Uncivil Rites

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

"This is an office that handles and enforces civil-rights laws, so the people know how to file complaints," Kyle-Holmes says. "It's not most of OCR; the same people have been involved. My view is that Lovato has had his hand in all of this. He has encouraged people to file complaints."

Lovato denies this. It was his duty as a union representative to assist complainants, he says, but the grievances arose out of actions taken by management. He notes that his wife, Jean Battistoni, now has a similar role; she not only works in the OCR as an investigator but serves as president of the local union chapter--and, of course, has had her own disputes with management.

But whether one views the wrangling at the OCR as a plot by disgruntled staff or the work of vindictive managers, one thing is clear: The people who work there have generally fared better in protecting their own rights than the complainants who've sought the OCR's assistance in battling discrimination in the health-care field. During a nine-year period ending in 1993, the Denver regional office was the subject of sixteen grievances filed by employees, eleven EEOC complaints, seventeen disciplinary actions and nine formal investigations by the HHS inspector general's office. All but one of the grievances, as well as the vast majority of other personnel actions, resulted in a settlement favorable to the employee.

By contrast, the OCR rarely finds that recipients of HHS funds are actually in violation of civil-rights laws. Several employees tell Westword that while the office investigates around a hundred complaints a year, only a few result in letters of violation to the recipients.

In fact, the regional office has taken only one case to a formal administrative hearing in the past fifteen years. Such cases are scarce, Kyle-Holmes explains, because the office strives for "voluntary compliance" rather than dragging hospital or social service officials before a judge.

And the one case that did result in a hearing? The OCR lost the case.

In some respects, the troubles at the OCR resemble the tics and spasms of a dying empire.

Back in the 1970s, the leafy salad days of civil-rights activism within the federal government, the HEW Office for Civil Rights was a powerful fiefdom within a bloated bureaucracy. Since the split-off of HHS and the Department of Education, though, the OCR within HHS has dwindled in size and significance while its sister agency in Education has continued to grow.

There are probably several reasons for the disparity; for example, issues involving discrimination in education tend to attract a more vocal, more organized constituency than similar issues in health care or social services. In any case, the decline on the HHS side has been particularly dramatic at the Denver regional office, which now has half the staff it had in the early 1980s. The office currently scrapes along on a mere $850,000-a-year budget, which includes Kyle-Holmes's $102,000 annual salary.

The shrinkage, and the pressure to do more with less resources, has undoubtedly contributed to the friction within the office. At one point, thanks to the bottom-up approach to staff reduction common in government, the regional office had five members of management--Kyle-Holmes, an administrative officer, a division director and two branch managers--presiding over an equal number of investigators. Since that time, the division director has been demoted, and the branch manager positions, which became vacant through deaths, haven't been filled, leaving Kyle-Holmes as the only supervisor.

"We did find ourselves, through attrition, with too many supervisors," acknowledges Kyle-Holmes. "But that's no longer the case."

Yet there's been one constant in the affairs of the OCR over the years: the claims by employees that various supervisors, including Kyle-Holmes herself, have discriminated against them. The longest-running battle involves Jimmy Lovato, a Hispanic who has described Kyle-Homes as a "black racist" and has claimed that she routinely discriminated against white and Hispanic males in the office throughout his tenure at the OCR.

As Lovato tells it, he was a dedicated investigator who was "nickeled and dimed to death" by a female supervisor under Kyle-Holmes's direction. He says his work was scrutinized and criticized for the most trivial faults while female employees received no such treatment. "It wasn't unusual to have a draft letter changed fifteen or twenty times," he says.

Kyle-Holmes responds that Lovato is exaggerating. "It wouldn't have been fifteen drafts, not even for an employee who may have had some difficulty in writing," she says. "We didn't make changes just to be making changes."

Lovato, she says, was a management problem who persisted in conducting personal business on government time. "I'll never forget the day I walked in and in his cubicle, he had ski clothes all around--selling ski clothes in the government office," she recalls. "I cannot tolerate that. People calling from the community, saying he's running his wood business from the office. Conducting outside activities with recipient agencies and getting paid for it. There were many things I wouldn't tolerate from anyone. It's not fair to the public."

Lovato says he had a family connection at a ski store and brought some jackets to work at the request of other staffers, including supervisors, to whom he sold them at no profit. He denies ever conducting a private business out of the OCR and adds that his complaints about another employee "running her law practice" out of the office were ignored.

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