Postal worker Terry O'Neill says he thought he was doing the right thing back in 1989 when the U.S. Justice Department first asked him to provide information about allegations of discriminatory practices against other U.S. Postal Service employees.
Until he got that sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.
"I didn't know what I was getting into, because I hadn't anticipated the reaction," recalls O'Neill, at the time a maintenance supervisor at the Postal Service's Terminal Annex in downtown Denver. "A week and a half after talking to the Justice Department, I walked into the maintenance-control area, and the maintenance-control clerk said, `Oh, you're the guy that talked to the Justice Department.' And I felt queasy. I said, `I don't know what you're talking about.' All of a sudden rumors are going around about `God help the son of a bitch who talked to the Justice Department.'"
That started five years of hell for him and his family, says O'Neill, now 46, who lives in Aurora. He claims he lost his job and received death threats because he blew the whistle. And it's not over yet: He's impatiently waiting to get into federal court to try to force the Postal Service to give him back his job.
"Let me tell you the reality of the situation," says a frustrated O'Neill. "As a supervisor at the post office, I averaged $55,000 a year. I haven't been able to find a decent job, because the post office keeps giving them these references, so last year I made $14,000. The only jobs I could get when I first got removed were truck-driving jobs with a temporary pool. That was the only job I could get, because there was no reference check at all. I've probably applied for 150 jobs, and I can count on one hand the number of interviews I've had and still have fingers left over."
And what became of the employees he tried to help?
O'Neill gave information about six incidents of discrimination and later testified in three cases before Equal Employment Opportunity Commission administrative judges. In two of those cases, the complainants received judgments against the Postal Service. O'Neill's testimony was deemed credible by two different judges, even though by that time he had been fired.
O'Neill "definitely went out of his way to help us," says David Villalva, who won his case against the Postal Service--in part, he adds, because of O'Neill's testimony. Villalva, a coalition member who filed complaints in 1989 and 1990 that he was intentionally passed over for promotion, won his case after an administrative EEOC hearing in January 1993. "I feel he was railroaded out of there for no reason," Villalva says of O'Neill. "He went against the grain of the management."
That was particularly noteworthy because O'Neill himself was part of management.
A postal employee for six years, O'Neill says he was one of only a handful of maintenance employees who had ever received special achievement awards. Until 1990, he says, evaluations of his work were consistently outstanding. But there were problems. "The [management] environment we existed in was almost a Three Stooges type," he says. "We had a plant manager who would openly talk about his problems with minorities, and sometimes it got to the point where it was bizarre, where he would talk about how, for example, he believed that the Bible told him that minorities were inferior. And he was my ultimate superior!"
O'Neill adds, "I thought it was absurd that some of these things would be voiced openly." And he contends that these weren't isolated incidents. As a supervisor, he says, he routinely sat in on planning meetings and general staff meetings during which specific plans to prevent minority employees from obtaining promotions or training opportunities were discussed. Plans also were discussed, he says, that would prevent employees from being able to prove discriminatory practices.
After O'Neill spoke to the Justice Department, he says, he got death threats from some of his fellow white employees. And after several negative work reviews, he was fired in 1992 for allegedly misusing the postal computer system, for conduct inappropriate for a management employee and for threats of violence four years earlier. O'Neill denies all the allegations.
"I think everything Terry has to say is true," says Donald Espinosa, one of the people who filed a discrimination grievance and a beneficiary of O'Neill's testimony before the EEOC. "They didn't want him to pursue this issue, and I guess that's one way of shutting him up, by firing him."
Everette Jones, a postal worker and local official of the American Postal Workers Union, lauds O'Neill for "taking on the system" and says he can't recall an instance in which any other white manager has done so. "When Terry crossed the line and took his stand," Jones says, "management had a tendency to crucify their own."
The chain of events began at the end of 1989, when a bargaining group within the maintenance department known as the Minority Ethics Coalition, consisting of about twenty ethnic minorities, women and handicapped employees, approached the Justice Department with fifteen statements from employees who were supposedly discriminated against.
The coalition told the Justice Department that others, including O'Neill, could substantiate the allegations. That's when the Justice Department called in O'Neill.
"They fell all over themselves giving me assurances," he says, "badgering me and telling me how could I doubt the Justice Department--that I had the full weight of the executive branch of government behind me."
O'Neill says he never would have given the Justice Department any information if they hadn't assured him that he would be protected from retaliation.
"We went to [the Justice Department] thinking it would help us out," recalls Ben Pesina, spokesman at the time for the coalition. "When we first went to them, we were led to believe they had the power to press criminal charges."
The government's attorneys won't comment, citing the continuing litigation. However, Art Montoya, a conciliator in the Community Relations Branch of the Justice Department's regional offices in Denver, says neither O'Neill nor the group that brought the discrimination charges forward ever were told they would be protected. And Montoya denies that what occurred even was an "investigation."
"We have to explain that we're federal mediators--we have to keep emphasizing that," he says. "But everyone thinks, `Oh, here comes the Justice Department to investigate.' Anyone that looks up the term `mediator' will find that it's not synonymous with `investigator.'"
In any case, O'Neill believes he paid a heavy price after standing up on behalf of the coalition members during Justice Department and Postal Service inquiries.
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O'Neill began receiving unsatisfactory merit evaluations from two of the supervisors whom he testified had discriminated against coalition members. Finally, he was fired. After appeals failed, he decided to sue the Postal Service in federal court, asking for lost wages and punitive damages, among other things. His case has been languishing there for almost four years. His next court date is sometime next year.
"I've had to file for bankruptcy, and I've lost just about everything I own," says O'Neill. "I sold some land that I had, sold vehicles, cameras and guns, just to try and make it work. We've called [the post office] repeatedly. We've conference-called the people at the post office and said to them, `Come on, all we're asking for is a little decency.' If this was really a bunch of honest, sincere people who came to the wrong conclusion, wouldn't it be time to bring me back? There's no longer any reason to believe the evidence I gave isn't true. It's true, it's there and [the plaintiffs] won."
Ex-coalition member Pesina says that, based on what's happened to O'Neill, "if any white employee came to me [now] and asked to testify, I would tell him no--to stay out, and what happens, happens. Not to say that I wouldn't get involved. My perception is that Terry just couldn't stand what was going on."
O'Neill calls himself a "realist" and says, "I didn't set out to do anything. I want to put this back behind me, work and retire. This has been a horror story. I'm 46 years old and never thought I'd be out of work again. I'm praying that as a result of my lawsuit, I can go back with a cessation of the reprisal. But if I ever had to sit in meetings like that again, I know I would do the same damned thing and I would probably end up with the same damned thing.