office, dropped records of more than 8,000 of Green's phone calls onto his desk and threatened prosecution unless Green could prove they were all business-related. (Eventually the state found only one nonbusiness call by Green—to his father, for 13 cents.) Charging that Green had also abused his sick-leave privileges, the DHS finally fired him in December 1989, then urged the Travis County district attorney to prosecute him for theft of $1,500 worth of time—an amount just large enough to qualify Green for a third-degree felony and a 20-year jail term.

Then in 1990 a Texas two-step began in the courts, during which Green hired lawyers to battle the felony charge while pursuing a civil suit under a 1983 Texas law protecting whistle-blowers. In 1991 the state dropped its criminal charges, and in October 1991, Green struck it rich—sort of. A state district court jury awarded him $13,773,461.96 (the jury's estimation of total damages and legal fees, minus 13 cents for the phone call to his father). "They wanted to crucify him," said one juror. "We decided there wasn't any dollar amount that will pay him for what he suffered."

The long battle "has been gut-wrenching," says Green, who went broke fighting the criminal charge (he used his credit cards to pay his lawyers) and has had no luck finding another job. His family, who all live in the Austin area, still stand proudly behind him. Green's brother Bob, 45, a tennis and golf pro, sister Nan, 44, and his parents—Margo, a 67-year-old homemaker, and Garlan, 70, a former oil-company land manager—frequently drop by his hillside outpost to discuss legal matters and help tidy up the grounds around the still unfinished dream house Green started building 16 years ago. "As a family, we just try to lend him support," Bob says. "We've all sort of put our lives on hold."

Apparently their lives will stay on hold, at least for the foreseeable future. On May 3 the state house appropriations committee, chaired by Representative Junell, voted to offer him $5.5 million, but Green rejected the deal, complaining that the amount would barely pay his legal fees. He has no plans to compromise. "I'm not in this for the money. I'm in this for the principle, [and] the money is a measure of the principle," says Green. "What's right is right, and I'll stand my ground."

MARK LASSWELL
JOSEPH HARMES in Austin

  • Contributors:
  • Joseph Harmes.