The Department of Human Resources exonerated whistleblower John Howe of misconduct Thursday and also cleared his managers of retaliation against him.
Kate Duffy, commissioner of the department, said the investigation into Howe’s alleged misconduct and his allegations of retaliation by managers at the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living (DAIL) is closed and no disciplinary action will be taken against Howe.
Howe, a vocational rehabilitation counselor with nearly 20 years of service, said he was relieved by the decision but the matter is not over.
“My initial reaction is I firmly believe there was retaliation,” Howe said.
Howe, who is also a steward for the Vermont State Employees Association, said a lawsuit he filed in Washington Superior Court will go forward. His lawsuit charges four state agencies and departments and seven management staff with violating the state’s whistleblower protection act.
He said the legal discovery process in court would be a better avenue than the internal HR investigation to determine whether retaliation took place.
“There is a need for some good policies to be put in place to protect whistleblowers,” Howe said. “My hope is that it would lead to those kind of changes.”
The investigation of Howe was prompted by allegations that he allowed unauthorized co-workers to sign his name in dispensing state money. That complaint came from his supervisors at DAIL.
Howe was initially placed on administrative leave but was reinstated after about two weeks.
In Duffy’s news release Thursday, she said the department found “that although DAIL has a policy that requires authorized employees, such as Howe, to personally review and sign approval for expenditures of state funds, that policy has been neither clearly conveyed to DAIL employees nor routinely enforced.”
Duffy agreed with Howe that the practice of delegating this authority had been in effect at DAIL for some time and that managers had not made it clear that it was improper.
Duffy said DAIL Commissioner Susan Wehry would draft a “clearer policy to ensure all expenditures are appropriately reviewed, authorized and signed going forward,” and make certain that employees were informed of the policy.
Howe alleges the investigation was launched in retaliation for his testimony before lawmakers that was critical of the state’s use of outside contractors. Specifically, Howe complained about management redundancies between his department and the Vermont Association of Business Industry and Rehabilitation, a state contractor. He also cited discrepancies in pay between state employees and VABIR employees, saying state workers were paid more.
Howe has also complained to managers about an increase in workload.
“The volume of work is too great,” he said. “There used to be three people issuing welfare benefits for Chittenden County, now there are two.”
He also said he has been working in his Burlington office for two months and has not received a parking pass, while others who came after that date had received passes, and he said has been placed in an office too small to conduct his work.
Howe said he is eager to participate in the process of creating a state whistleblower protection policy and if one were developed he might think differently about pursuing the lawsuit.
“If there were some shifts in policy, I would consider that (dropping the lawsuit),” he said.
He also said that the speed with which the department conducted the investigation indicated some level of “embarrassment” by the state as a result of his decision to publicize the case.
Duffy defended the investigation into Howe’s conduct, saying it was warranted and the process was successful.
“As I said, when this investigation was made public by Mr. Howe, I believe that investigating complaints that are brought to the Department of Human Resources is important for both our employees and for our managers,” she said in the release. “We investigate claims in order to learn the facts through a diligent process. The process here worked well. We identified an important issue that will be remedied by providing guidance to our managers and training to those they supervise so that they can exercise better control over the distribution of state funds, which the public rightly expects.”
VSEA director Mark Mitchell praised Howe’s actions.
“VSEA continues to believe there was a pattern of management retaliation in play here against John, but we understand the damaging political reality of DHR actually acknowledging that fact, especially when tied to an investigation that was as high profile as John’s,” Mitchell said in a news release. “VSEA thanks John for his courage to fight the allegations made against him and put his face to the larger issue of management retaliation against state employees.”