State: St. Clair County faces penalties for discrimination, dismissals

News-DemocratMay 11, 2013 

State officials are threatening to cut millions of dollars for a St. Clair County program intended to help local residents find jobs after an investigation found that county employees denied disabled residents help and fired a whistle blower for exposing the discrimination.

St. Clair County Intergovernmental Grants Department Executive Director Debra Moore vehemently denies the findings of state investigators. St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern could not be reached for comment.

The Grants Department administers federal money intended to promote job placement and worker training in St. Clair, Monroe, Washington, Randolph and Clinton counties. State investigators said the department denied two residents services based upon their disabilities, fired an employee who asked the state to intervene for the disabled workers and created a hostile work environment. The News-Democrat obtained the 54-page report through the Freedom of Information Act.

Moore said county officials have submitted documents proving inaccuracies in the report and are awaiting a response from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, or DCEO.

"We vehemently deny the systematic practice of discrimination described in the report," Moore said. "We do not discriminate against anyone who wants to participate in the program."

State investigators received the documents from the county but still stand by the findings detailed in the report, according to DCEO spokeswoman Sandy Jones.

The state ordered the county offer services to the disabled residents previously denied help and rehire the fired department employee with backpay. The whistle blower, Stephanie Webly, was fired two hours after Moore called state officials inquiring about the discrimination complaint, according to the report. Moore said she "did not retaliate against any past or current employee for any reason."

Webly is back working for the county, but says she does not have the same position as ordered by the state. She declined to comment further. When asked whether Webly has been reinstated to her former position, Moore said the county "followed the directives" of the state.

The report details a conversation between Moore and Melinda Nicholson, the department's division manager at the time. According to Nicholson, Moore allegedly told her disabled residents "would negatively impact performance and they would not be allowed to receive training services." Nicholson resigned her position with the county and could not be reached for comment.

Upon Nicholson telling Moore doing so was against the law, Nicholson told state investigators Moore replied "the only way that they would know is that I tell them."

Moore said the quotes were not accurate and did not make sense because she is not involved in assessing clients. Moore did not recall the conversation with Nicholson when later interviewed by state investigators, according to the report.

Moore said only specialists and case managers interact with clients, which is where the discrimination complaint arose.

"It is unreasonable to involve myself at that level," Moore said. "My position is in ensuring (state) standards are followed. If not followed, I wouldn't know unless the problem bubbled to the top. Then I would address it. The question could easily be why they (case managers who complained to the state) didn't perform up to standards."

In January, the Intergovernmental Grants Department was ordered to adhere to a detailed state plan or face a host of consequences, including referring the violations to the U.S. Justice Department. The penalties include losing all federal money for the program, being forced to pay back federal money already spent, facing a state imposed "reorganization plan" and losing the right to hire or fire federally paid program recipients without state approval.

St. Clair County received more than $18.5 million in federal money since 2009 to administer the program, paid for mostly through the federal Workforce Investment Act. The county was given 30 days beginning Jan. 4 to agree to the plan, but had not done so as of Friday.

The state has not yet enforced the penalties because the county has made progress toward the state's plans, Jones said.

Moore said she is "not at all" worried the state will cut money for the program and notes the success of the local program has spurred increased money. The program will receive $3.3 million in federal money this year in comparison to $2.48 million in 2012.

Were disabled residents denied help?

The state intervention stems from a complaint filed by Webly on behalf of disabled residents Rosanne Burries and Josie Ingram, both of Belleville, in December 2011. The complaint named Moore and department manager Ed White.

White resigned his position with the department May 1, 2012. Moore said his resignation was unrelated to the state report.

The complaint and others spurred a state investigation that found the county denied Burries and Ingram help through the jobs program in June 2011. The state ordered Burries and Ingram be placed in training programs "without further delay" and the county prepare a study to identify underserved populations in the program, such as the disabled. Ingram could be reached for comment.

Burries said she has not received help from the county and after being tested twice by the Grants Department sought help through a state agency. Burries said she graduated from a state administered job training program in October.

"I felt it was very aggravating and time consuming," Burries said. "It was stressful because they had us retesting over and over again."

Moore said she could not speak specifically about individuals within the program because of confidentiality laws regarding the program. However, Moore said the county did not discriminate and "individuals were served and realized success."

Burries and Ingram were told they would be placed on a list for training because the county did not have money to provide training but state investigators found the county had nearly $286,000 for training programs, the report states. The county also sent a person without a disability to receive training just 11 days after telling Burries and Ingram to wait.

Less than 2 percent of residents enrolled in the county's adult training program in 2010 through 2011 were disabled, according to the state report. Only 21 of the 1,426 residents enrolled in the program had disclosed a disability prior to training.

Moore said those figures only reflected participants who declare they have a disability and the actual number of disabled served in the program was likely higher.

Those with disabilities are three times less likely to be employed than those without disabilities, according to a recently released survey from the U.S. Census Bureau. And disabled workers typically held jobs with lower earnings and were paid less than those without disabilities.

Employee loses job

Two hours after questioning state officials whether someone in her department filed a discrimination complaint, Moore fired Webly from her position as a field officer supervisor with the county, according to the state report. Moore said she "did not retaliate against any past or current employee for any reason."

Moore allegedly called state investigator Randy Boschulte at 3:02 p.m. Jan. 20, 2012, and asked "This is so unprofessional, but I must ask -- did someone complain about our program?" Boschulte said he refused to answer the question because he is sworn to maintain confidentiality in such complaints.

At about 4:55 p.m. that same day, Moore fired Webly. The termination letter was dated Jan. 9, 2012, indicating Webly was not fired in response Moore's inquiry into the complaint. However, investigators believe the letter was given the same day as the inquiry due to testimony from Webly and notes from Moore.

County officials told investigators Webly was not fired but she was filling an "interim" position and Moore chose not to hire Webly permanently. State investigators rejected that claim, citing documents that indicate Webly was in a full-time, permanent position when fired. Webly has worked in the department in full-time positions since 2009.

The report states St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly told investigators Webly was fired "for cause" and a letter from county officials about unemployment insurance benefits states Webly's work performance did not meet expectations.

The state ordered the county to reinstate Webly to her position with the same job duties and responsibilities, provide back pay with interest and all other benefits retroactively. Webly currently works for the department but said she has not been reinstated to her previous position.

Webly's reinstatement was a point of contention between state investigators and legal counsel the county hired to represent the Grants Department.

County attorney Alvin Paulson questioned the state's authority to demand Webly's reinstatement and initially refused to do so, according to a letter sent to state officials shortly after Webly was fired.

Paulson called the state's reinstatement letter a "nonsensical letter with innuendoes and allegations that have no basis in fact" and asked for an outside investigation "since it is apparent that you are biased and make decisions and demands without first obtaining facts."

"I would also like to ask what authority do you believe you have to order St. Clair County Intergovernmental Grants to reinstate Ms. Webly?" he added.

In response, the state's legal counsel, Samantha Hufnagel, said the department had received "several" complaints alleging discrimination involving the department and the state's authority derived from federal regulations. Specifically, a state equal opportunity officer must investigate discrimination complaints for all counties receiving federal money.

County officials must also address "indicators of the potential for the existence of a hostile work environment in the department" and the entire staff must receive equal opportunity training to avoid future violations, according to the report.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission denied a request under open records laws from the News-Democrat to view any complaints filed against the Grants Department. The federal agency stated the News-Democrat did not have the right to view the documents because the newspaper is not a "party" related to unconfirmed charges.

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

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