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.
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.