Feds investigate grants agency in St. Clair County discrimination probe

News-DemocratJuly 6, 2013 

Federal officials from Washington, D.C., have interviewed county employees and collected records as part of the Department of Labor's investigation into whether St. Clair County employees discriminated against disabled residents and punished three county employees for exposing the alleged discrimination.

The federal investigation is in addition to a state investigation which concluded the St. Clair County Intergovernmental Grants Department denied services to two residents based on their disabilities; fired a whistleblower who told state officials of the discrimination; and created a hostile work environment. The News-Democrat obtained the 54-page report on the state investigation from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity through a Freedom of Information Act request.

St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern and Intergovernmental Grants Department Director Debra Moore could not be reached for comment. Moore previously said the department does not discriminate and she has not retaliated against any former or current employees.

The investigation stems from discrimination complaints filed with federal and state officials from Intergovernmental Grants Department employees Roshanda Peppers and Stephanie Webly, along with former supervisor Melinda Nicholson.

Webly said federal agents interviewed them and other county employees late last month, but declined to comment further about the investigation.

Peppers declined to comment about the investigation. Nicholson could not be reached for comment.

Department of Labor spokesman Jason Kuruvilla said he could not confirm whether federal officials had arrived in the state because the investigation is ongoing.

The federal department has the authority to investigate because St. Clair County receives federal funding to administer a training program intended to help low-income and unemployed residents find work. The department has received more than $18.5 million in federal funds since 2009 to administer the program in St. Clair, Monroe, Washington, Randolph and Clinton counties.

In particular, federal investigators wants to determine whether county employees denied otherwise qualified residents services because of their disabilities from June 2011 to the present.

The state report found that 21 of the 1,426 residents enrolled in the training program, about 2 percent, disclosed a disability to county officials in 2010 and 2011, according to state investigators.

Federal investigators also want to determine whether the three county employees were retaliated against for filing discrimination complaints with state officials.

State investigators concluded Webly was fired for asking the state to intervene on behalf of the disabled residents and ordered her rehired within the Intergovernmental Grants Department. Webly is considered a "whistleblower" by state investigators-- a legal status intended to provide some protections against retaliations in the workplace.

Peppers previously said she has been targeted for retaliation as well, and cited a suspension without pay for 14 work days in June as one of the punishments.

Nicholson previously said she was forced to leave her job because of a hostile work environment created by Moore and her subordinates.

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

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