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Uncivil Rites

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...
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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.

"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.

"I could have filed more grievances than I did," he says now. "If I was so terrible, why is it that now that I'm with the EEOC, my evaluations are outstanding?"

In 1986 Lovato's supervisor at the OCR attempted to fire him. Curiously, the action had been triggered in part by a complaint from John Garcia, later to become Lovato's ally in HISPAC. Garcia, who worked in the same building for another HHS agency, complained that Lovato was abusing his sick-leave privileges and had directed another employee to serve Garcia with a summons in a dispute over a private debt, wasting government time in the process.

Lovato appealed the termination. An arbitrator threw out the charge of falsifying sick-leave documents and found that while the summons incident constituted "wasteful actions in the performance of his duties," the infraction was too minor to warrant termination. He ordered Lovato reinstated--but without the back pay he had lost during the fourteen months he'd fought his dismissal. Lovato protested the decision to a federal appeals court, which reduced the penalty to a sixty-day suspension and, in effect, awarded him a year's pay for his trouble.

The decision apparently satisfied no one. Lovato came back to the OCR, was assigned to the same supervisor he'd had trouble with before--and was soon embroiled in other personnel disputes.

"I think that when Lovato was disciplined, he was so angry about that, he never forgot it," Kyle-Holmes says now. "That has been the basis of his vendetta, if you will, against management here. He tried to get everybody, particularly Hispanics in the office, to see it as a 'Hispanics are not being treated fairly' kind of thing. He was successful in influencing some, I believe."

Lovato has a different recollection. "They wanted my butt," he says. "Vada didn't want to reinstate me, but the arbitrator's decision was binding. And even after I got that decision, they didn't actually pay me the money until I went to [then-congresswoman] Patricia Schroeder for help. They really wanted me out."

As evidence of management's malice, Lovato points to a sex-harassment investigation launched against him by his supervisor after he referred to a female colleague as a "ballbreaker." According to him, the context of the remark was decidedly unsexual; he'd asked the woman, a member of the military reserves, to help him rearrange some office furniture and had referred to her as "Sarge." The woman had corrected him, saying she had the rank of captain.

"I said, 'So, you're a real ballbreaker'--meaning a taskmaster," Lovato says. "Before I knew it, they started an investigation, saying that I had sexually harassed her."

Other OCR employees describe the investigation as overblown and biased. One woman would later testify that her affidavit on the matter was altered by Lovato's supervisor to appear more negative toward Lovato. Jeff Claxton says that he was the only witness to the incident other than Lovato and the woman involved but that the supervisor wasn't interested in what he had heard.

"Management interviewed everybody in the office except for me," Claxton says. "They were interviewing people about whether they thought Jimmy could have said something like this, not what he said. Eventually they had to talk to me, and that put an end to it."

Kyle-Holmes says that federal supervisors are required to investigate every allegation of sexual harassment. The case resulted in a reprimand of Lovato "for making vulgar remarks," but after Lovato complained to the EEOC, the reprimand was withdrawn; as part of a settlement agreement he reached with the OCR in 1990, he was assigned to another supervisor.

The harassment tiff was soon followed by a complaint that Lovato had disclosed the contents of an OCR investigative report to outside parties by using it as a "writing sample" in a job application submitted to the University of Colorado. Lovato says he removed all the names and other information that would identify the parties involved; Kyle-Holmes says the document concerned "a very sensitive issue and had not been sanitized well."

She turned the matter over to the HHS inspector general's office. That office referred the case back to the OCR after the U.S. Attorney's office declined to prosecute. Lovato says that there simply wasn't any evidence that he'd compromised anyone's confidentiality and that the notion of prosecuting him was overkill. "It was all to try to get me terminated," he says.

Edward Mercado thought so, too. Mercado was the national director of the OCR then; he would later testify that he was astonished to learn that Kyle-Holmes had sought criminal prosecution of Lovato over the incident, then abruptly dropped the matter--rather than pursue it administratively--when federal prosecutors declined to get involved. "It was just a blind attempt to get rid of Mr. Lovato without any real foundation or reason," he told one of the procession of administrative judges who have dealt with the office's many grievances.

"I was shocked when Mercado testified as he did," says Kyle-Holmes. She suggests that her former boss chose to intervene on Lovato's behalf because the two were friends. (Lovato says he had only a passing acquaintance with Mercado at the time.) "If you were the head of an agency and you knew discrimination was occurring, wouldn't you stop it? If Jimmy Lovato was being done wrong, [Mercado] could have disciplined me or whoever...but when I told him about the personnel problems I was having with Lovato, he just laughed."

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.)

Yet the outcome of the case incensed the OCR's critics. Although Aguilar's punishment was hardly a token gesture--it amounted to a substantial drop in annual salary, from $87,000 to $62,000--other OCR employees had been fired for less, including Jimmy Lovato, whom Kyle-Holmes had sought to terminate over much pettier (and shakier) allegations. Worse, Aguilar was allowed to go on a flexible work schedule that requires him to be in the office only two days a week. (Kyle-Holmes says she had approved the work-at-home arrangement before Aguilar's case was resolved and then tried to rescind it, but the union protested and the arrangement was upheld.)

Some observers felt the case didn't go far enough. Claxton says he told the investigators that Aguilar could not have accessed the time and attendance records without clearance from a superior and that he had evidence that Aguilar had accessed other people's records as well, including those of the regional manager. Kyle-Holmes denies ever giving permission to Aguilar to alter the records or having any knowledge that it was done, but Claxton insists, "There's no way she could have been unaware of it."

Claxton left the OCR in 1996 for a position as a management analyst in another branch of HHS's Denver offices, the Administrative Operations Service. But he continues to be active in OCR personnel matters as a union steward, and he claims that Kyle-Holmes has continued to retaliate against him. He says he was up for a promotion in the spring of 1997 when the Washington official who was reviewing his work met with Kyle-Holmes.

"After his conversation with her, all of a sudden my paperwork gets lost in personnel," he says. "This woman is working to destroy my career, even after I left her office."

Far from receiving a promotion, Claxton was subsequently removed from his duties running the AOS data center. He says he was told that there was a promotion freeze (which he says didn't exist), then that AOS was restructuring its Denver on-site support. He's now earning his $39,000-a-year salary in an area of the operation that he considers overstaffed while AOS brought in an outside contractor to do his previous job at a cost of $100,000 a year.

"They're doing this to deny me a promotion that would have paid me an extra two thousand dollars a year," he says.

Kyle-Holmes says she can't discuss the details of Claxton's case because it's still open, but she denies any mistreatment of him. "I did not retaliate against Jeff Claxton," she says. "I did not discriminate against him in any way. I have had nothing to do with his situation, whatever it is, at the agency where he works now."

But Westword obtained a copy of an e-mail message, purportedly from Kyle-Holmes to the Washington official who was reviewing Claxton's work, in which she said in part, "Because of your visit, I do not expect the undue delays, sarcasm and racial discrimination I have endured in the past...thank you for your quick response to my complaints about AOS, particularly Jeff Claxton."

Claxton's allegations of retaliation have gone to binding arbitration; he says a settlement is pending. Other cases continue to drag through the system--notably, that of Gary Schuler, who was hired by the OCR as an investigator in 1992 and now finds himself demoted two grades, in a dead-end job with no opportunity for promotion.

According to an EEOC investigator's report, Schuler received a satisfactory evaluation after his first year on the job. A female co-worker who was hired at the same time and who also was rated satisfactory received a promotion, but Schuler did not. He filed a grievance over the matter and was placed on a "performance improvement plan"--the standards for which, he claims, were geared to a higher-level employee. Over the course of the plan, Schuler says, his supervisor harassed him over minor issues.

A Vietnam veteran, Schuler says the supervisor--the same woman whom Lovato claimed had a "problem" with men and who has since passed away--asked him inappropriate questions and held him to different standards than those that applied to female staffers. "She asked me one time if I'd ever smoked marijuana," he recalls. "She asked me how I felt about killing people."

He adds that Kyle-Holmes declined his requests to be assigned to another supervisor and never provided any records that indicated she was reviewing his work as the performance plan required. Finally, he was given a choice of resigning or accepting a demotion to a position that, while it carried many of the same responsibilities, offered no promotion potential. Schuler took the demotion--and has been stuck there ever since, earning satisfactory to excellent evaluations.

"I'm not going to resign," he says. "I have some other time in the federal government, and jobs aren't too easy to find, especially when you're 48 years old. But the fact is, unless you're a female, you don't do well in this office."

Schuler's EEOC complaint is now awaiting a response from OCR headquarters in Washington. Kyle-Holmes says she can't discuss the case because it involves an ongoing personnel matter.

The impact of all the internal backbiting on the OCR's ability to investigate discrimination outside the office is difficult to gauge. For years the small group of activists who call themselves the Hispanic Public Affairs Committee have complained to officials that the regional office is shortchanging the Hispanic community, but Kyle-Holmes dismisses the criticism as a personal "smear campaign" generated by one of HISPAC's most prominent members, Jimmy Lovato.

HISPAC has leveled a number of broadsides at the OCR, from challenging the agency's hiring and promotion practices (HHS's regional offices, including the OCR, actually have a much greater representation of Hispanics than the civilian workforce), to Kyle-Holmes's choices in office furniture, to a perceived lack of regulatory action on discrimination cases involving Hispanics. On the last point, the group has been particularly vocal about the OCR's failure to take action against Denver's federally funded Head Start program months before the program was finally shut down in 1996 amid numerous charges of fraud and mismanagement.

Lovato was the OCR investigator who looked into problems with Head Start's bilingual programs. He says that he made a "strong recommendation" that the Head Start administrators be found in violation of civil-rights laws but that Kyle-Holmes refused to support the finding. "The agency cleared the program when they had all the evidence that they were totally noncompliant," he says. "When I was there, I never saw them find in favor of a Hispanic."

Kyle-Holmes responds by citing numerous cases in which the OCR has successfully pushed hospitals and social service agencies to provide better bilingual services; she notes that assistance to clients with limited English proficiency has been designated one of the agency's top priorities. As for the Head Start case, she says Lovato's investigation "was insufficient to support his recommendation. Not only did I make that call, but I also had the attorney review it for legal sufficiency."

Yet HISPAC has continued to portray Kyle-Holmes and her office as unresponsive to its concerns. "We've tried to meet with her, but she's always had excuses," says HISPAC president Garcia. "She's just queen of the hill."

Garcia points to the experience of another member of his group, psychologist Marion Philippus, who says he filed a complaint with the OCR a year ago on behalf of mentally ill residents of a Denver boarding home. He never received a response. "They're very selective in terms of what they pursue and what they don't," Philippus says. "They've got some good investigators, but the supervision is very strange."

But Kyle-Holmes says her office has no record of ever having received the complaint Philippus describes. She does, however, have an extensive file of correspondence between HISPAC, herself, and other federal officials and denies that she's ever refused to meet with the group. The real issue, she says, is not the OCR's unresponsiveness to the Hispanic community but the paucity of complaints from minority groups in general; most of the complaints the OCR does receive have to do with alleged discrimination against the disabled.

"It's been a concern of mine that we have not had a lot of complaints--not only from Hispanics, but from African-Americans, Asians and Native Americans," she says. "I think part of it has to do with the kind of discrimination we're talking about. There's a reluctance by individuals to file complaints about their health-care provider."

Lovato contends that the lack of complaints raises questions about how the OCR is doing its job; he accuses the regional office of actually fabricating cases to raise its numbers. His office at EEOC, he notes, handles 2,700 employment complaints a year, or an average of 130 cases per investigator. "At OCR, you were considered a good investigator if you could do ten cases, and of those, maybe five actually involved investigation," he says.

In several instances where it was clear that the OCR lacked jurisdiction to investigate, he explains, "they would tell me to contact the employer anyway and have a five-minute conversation to find out what their business is, and they'd put it down as a completed investigative complaint. Sometimes those things had all of two hours of work, but it looked like I had done hundreds of hours of work. I was told that was what I had to do. I was really bothered by that; it's cheating. And that's what would be reported to Congress."

Kyle-Holmes emphatically rejects Lovato's allegations of manufactured investigations. "Absolutely, unequivocally untrue," she says. "I believe I would know that. I review details of cases that are docketed. Absolutely not true."

The regional manager cites official figures that indicate her office has increased its efficiency substantially since restructuring its operations two years ago, handling cases in a shorter amount of time and providing more technical assistance to various community groups. The ongoing criticism of her office is unfounded, she insists, and flows from one source: HISPAC and Jimmy Lovato.

Kyle-Holmes plays a tape of a message left on her voicemail by Lovato shortly after he left the OCR. The voice is angry, vituperative, bristling with indignation as he accuses her of accusing him of stealing a radio; at one point he refers to her as "a convicted discriminatory person." She thumbs through the stack of letters from HISPAC's Garcia attacking her, claiming that the Hispanic community will have no faith in the OCR "as long as Ms. Kyle-Holmes remains the Director of that office."

"The strategy is, 'If we file enough complaints, if we make enough noise, Washington officials will remove Vada Kyle-Holmes,'" she says. "Clearly, that's the objective.

"HISPAC has complained to the president, Congress--everybody. Officials in my Washington office, over several administrations. They have come and they have investigated. Do you think Vada Kyle-Holmes would be sitting here if any of those people thought she had done anything wrong? If they had one reason to remove me, don't you think they would have?"

Yet the saga of the OCR's uncivil wars would seem to address precisely that point--the virtual impossibility of getting rid of anybody once he or she has put on the armor of the federal government's civil-service procedures. Kyle-Holmes's enemies regard her as so firmly entrenched, after nearly thirty years in the system, as to be nearly untouchable; but so are many of her foes.

Collect every scrap of paper generated by the uncivil wars--every grievance and EEOC complaint, every letter of reprimand issued and then withdrawn, every ruling and appeal, every settlement agreement and clarification--and you would have a paper trail stretching from the lobby to the fourteenth floor, a pile of woe far in excess of the total labor-relations problems at federal agencies many times larger than the OCR.

You would also have an exhaustive study in futility. Despite all the time and expense devoted to investigating various staffers' alleged misbehavior and various officials' alleged retaliation, despite the seriousness of many of the accusations tossed about, little has changed. There's been a singular lack of consequences for almost everyone involved.

One employee noted as much during a recent visit to the Denver office by the OCR's new national director, David Garrison. Garrison told the troops he was eager to move on, the employee says, and dismissed the office's troubled record of personnel disputes as so much ancient history.

"How could he say that?" the employee asks. "This stuff has been ongoing. This history is continuing if you don't do something about it.

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