Uncivil Rites

Intrigue, inaction and personnel disputes have one federal agency at war with itself. Can't we all just get along?

The halls of the Federal Building in downtown Denver are lined with helpful bulletins advising visitors of their right to a hassle-free workplace. Sexual harassment, discrimination on the basis of disability or race or national origin, gender-based bias in hiring or promotion--all the unspeakable, unconstitutional acts of modern society are clearly spelled out, along with how to contact the federal agencies created to remedy them.

The notices are particularly prominent on the fourteenth floor, home of the regional headquarters of the Office for Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Other federal departments have their own OCRs, dealing with issues involving employment, housing, transportation or education; the HHS version investigates claims of discrimination in access to health care and social services.

It's a small office--fewer than a dozen employees--but you'd better believe that the OCR is serious about its work. In recent years the agency has looked into a number of cases involving allegations of discrimination. They include:

* a man who claimed he was denied benefits and fired from his job because he's Hispanic.

* a woman who claimed she was denied a promotion because she's married to a Hispanic male.

* a supervisor who claimed he was framed on a charge of falsifying records and disciplined because he, too, is Hispanic.

* a sex-harassment complaint stemming from a male employee's use of the term "ballbreaker" in reference to a female colleague, prompting a countercharge by the alleged harasser that he was being harassed.

* a white male who claimed his female superiors were biased against men.
* a man who claimed that he was punished by his boss for supporting other employees' discrimination complaints.

The civil-rights investigators of the OCR, known as "equal opportunity specialists," are no strangers to such allegations. What makes these cases remarkable, though, is that in each instance listed above, the OCR was not the investigating agency but the target of the complaint. Over the past decade, the Denver regional office, which is responsible for enforcing anti-discrimination policies among recipients of HHS funds in six states, has had to contend with a wave of cases charging that the OCR has discriminated against its own employees.

Many of the cases are related. Some have their origins in personnel actions that date back to the mid-1980s, while others are quite recent. Taken as a whole, they paint a disturbing picture of an acrid, long-festering dispute among a handful of federal employees and members of OCR management, including regional manager Vada Kyle-Holmes, who's been in charge of the office since its inception in 1980.

The situation has produced several stinging decisions from arbitrators and administrative law judges, as well as a highly unusual rebuke from a former national director of the agency, who testified in one case that the "bizarre, retaliatory behavior" in the Denver office was unlike anything else he'd encountered in 25 years of federal service. It has also drawn the wrath of the Hispanic Public Affairs Committee (HISPAC), a Denver activist organization closely allied with some of the disgruntled former and current employees, which has engaged in a letter-writing campaign to elected officials blasting the OCR's employment practices and the regional office's performance in HHS investigations involving Hispanic complainants.

And the entire mess has cost taxpayers plenty. One employee that Kyle-Holmes sought to terminate, an OCR investigator named Jimmy Lovato, was reinstated after a lengthy court battle and awarded back pay and benefits totaling more than $50,000. Other cases have involved numerous hours of employee time devoted to inquiries, hearings and appeals. HISPAC president John Garcia, a retired federal employee himself, claims that Kyle-Holmes's "history of actions against Hispanic employees has cost the agency well in excess of $500,000."

Some of the complainants describe the ongoing conflict as a kind of civil war that has split the office among opposing forces. "In OCR, you're divided into the sycophants and the realists," says Jeff Claxton, who left the regional office two years ago for a position in another HHS agency. "To get along there, you had to agree with everything the regional manager suggested, no matter how bizarre it might sound."

Jimmy Lovato, who's now the state coordinator for the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, says that the turmoil in the office has affected the agency's ability to address health-care discrimination issues across the region. "For six months they held a case because they couldn't decide whether to use the preposition 'in' or 'on' in a letter--that's how ineffective they were," he claims. "Cases that should have been investigated in two or three months were being held for years and never really came to a conclusion. The weakness of the regional manager has a lot to do with it."

Kyle-Holmes denies that her office has ever discriminated against anyone and disputes Lovato's charges of ineffectiveness. A career federal employee--she joined the Denver office of what was then the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in 1971--she contends that many of the attacks on her and other supervisors have been orchestrated by Lovato, who was the subject of several disciplinary actions, including the attempted termination, during his years with the OCR. Although the number of discrimination claims by employees may seem excessive, she adds, they're probably no greater than the level of internal complaints found in other agencies that deal in civil-rights issues.

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