Jessica Dana is smiling. And she has good reason to smile because she’s back behind the wheel of a race car, racing twice a week for a new team and sponsor, or what she calls a “fully funded” ride.
The 21-year-old now lives outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, and races Mondays and Tuesdays for Padgett Motorsports, including at Charlotte Motor Speedway, a major race venue and fixture on the NASCAR Sprint Series tour.
Except this time it’s different for Dana.
She’s no longer driving a super-late-model car — the kind of car that generates 600 horsepower and that she used to drive on tracks throughout Washington state. Instead, she’s a beginner again after deciding to reconnect with friends living in North Carolina. She’s racing against 16-year-olds and hopes to work her way back up in the racing world.
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“I didn’t feel rusty at all and started clocking some good times,” she said recently from her new home of Cornelius, N.C.
The “rust” that Dana speaks of formed because she hadn’t raced in more than a year as the result of a fraud investigation into her crew chief and a subsequent audit of Jessica Dana Racing LLC by the state Department of Labor and Industries. The experience left her feeling discouraged and she withdrew from the sport.
“It’s heartbreaking, but it’s also a motivator,” said Dana about what she views as a career-delaying L&I audit. “I had what it takes, and I still do have what it takes.”
Dana, and her parents, Troy and Pam — the other members of JDR LLC — filed suit against L&I in late 2015, alleging a host of concerns, including malicious prosecution, abuse of process and emotional distress. They want economic damages of more than $50,000 for both Dana and JDR, according to the lawsuit.
Attorney Ed Winskill is representing L&I through the Attorney General’s Office. He provided a short statement.
“L&I acted well within the law, and in good faith, and we will defend the lawsuit on that basis,” he said.
Before she moved to North Carolina, Dana had amassed 40-plus racing trophies, defeated four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon in a go-kart race, and once was among nine women who took part in a NASCAR event called “Drive for Diversity.”
Her father, Troy, described her as a typical teenager before her racing career at 17 got more serious. But when she would get behind the wheel, she became a remarkably focused athlete.
“It was a neat transformation to see,” he said.
If Dana seems steadfast in her racing career goals, you should meet her father. He does not give up easily — if at all. The name might sound familiar because Troy Dana spent nearly a decade trying to sell the former Olympia brewery property in Tumwater.
When he talks about his dealings with L&I, he gets angry to the point that his attorney, Daniel Berner of Olympia, will remind him to watch his language. Yet when he talks about his daughter, he’s just as likely to be in tears.
“They just didn’t care and they still don’t care,” said Troy Dana about L&I’s audit.
Before L&I audited Jessica Dana Racing LLC in September 2012, the agency investigated her crew chief, Neil Derline of Elma, for fraud, saying he was being paid by the Danas while receiving workers compensation benefits, according to the Danas lawsuit.
Derline was receiving L&I benefits because he broke his back in a logging truck accident. But the Danas say they were not paying him because all of their crew members volunteered their time.
Derline eventually prevailed in his case before the Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals.
The agency also audited JDR to determine whether it had any employees. The Danas allege, however, that the real purpose of the audit was to “obtain incriminating evidence to support its fraud investigation of Derline.”
The Danas told L&I that they had no employees, yet in December 2012, the agency determined that JDR was an unregistered employer and assessed premiums and penalties of about $30,000. L&I told the Danas it was willing to cut the amount to $10,000 if they cooperated. They declined and requested a reconsideration of the audit finding. In March 2013, L&I dropped its case against the Danas.
“L&I has to do its due diligence and not put the burden on its citizens to prove L&I is wrong,” Attorney Berner said. “L&I should be doing the right thing, and going after the right people, and that’s not what happened here. It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Meanwhile, the audit had a chilling effect on their daughter’s career, according to the Danas’ suit. She had attracted the attention of NASCAR executives and had received offers to race for a team. But the unfounded audit, the Danas say, prevented JDR from getting sponsorships necessary to take advantage of the opportunity. It also hurt JDR’s relationship with track owners and damaged their ability to participate in races and promote Jessica during race-day events, according to the suit.
As a prerequisite to suing the state, JDR filed a tort claim in May 2014 and Jessica Dana filed hers in January 2015. The lawsuit was filed in the fall of 2015.
“We want to give Jessica back the opportunity she lost,” her father said.
During early 2015, Troy Dana proposed Senate Bill 5507, which would have required that L&I pay businesses that successfully appeal penalties assessed by the state agency in an equal amount, plus reasonable attorney fees and costs.
Sponsors of the bill were mostly Republican, including Sens. John Braun, Ann Rivers, Jan Angel and Mark Schoesler.
Dana recounted his L&I experience during a Senate Commerce and Labor Committee hearing.
“Business owners across the board are forced to make this decision: Do I pay the L&I ransom, or do we fight? And if we fight, we’re probably going to lose anyway,” he told the committee.
The bill got out of committee, but it died in the Senate Rules Committee, Attorney Berner said.
HERE AND NOW
Berner has deposed L&I employees as part of developing his case. Jessica has attended those meetings. She says she’s still looking for justice.
“They were going to deny doing anything wrong no matter how many times we proved them wrong,” she said about one of those meetings. “We have the facts, we know the truth and we have it all on paper. It doesn’t matter what they say.”