Whistleblower says new charges are retaliation by state officials

John Howe, a state employee, will hear new allegations against him Wednesday in a closed meeting at the Vermont Department of Human Resources.

Howe says the latest charges of “inappropriate comments” are the latest in a series of trumped up excuses to retaliate against him for speaking out against employment practices at the state’s vocational rehabilitation office, where he works.

John Howe. Courtesy photo

John Howe. Courtesy photo

Howe, a steward with the Vermont State Employees Association, filed a lawsuit to that effect in April. He’s charging four state agencies and departments and seven management staff with violating the state’s whistleblower protection act.

Human Resources Commissioner Kate Duffy said she could not speak in detail about the ongoing investigation.

Howe, on the other hand, has publicized his situation, which he says illustrates a broader culture of intimidation and low morale in the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living.

He said the goal of the lawsuit is to call out management and administration officials for using investigations as a tactic to discourage employees from speaking up about things they think are wrong.

“It’s kind of chilling, the effect it has on my colleagues,” Howe said. “They go, ‘John, I’m glad you’re doing it. I can’t do it. I’m too afraid.’”

Duffy says the fact that all the defendants in Howe’s lawsuit are charged not just in their official capacity, but also as individuals, represents a form of intimidation itself.

“When a state employee acts in a capacity of the state, you sue the state, and it is the state’s responsibility to defend that,” Duffy said. Howe’s decision to bring suit against individuals sends a message that they should think twice before launching an investigation, she said, because their personal assets could be on the line.

The investigation into Howe began when a complaint about alleged misconduct came to Human Resources from DAIL. Duffy said it’s her department’s obligation to investigate complaints, so she has no intention of halting the probe as his lawsuit requests, she said.

But Howe maintains that the investigation itself is part of the retaliation, and that Duffy is just as much a party to it as every other supervisor in his chain of command, right up to Secretary of the Agency of Administration Jeb Spaulding.

Howe is back at work now, but was placed on paid administrative leave for about two weeks when the investigation began.

The timing of that probe aligns with his legislative testimony concerning overuse of private contractors for public work.

The chronology is outlined in his lawsuit: First Howe told lawmakers that dual management structures between VocRehab and its private contractor, The Vermont Association of Business Industry and Rehabilitation, were wasteful. He also questioned the lower wages paid by VABIR, whose employees are not represented by VSEA’s collective bargaining agreements.

Then some of his VABIR colleagues were questioned about his performance, and subsequently negative supervisory feedback was issued to Howe. Two VABIR workers were fired, and later a volunteer was removed from his supervision.

A formal investigation was launched to look into charges that Howe allowed nonstate employees to sign state documents on his behalf, and that he let nonstate employees use his state-issued cellphone.

Howe says both allegations of misconduct are baseless: He let supervised employees sign specific documents for the sake of efficiency, but he was the one who authorized any state payments stemming from the forms, Howe says. And without a land-line phone system in his office, Howe says he had the volunteer answer work-related calls to his cellphone while he met with clients.

Howe said he has not heard specifics about the charges of inappropriate comments he’ll answer Wednesday.

The VSEA will hold a meeting among members Thursday in Williston to explore the possibility of forming a labor-management committee to look into the broader issues of morale within the Department of Disabilities Aging and Independent Living.

CORRECTION: The two VABIR employees who were fired were not supervised by John Howe.

Hilary Niles

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17 Comments on "Whistleblower says new charges are retaliation by state officials"

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Dave Bellini
2 years 4 months ago
This administration should reconsider how it handles conflict with employees. The Department of Human Resources has changed a great deal since the middle of the Douglas administration. . What used to be the state Department of Personnel has morphed into the new Department of Human Resources. The Department of Personnel used to be a department that looked to help employees, foster their development and training. They did good things like bring in an EAP to help employees. They used to talk about making state government “the employer of choice.” The union and the Department of Personnel worked together to create… Read more »
J. Scott Cameron
2 years 4 months ago
As a former Commissioner of Personnel (Kunin Administration, 1985 to late 1987) I reluctantly have to agree with a lot of David’s observations. I am also concerned about how and when the present leadership of the Department of Human Resources makes decisions about what and when they will investigate. I represent a client who made a serious personnel complaint, in writing, against a supervisor almost a year ago. The Commissioner of his department failed to investigate it and the matter was bumped up to Commissioner Duffy, as per State personnel regulations. To our knowledge no action has been taken to… Read more »
Cindy Seguin
2 years 4 months ago
As a state employee union paying member I don’t agree with VSEA’s broad statement that, “We are all John Howe”. I’ve called a union steward to understand my rights as a paying member. I was told that the union is a democratic system and they would hear my concerns and wanted to hear from me. He suggested I write a letter. I’ve since wrote a letter to the President of the union stating my position of not wanting to be put into a category that represents one person. I didn’t receive acknowledgement or comments regarding my concern. So this is… Read more »
Barry Kade
2 years 4 months ago

Interesting that Commissioner Duffy first says “she could not speak in detail about the ongoing investigation.” But she then goes on to say that by naming the defendants in their individual capacity, Howe is attempting intimidation since the defendants own assets are at stake. Not true. The State has sovereign immunity. To get a money judgment, one must often prove that named individual state employees did a bad act outside of the scope of their employment. Under Vermont law, the state is liable in any event.

Barry Kade
2 years 4 months ago

I forgot to mention that under the Open Meeting Law an employee has the right to demand that charges against him or her be aired at a public meeting.
1 V.S.A. Section 313(a)(4) permits executive sessions for:
(4) A disciplinary or dismissal action against a public officer or employee; but nothing in this
subsection shall be construed to impair the right of such officer or employee to a public hearing if formal charges are brought;

James Marc Leas
2 years 4 months ago
Human Resources Commissioner Kate Duffy’s concern that all the defendants in John Howe’s lawsuit are being charged not just in their official capacity, but also as individuals, appears to be off target. If the action by high state officials against John Howe was indeed illegal retaliation, as John Howe’s lawsuit contends, then the officials responsible for the retaliation were not–and could not–have been acting on behalf of the state. Of course, if the state encourages, tolerates, or fails to prevent violation of its laws the state may also be liable. Surely high state officials understand that when they take action… Read more »
Curtis Sinclair
2 years 4 months ago

Dave Bellini :”One of the dirty little secrets of state government is that many ex-employees were suspended with pay for many, many months. Put out of work but receiving full pay while being “investigated.” Occasionally, the employee really didn’t do anything wrong but the state just won’t admit they made a mistake.”

It’s not really a secret for anyone who reads the news. There have been other stories about people who went on paid leave pending a bogus investigation. It looks like things have not changed under the Schumlin administration.

J. Scott Cameron
2 years 4 months ago
To add just one point: whether a complaint turns out to be valid or not, if someone is placed on paid administrative leave while the investigation moves forward that investigation should be completed in a timely manner. This is important not only for the employee who is charged, but for the integrity of the investigation and the good of the tax payers. I have represented several employees placed on administrative leave with little or no information provided about what they are accused of, and then they languish for months in limbo, albeit receiving full pay and benefits. In may cases… Read more »
Fred Woogmaster
2 years 4 months ago

Mr. Hoffer, are you there?

Greg Johnson
2 years 4 months ago

Agreed. The State Auditor needs to take a VERY close look at the VT Department of Human Resources and their use of employee investigations as a means of silencing whistleblowers and union leaders. It sounds like what is happening is wrong.

sheila manchester coniff
2 years 4 months ago
State employees often are subject matter experts when it comes to the programs they work in every day. When the legislature needs to know what works and what doesn’t for a program serving the people of Vermont, using the resources of those same citizens, who better to ask than those Vermonters who, in many cases, spent years working to serve their fellow citizens. However, as long as the message continues to be, speak up and get squashed, the legislature, and through them, the people of Vermont, will only hear the message the administration wants them to hear. That is a… Read more »
Jeff Seguin
2 years 4 months ago
I agree Sheila, the taxpayers of VT have the right to know. I also would like to know how much MY union spent on this “campaign” (their words). I tried to ask on the Facebook page they stood up over this matter but was so verbally accosted I took my remarks down. One high ranking union rep commented “unless you get involved your opinion is useless”. Quite a statement from an organization that claims to be “democratic”. I thought voicing my opinion on a public web page was getting involved, albeit in a small way. I thought democracy meant being… Read more »
Jacob Hall
2 years 4 months ago
I was quietly reading the comments you mentioned above and your description is not entirely accurate. To me it looked like you took your remarks down because people called you out for not being active in the union. A democracy works by people electing a group to represent them. You have a right to voice your opinion on a public page, but that is not the same getting involved and it does not necessarily guarantee your opinion will out weigh the board of trustees decisions. Voicing your opinion on a public page is essentially the same as going to the… Read more »
Jeff Seguin
2 years 4 months ago
There is no vendetta on my part or personal gain what so ever, only my democratic choice to voice my opinion in regard to what I do not agree with my union over. I realize my opinion will not likely out-weigh the board of trustees decision, but it is my opinion, regardless of where I choose to voice it. If by your term “Voicing your opinion on a public page is essentially the same as going to the streets and yelling at people as they pass you by- not very effective now is it?” seems my union, by putting up… Read more »
Jeff Seguin
2 years 4 months ago
Perhaps there should be a review of how investigations are performed on the part of HR. However, the contention that employees are left languishing on paid leave by HR is just that, a contention. Does the VSEA not also contribute to this paid leave concern as they are working with HR to resolve these matters, thereby adding to the length of the leave? Perhaps MY union, of which I am a paying member, needs to review it’s methods of counter-investigations performed on managers with the State of Vermont. Maybe the auditor’s office could perform that review as well?
Curtis Sinclair
2 years 4 months ago

The VSEA refused to help me when I was put on paid administrative leave pending an “investigation”. They would not represent me in my appeal to get the suspension taken off my record. I won the appeal and had my record cleared with the help of my lawyer. I am no longer a member of the VSEA. But I still have to pay their freeloader fee.

Paul Lorenzini
2 years 4 months ago

Welcome to a government controlled by a super-majority! Speak out and be stomped on.

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