State employee cleared of misconduct, retaliation denied

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.

John Howe. Courtesy photo

John Howe. Courtesy photo

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.”

Tom Brown

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Dave Bellini
2 years 7 months ago
The Shumlin Administration should take a hard look at the Department of Human Resources and its function. State employees and all Vermonters would be better served if there was a more collaborative approach when there are disputes and differences of opinion. The current practice treats state workers like criminal suspects in a homicide. Hiring police and prosecutors to run a personnel department has created the most adversarial relationship between the state and workers I have ever seen in my 36 years as a state employee. I urge the Shumlin Administration to create a more employee friendly HR department. They’re state… Read more »
Jeff Seguin
2 years 7 months ago

And as a VSEA member, I would like to see my union and it’s representatives, when standing up a public facing web page(s) to follow VSEA Policy 50-M, section 4:
“Communications with the public shall be consistent, positive and professional”
when making comment(s).

2 years 7 months ago

Thanks John, for having courage and strength to persevere.

Felicia Kornbluh
2 years 7 months ago

This is extraordinary news. And it is just a start of waging the fight to which John Howe directed us, against wasteful and destructive forms of privatization and toward adequate wages for oublic workers and decent treatment of the clients of government programs,

Paul Richards
2 years 7 months ago
“He also cited discrepancies in pay between state employees and VABIR employees, saying state workers were paid more.” Anything that can be construed to be a threat to the union monopoly is attacked. Protecting the gravy train is job 1. What business is it of his what others are being paid? What is he really saying here? Is it part of his job to research these things and make an issue of them? Is this what we are paying him to do? Is it in his job description or is this just more fallout from the union model? Why would… Read more »
Kathy Callaghan
2 years 7 months ago
As a retired state manager, I have both seen and to some degree, experienced what John Howe has been through. Unfortunately, VSEA protection does not extend to many managerial state employees. In the case of my friend, it was not whistleblowing but rather a close association with a VSEA member that brought about a subtle but steady and ongoing pattern of harassment by the then-Commissioner of their agency. This was during a time when the then-administration and the VSEA were at odds. I won’t go into more detail except to say that having this happen to a person despite their… Read more »
Curtis Sinclair
2 years 7 months ago

I would like to have the VSEA reimburse whistleblowers who hire their own lawyer after the VSEA they refuses to defend them against bogus allegations and during lengthy bogus ” investigations”.

Penelope Chevalier
2 years 7 months ago

We need more people like John Howe, he is as much a hero as Edward Snowden. Why do we allow our officials to treat whistleblowers like criminals? It is a disgrace and it makes me ashamed for the pain and suffering these people go through to expose government wrongdoing. Thank you Mr. Howe, the silent majority are so grateful for your courage and perseverance against these unethical people.

James Marc Leas
2 years 7 months ago

John Howe consistently did the right thing as a state employee. He testified at a legislative hearing, letting our elected representatives and the general public know the problems. He refused to be silent or be intimidated.

When he was attacked and his two co-workers were fired in retaliation for his testimony he went public, and the VSEA and the Solidarity Committee did great work in his defense.

Now that John has been exonerated his two co-workers should be rehired and those responsible for the retaliation should be investigated for their unlawful act.

Paul Lorenzini
2 years 7 months ago

He should just get another job, or go work for himself.

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