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Uncivil Rites

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

Lovato left the OCR three years ago for a position with the EEOC. But his wife still works at the OCR, and the repercussions of his feud with Kyle-Holmes continue to be felt on the fourteenth floor. Kyle-Holmes attributes ongoing personnel disputes to his influence ("He's still here," she quips), while Lovato says that those who've testified on his behalf in past proceedings have been retaliated against.

Perhaps the most intriguing claim of retaliation came from Lovato's wife, OCR investigator Jean Battistoni. In 1993 Battistoni filed a complaint with the EEOC alleging that she'd been denied an opportunity for promotion because she was married to a Hispanic male: Jimmy Lovato. The administrative judge in her case, Dickie Montemayor, did not find any discrimination on the basis of national origin; the candidate who received the promotion, it could be argued, had better qualifications for the position. But Montemayor also decided that there was ample evidence of "a pattern of hostility and retaliatory actions...against both [Battistoni] and her husband."

Several employees testified that they'd been told by supervisors to avoid Battistoni and Lovato, that the couple's union activities and EEOC complaints had made them pariahs in the eyes of management. Montemayor noted that the OCR official who'd interviewed Battistoni for the promotion had spent only five minutes with her, while the interview of the successful candidate lasted half an hour. Furthermore, Kyle-Holmes had made a "damaging admission," Montemayor ruled, that "Battistoni would not be supervisory material until she stopped becoming involved in matters relating to her husband." Rejecting Kyle-Holmes's protests of neutrality as simply not credible, the judge found that Battistoni was a victim of "unlawful discrimination on the basis of reprisal."

For Battistoni, the practical benefit of the decision was nil. Montemayor ordered equal-employment sensitivity training for all OCR employees and also ordered that the office be "monitored" by the EEOC for at least two years to insure that it was no longer discriminating against its own employees. He also recommended that Battistoni be placed in the next job position comparable to the one she'd been denied. But that requirement was later overturned on appeal, and no comparable vacancy has occurred in the past five years.

Still, the decision was hardly an insignificant one. It wasn't just that the regional manager had been chided for "retaliatory animus" and accused of frustrating the intent of Congress. The entire regional office had been measured by the same standards it applied to others--and failed the test. The agency that was supposed to protect people from the evils of discrimination had been found guilty of discrimination itself.

In an office as small as the OCR, no one escapes entirely unscathed from the barrage of personnel actions and counteractions. Other employees are drawn into the dispute as witnesses or union representatives, and some say they've paid dearly for supporting their colleagues in the fracas.

For nearly a decade, Jeff Claxton was the OCR's administrative officer, the person in charge of managing the office's computers, phones, budget and so on. Although technically a member of management, he testified on behalf of employees who'd filed grievances on several occasions. That didn't sit well with Kyle-Holmes, he says.

Claxton believes that his support of Lovato, Battistoni and others cost him advances in grade and pay at the OCR; at the time he left the agency two years ago, he says, he was performing duties beyond the scope of his job description yet was the lowest-ranked administrative officer in any of the OCR's ten regional offices. The perceived inequity prompted him to file a grievance of his own--which, he says, only added to his strained relationship with the regional manager.

"When I filed a grievance over it, Vada's contention was, 'I don't feel I can trust you,'" he says. "If you don't believe you can trust me to support you in hearings by saying things that are false, that's true. Her idea of trust is personal loyalty to her as an individual--not the government, not the agency, not the taxpayer. If you support her, the sky's the limit; if you don't, then you're someone to get rid of."

Adding to Claxton's woes, in his view, was his role in launching an investigation of division director Alex Aguilar. Claxton accused Aguilar of altering his computer sign-on and sign-off records to reflect that he was in the office at times when he was actually absent. An investigation by HHS's Office of the Inspector General found fifteen instances in 1994 when the records had been altered and that Aguilar had been absent without leave for a total of eleven hours. As a result, the OCR's top brass demoted Aguilar by two grades and suspended him for ninety days.

Aguilar appealed his case to the federal Merit Systems Protection Board and to the EEOC, claiming that Claxton or someone else had "framed" him for the offense and that the OIG investigators--who testified that he had admitted to them that he'd falsified the records--had discriminated against him because he's Hispanic. Both agencies upheld the OCR's action; one administrative-law judge found the contention that Claxton had framed Aguilar "thoroughly lacking in credibility." (Aguilar did not respond to Westword's request for comment on the case.)

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