Inside Job: Denver's Career Service Authority watches out for employee trouble, but who watches out for trouble in the CSA?
The trouble started not long after Troy Bettinger was hired in June 2008 as a supervisor for the Recruiting Section of Denver's Career Service Authority, the agency that handles human resources for most city employees. Former employees say Bettinger didn't inspire professional confidence when he used a pocket knife to clean his fingernails during a staff meeting of the Recruiting Section, the department charged with screening applicants for openings around the city; at another meeting, Bettinger asked if any of his colleagues accessed porn sites while on the job. And once, while talking with a staff member, he suggested, "Let's discuss this over Jell-O wrestling."
One female employee says she was on the receiving end of many of Bettinger's inappropriate comments. Soon after he joined the CSA, she and several colleagues saw him thumbing through a catalogue of school uniforms; he said he could picture the woman in one of the outfits, adding, "It needs to be plaid, though." Another time, he asked her if, off the top of her head, she knew about some work issues he was looking into. When she told him that she did not, he replied, "Bend over — no, it's not on the top of your head; nice part, though."
"I was very uncomfortable with him," says the woman. "It started becoming a trend, and other people witnessed it."
The woman and several colleagues who corroborate her account asked to remain anonymous, saying that what would soon happen to them hammered home the risks of speaking out when you work for the CSA; Bettinger declined to comment for this story. But one former Recruiting Section employee is willing to go on the record. "It was clear [Bettinger] did not have the leadership abilities to effectively lead our team," says Darryle Brown, who is now employed by the federal government. "Morale was low. He didn't know the job. He didn't understand the public sector because he didn't have a background in the public sector."
While Brown didn't hear the comments Bettinger reportedly made to the female employee, "it seemed like he was attracted to her more than was appropriate," he says. "I've known her for years, and she's always been a person of integrity."
For that woman, the final straw came in April 2009. Several of her colleagues were joking about videotaping themselves exercising when Bettinger, overhearing their conversation, commented, "Exercises? On video? You mean like Kegels?"
"I was not there to listen to that sort of stuff," says the woman, who contacted Peter Garritt, her department's employee-relations supervisor. Garritt reportedly told her not to e-mail him about the situation, and to instead hand-deliver a list of the comments that she felt were inappropriate. In the days that followed, Bettinger became more critical, warning her to be punctual about getting to work. "They obviously talked to him, because he ramped up on all of us," she says. "I had twelve years of stellar performance evaluations, and all of a sudden I was really bad."
A few weeks later, Garritt told the woman that CSA management couldn't do anything unless she filed a formal complaint against Bettinger. So she did, in July 2009, as did another female employee in the department. (The second woman declined to comment.)
In the past, CSA had contracted with the Mountain States Employers Council, a local nonprofit, to investigate formal complaints. But in this case, CSA director Jeff Dolan, who'd hired Bettinger from his job as a senior corporate recruiter with the tech company Quantum Corporation, took another tack: He retained the services of Ashley Kilroy, a local attorney who had been on the Career Service Authority board (which oversees the CSA) and had also been involved in hiring Dolan.
"I had never heard of them hiring a current or former boardmember to do anything for them, whether it was an investigation or a compensation study," says Karen Brennan, a human-resources specialist with the Denver Department of Public Works who previously worked at the CSA. "In the past, they had always hired people from outside of the city."
The woman who'd filed the formal complaint against Bettinger was unsettled by the development. "We never went through a boardmember; it was unheard of," says the woman, who at the time had worked for the City of Denver for thirteen years. But there was little she could do about it. After all, there was a city department charged with looking into how complaints of harassment such as hers were handled, a department that could scrutinize questionable management decisions — but that department was the CSA.
At the encouragement of Mayor Quigg Newton, Denver voters amended the city charter to establish the Career Service Authority in 1954; the goal was to establish a merit-based hiring system that was free of the nepotism, graft and favoritism of yesteryear. But the CSA, supposedly a politics-free personnel agency, has been rocked by one political scandal after another over the years. And if the CSA can't keep its own house in order, can it really be trusted to take care of the personnel needs of more than 8,500 city workers?
Jim Yearby, for example, became director of the CSA in 1997, after he'd been criticized for creating a fake $100,000 job for a crony at his previous post in Washington State. Yearby resigned the Denver job six years later with a less-than-distinguished track record; along the way, he'd been disciplined for holding secret CSA meetings, suspended for losing his temper, and busted for shoplifting eyedrops from a King Soopers store.
In 2006, one of Yearby's successors, interim director Jim Nimmer, wrote a resignation letter in which he accused his own replacement, Don Cordova, of "numerous scurrilous acts of dishonor" toward him.
"It's almost jinxed, the CSA director position," says a city official.
The Career Service Authority "is a high-risk department because of the dollars involved," notes Denis Berckefeldt, director of communications for the Denver Auditor's Office. At a time when the city is struggling with a budget shortfall, the CSA oversees more than half a billion dollars in payroll and benefits.
Jeff Dolan, who became CSA director in 2007, is no stranger to controversy, either. Not long after he started, local media reported that he was still under investigation for an incident at his previous job as human-resources director for the city of Davenport, Iowa: An administrative assistant there had accused him of doing little in response to her claims that she was the victim of sexual harassment by a city official. While that claim was eventually settled, with Dolan and the Davenport official admitting no wrongdoing, a few months later Dolan was the subject of scrutiny here in Denver, when a staff reorganization he'd planned to centralize human resources and payroll departments threatened to result in ten layoffs, all of them minority employees.
Layoffs at the CSA weren't the only source of controversy. In the summer of 2009, the Denver Auditor's Office decided to look into the CSA's recruiting practices. "We noticed it was taking a long time to get people recruited and hired," says Berckefeldt. But supervisors in the Recruiting Section told employees not to cooperate with the audit. "We were told we were being audited, but nobody was supposed to speak to the investigators," says the woman who felt targeted by Bettinger. "Only once the auditors forced the issue were we given free access."
At that point, she and several of her colleagues shared their concerns about the CSA (though not their specific complaints about Bettinger) with the auditor's investigators. "A number of us talked to the auditors, and we told the truth about ineffective leadership of recruiting supervisors and about systemic issues within CSA operations," says Brown.
"A lot of us saw it as an opportunity to make things better," says the female employee.
But when an audit was released in August 2009 that criticized the recruiting process, the CSA's director didn't appreciate their input. "Jeff Dolan had a meeting with us and said, 'You'd better not get sideways with me. I am working very hard to rebuild my reputation,'" the woman remembers. "We all left the meeting and said, 'What the hell was that?'"
A week later, she received the results of the investigation into the complaints that she and a colleague had made about Bettinger. Former CSA boardmember Kilroy found that Bettinger "is almost universally perceived by the staff as 'weird,' 'strange' and 'odd,'" and that he "has made a couple of inappropriate comments in the workplace," some of which "could be interpreted to contain sexual innuendo." Kilroy concluded, however, that "Mr. Bettinger's conduct, while inappropriate and uncomfortable, has not been hostile or intimidating."
Kilroy went on to suggest that the female employees' complaints about Bettinger might have been due to their resistance to changes in the division, noting that both "have engaged in behavior towards the leadership that is accurately described as hostile and defiant."
While reading through the report, the employee who felt targeted by Bettinger was struck by the fact that two of the Recruiting Section colleagues whom Kilroy called "fair witnesses who have a genuine concern about what is going on in the division" had been unexpectedly assigned to a new CSA division just two weeks earlier. At the time, she and her colleagues had been surprised that two junior-level employees had been transferred without the sort of competitive application process usually required by the CSA.
On September 15, 2009, the reason for the reassignment became clear, she says. That was the day that she, along with the other woman who'd filed a complaint against Bettinger and three of their Recruitment Section colleagues, received notices that their positions had been eliminated. The move was explained as part of citywide layoffs due to the budget crunch — but these were the only five jobs eliminated in the CSA at the time.
Westword spoke with three of the five impacted by the layoffs; they say that at least four of the five had voiced concerns about the CSA to both the auditor's investigators and Kilroy.
"It appeared that the people who were the most outspoken were the ones laid off," says Brown, who was among the five. "You look at the people who were retained; they didn't say anything particularly damaging because they wanted to keep their job. It looked like the management — in particular, Jeff Dolan — wanted people who were 'yes' people rather than people who were willing to share ideas and make the organization better."
Under CSA seniority rules, the two Recruiting Section employees who'd been praised by Kilroy should have lost their jobs before several of the others. But because the two had just been reassigned to a new division, their jobs were spared. "You can see how on so many levels this is wrong," says another one of the employees who lost their jobs. "I really felt like for these folks to be the leading authority on human resources for the largest employers in all of Denver — for them to conduct themselves like this is really abhorrent."
Of the five employees whose jobs were eliminated — four of whom happened to be minorities — only one wasn't laid off outright: Because of her seniority and skill set, the woman who says she'd been targeted by Bettinger was demoted rather than let go. But a few months later, she quit altogether. "I couldn't continue to work there," she says. "It just stayed ugly. The people that they lost were probably some of the best people the CSA had. But to them, it wasn't about quality. It was about if you keep quiet, we will let you keep your job."
Bettinger is still the supervisor in the CSA's Recruiting Section.
City Auditor Dennis Gallagher was not pleased when the CSA employees who'd been laid off told him they believed they'd lost their jobs because they'd cooperated with his investigators, and it didn't help when they described how their sexual-harassment complaints had been handled. "The idea of being retaliated against for sharing information with the auditor's office, it goes so far that it makes people paranoid to cooperate with us," says Gallagher. "It's outrageous. It's very unprofessional, and I think the CSA board should be examined."
Gallagher took it up with the mayor's office. On October 9, 2009, then-city attorney David Fine sent this advisory to all mayoral appointees, including the CSA board: "Please be advised that it is illegal to take adverse employment actions against employees from your department based upon their participation in these performance audits."
But was there wrongdoing in the CSA's Recruitment Section? Two independent investigations conducted by private attorneys concluded otherwise, says CSA spokesman Ryan Nisogi. One of those was the sexual-harassment investigation by Kilroy, and while she was a former CSA boardmember, "she is and was, at the time she was retained by CSA, also an attorney who specializes in performing workplace investigations," notes Nisogi. The other was by another Denver employment attorney, Cathy Greer. (City Attorney David Broadwell denied an open-records request for a copy of Greer's report, saying it would violate attorney-client privilege; Westword obtained a copy of Kilroy's August 18, 2009, report through other sources.)
"These former employees were laid-off due to a downturn in the economy, and because CSA was forced to cut personnel costs from its budget," Nisogi explains in an e-mail. "These former employees worked in CSA's Recruitment Division and at that time, the City was dramatically slowing its hiring efforts, thus reducing the need for recruiters. Prior to initiating the lay offs, CSA had their lay-off plan reviewed by an outside independent agency to ensure that it complied with the City's rules on lay-offs. The independent review of CSA's lay-off plan concluded that its lay off plans complied with applicable law."
But two months after five jobs were reportedly eliminated to cut personnel costs, the CSA created eight new positions within the agency. "Part of the CSA's work is workplace planning, forecasting for future needs," says one of the employees who lost their jobs. "How do you say 'We have no work' and then say 'Now we have more work than ever before'? It just speaks to the total incompetence of the entire department." The woman was offered her CSA job back in a limited capacity in March 2010; since she was already employed, she declined the offer.
While several of the laid-off Recruitment Section employees appealed their terminations to the Career Service Hearing Office, others decided not to bother. "People refer to the CSA's Hearing Office as a kangaroo court," one says. "It seemed like a done deal." The woman who felt targeted by Bettinger started the appeal process, but dropped it when she learned that Assistant City Attorney Chris Lujan, who'd been made head of the Employment Law Unit just a few days after Kilroy submitted her report, had asked to represent the city in her case. It didn't make sense that a supervisor would take a personal interest in her appeal — but then, Lujan had been the one who'd asked Kilroy to investigate the harassment claims against Bettinger in the summer of 2009. "The head of employment law does not usually get involved in the little city complaints — it was unheard of," the woman says. "It seemed like he was behind the scenes of everything that was going on. Once he put his name on my hearing, there was no way there would be any impartiality. So I said, 'Why bother?'"
Instead, she and several of her former colleagues took their complaints of discrimination to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But the EEOC decided not to file discrimination suits against the CSA — after Lujan personally challenged those charges.
The laid-off employees weren't the only people questioning Lujan's dealings with the CSA. In October 2009, Luis Corchado, assistant director of litigation for the Denver City Attorney's Office in charge of the Tort Claims Unit, sent a letter to the Career Service Authority board charging that Lujan's new job as assistant director of litigation in charge of the Employment Law Unit was an "unlawful promotion" that did not follow the competitive hiring process required by CSA personnel rules, and blaming CSA director Dolan for helping to push the deal through.
In its response to Corchado, the board told him that he needed to go through the proper appeals process, Nisogi says. Corchado, who no longer works for the city, declined to comment.
In late 2009, the auditor's office decided to launch additional performance audits of the Career Service Authority. But when investigators requested individual interviews with CSA boardmembers, as they had for the first audit, they were rebuffed. And according to the city attorney's office, there was nothing the auditor could do about it: Because CSA boardmembers are legally considered "officials" rather than "officers," they cannot be compelled to cooperate with an audit.
"They are the only entity in the city that is exempt from our ability to interview them and compel them to speak," says Berckefeldt, who adds, "There needs to be some kind of accountability in how they do their jobs."
Nisogi points out that members of the Career Service Authority board, who are responsible for setting employment rules, considering personnel decision appeals and selecting the CSA director, among other things, "enjoy the independence to operate their agencies and make decisions free from unwanted political influence," just like such other appointed city entities as the Board of Ethics, the Civil Service Commission and the auditor's own oversight body, the Audit Committee. That independence includes CSA boardmembers being protected from removal before the end of their five-year terms and having their employment-rule decisions considered final unless the mayor and the Denver City Council enact an ordinance to repeal them.
The members of the board are appointed by the mayor to staggered terms. In the past, members came from diverse backgrounds and included professors and labor leaders; today the board is made up primarily of lawyers and business leaders. Mayor Bill Vidal recently appointed a fifth member: Amy Mueller, director of government relations for Kaiser Permanente, which happens to provide health insurance for a majority of city employees represented by the CSA. Mueller's appointment will come up for Denver City Council approval on July 11.
There are other problems at the CSA that do not show up in these audits. According to records obtained by Westword, the city had to pay Gallup, a human-resources company, $25,000 in 2009 because the year before, the CSA had used copyrighted Gallup material without permission in its Career Service Employee Survey. As part of the settlement between the company and the city, the payment was supposed to remain "strictly confidential," and in response to any media inquiries, Gallup was to "limit any statements to the effect that the matter is resolved and that they cannot comment any further."
"We had employees in our department probably knowingly breaking the law," says the CSA employee who first alerted Gallup to the situation in late 2008. "I think it was laziness. Gallup has taken over forty years to develop this. Why try to reinvent the wheel if you have one of the best HR surveys developed in the past sixty years?
"It was my way of trying to stop some of that," says the whistleblower, who asked to remain anonymous. Not long after, he says, he resigned from his CSA job because of how he'd been treated by the agency.
A manager in the Department of Public Works is still on the job, no thanks to the CSA. The manager, who asked to remain anonymous, was told by his superiors in April 2010 that he was being placed on investigatory leave with pay "in response to complaints and concerns that were raised recently about inappropriate and discourteous interactions with various individuals you have had over the last few weeks and our corresponding concerns about your present ability to perform your job duties." The man, who'd been promoted three times, says he had no idea what complaints they were referring to; he had a clean file, with outstanding performance ratings and no reprimands, and the month before, he'd received a "Good Works" certificate from then-Public Works director Bill Vidal for his "excellent customer service and dedication to the citizens of Denver."
While he was on leave, the manager was sent to a private psychiatrist because his supervisors said he had manic-depressive disorder. After examining him, the psychiatrist determined that, at worst, the manager had too much energy. He prescribed anti-anxiety meds, told him to get more exercise, and said he'd recommend that the manager quickly return to work, well within the 45-day maximum allowed for investigatory leaves under CSA rules.
But the manager wasn't reinstated that week, or the week after that, and the human-resources director for Public Works refused to return his calls as the 45-day limit for investigatory leaves came and went. Eventually the manager obtained copies of a series of e-mails in which Public Works managers asked the CSA's Dolan to extend the 45-day leave for thirty more days — five days after that limit had already passed — and Dolan agreed. Meanwhile, the HR director at Public Works finally responded to the manager's queries, telling him to relax, get a tan and "come back refreshed."
The manager couldn't relax, though. His superiors had held an emergency meeting with his eight employees, explaining that he was out for "personal reasons" and "running my reputation into the ground," he says. "I wanted to get back to work." Besides, as Public Works' seventh-highest-paid employee, he was earning roughly $10,000 a month to sit at home. Finally, 72 days after he was put on leave, the manager was allowed to return to his job with no reprimands, no punishment and no explanation — although another two months would pass before he was transitioned back to his full work duties. The city had paid him more than $20,000 while he was on leave, time he used to build himself a home theater system.
The manager says he still doesn't know why he was ever put on leave, though he has a hunch it had to do with friction he was experiencing with his superiors over changes in his department. Then again, he was also the first person to confront City Engineer Lesley Thomas, who's right under the director of Public Works in the department hierarchy, with the fact that her professional engineering license had expired — a lapse that would make headlines two years later.
Whatever the reason for the unexplained and costly leave, the manager says, Dolan made it possible. "Career Service should have stepped in from the beginning," says the manager. "Instead, they were the first line of defense for the city attorneys, protecting what was going on from any lawsuits. Why was the CSA helping management, and why weren't they helping me? It seems I am an at-will employee in the city, that I can be fired at will. Why don't we just get rid of the CSA and save the city all that money?"
Mayor Vidal proclaimed March 16, 2011, "Jeff Dolan Day," since it was the day that the controversial head of the CSA stepped down to take a job in the private sector.
The CSA board has launched a search for a new permanent director. In the meantime, Lujan, the assistant city attorney who'd handled the Recruiting Section controversies, is running the agency, with an annual salary of $127,000. Last October, he left the city attorney's office to become the CSA's deputy director — a brand-new position in a cash-strapped city.
Brown, the former Recruiting Section employee, wasn't surprised when he heard that Lujan had become the interim director of the CSA. Nor was he shocked to learn that Kilroy, the former CSA boardmember who'd investigated the harassment claims, is now Denver's deputy manager of safety. "That was their reward for their ability to stave off lawsuits and liability issues," he says. "The level of corruption in this city runs deep."
The auditor's office doesn't like the idea that Lujan, who until recently defended the city against complaints from city employees, is now heading an agency that is supposed to oversee the needs of those employees. It doesn't help matters that Lujan was the city attorney who argued before the Denver City Council against adoption of a whistleblower policy that the auditor's office had recommended in 2006 (the city's Whistleblower Protection Ordinance finally passed two years later). "When the CSA was created in 1954, the theory was to institute a merit-based hiring and employment process that would be insulated from political pressure," Berckefeldt says. "In practice, it doesn't seem to work like that anymore."
The CSA's image has changed from an organization designed to help city employees to one that works against them for the benefit of management, Berckefeldt suggests, a change that began with the passage of ballot measure 1A in 2003, which shifted much of the control over city pay raises from the CSA to Denver City Council and the mayor's office. Stories of retaliation within the CSA and the recent elevation of Lujan have only heightened that image. "Whether it's true or not the CSA is not protective of employee rights, that's the appearance, that's the perception," says Berckefeldt.
Over the past eighteen months, the auditor's office has released two additional audits and an audit alert relating to the agency; a fourth CSA audit is due out next month. Taken together, these audits outline what Gallagher calls a "recipe for disaster," including a hearings and appeals process that takes twice as long as in comparable cities; a department-wide, 37 percent failure rate for conducting mandatory annual employee performance reviews, twice as high as the city average; and a CSA board that has no minimal expertise requirements, provides little oversight of the CSA director and department policies, and is unable to come up with a consistent definition of what a merit-based personnel system is supposed to mean.
While the CSA has tried to limit media exposure, the auditor's office has been sharing its findings with the public — and that's heightened tensions between the two entities. "Only the Auditor can explain the personal thought processes underlying his hostility and bias toward CSA," writes Nisogi. "The Career Service Board has been shocked by the level of vitriol demonstrated by the Auditor during this process.... The Auditor's tactics are unfair and he has been consistently disingenuous."
E-mails between the two capture Lujan, while working as interim CSA director, calling the auditor's office a "hostile organization," and Gallagher responding by accusing CSA administrators of a "scandalous abuse of power" and having a personal vendetta against the auditor's office. The animosity reached a fever pitch last month when, in a written response to a nearly complete audit of the CSA's hearing and appeal process, the CSA board suggested that the auditor had purposely timed the audit to coincide with (and possibly influence) a CSA personnel hearing that involved the auditor's office.
In the audit's cover letter released a week later, Gallagher called that allegation "completely nonsensical," adding that he believed it was the CSA board, and not his office, that had a conflict of interest regarding the personnel hearing in question. "During my tenure as Auditor, I have never had to write a transmittal letter as detailed and scalding as this one," he concluded.
Gallagher has suggested that the incoming mayor and newly configured Denver City Council that will be sworn in July 18 assess the Career Service model. Mayor Vidal says he agrees with that recommendation but adds, "The mayor's office has full confidence in the Career Service Authority board and believes CSA strives for thorough investigations and just outcomes in personnel matters."
And what does Michael Hancock, Denver's next mayor, say? "He is aware of the issues, but at the moment we have no comment," says Hancock spokeswoman April Washington. "We're going to leave those issues to the CSA and the auditor's office."
If nothing is done to reform the Career Service system, the situation will get worse, says the woman who first complained about Bettinger. "People in the city are afraid," she says. "We were used as an example. You don't talk about what happens in these organizations or you will lose your job." Since the CSA makes the rules for how city employees should be treated, she and her colleagues had figured the CSA would follow those rules, too. Now they know better.
"We were all naive," she concludes. "And people lost their jobs because of it."
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