The AFT Files Suit on Behalf of a UI Staff Employee

 December 12, 2006

See below article in Lewiston Morning Tribune

 Dale Graden, President, University of Idaho Federation of Teachers

Nick Gier, President, Higher Education Council

Idaho Federation of Teachers, AFT/AFL-CIO

In 2005 the University of Idaho hired “The Network” to serve as a clearing house for employees to lodge anonymous complaints about their working conditions.  In a mailing to all employees, President Tim White explained why the UI needed to invest in this service: “One of the continuing challenges here . . . are periodic occurrences of unethical, illegal, or unsafe behavior in the workplace.”

White also explains the consequences if these activities are ignored: “[These] acts can have serious consequences for the University and its employees, including financial losses, legal liability, and reduced morale.  Each employee shares the responsibility for preventing these effects by averting the causes.”

The AFT has now reluctantly filed a suit on behalf of Judy Tackett, a data management specialist in the UI Office of Development.  Judy has worked 20 years for the State of Idaho, seven years at the University of Idaho.  During that time she has been an exemplary employee with consistently high annual reviews.

Over the past two years she has reported, in writing and in person, three incidents that she considered unsafe, inappropriate, and probably illegal.  As was her right, Judy contacted the Ombudsman, the Safety Officer, and the Auditor’s Office, which is in charge of protecting those who “blow the whistle.” As a result of her actions, Judy experienced harassment, retaliation, and threats of dismissal.

For the first time in 33 years of handling UI grievances, the AFT was not allowed to represent a member at grievance meetings.  Also for the first time, as far was we know, Judy was refused the right of an appeal before her peers. Furthermore, the UI denied Judy’s request for mediation.

We usually allow our grievances to run their full course through the various stages of appeal, but we realized that as a whistleblower Judy was not receiving any protection from retaliation. We decided to go straight to President White and request that he honor the principles of the Network program. White was very receptive to our ideas, but the adverse action against Judy only intensified.

Section 3290 of the Faculty-Staff Handbook is designed to protect UI whistleblowers.  What is absent from this policy is a mechanism by which an employee can eceive “whistleblower” status and thereby be protected from further adverse action.  We also believe that sections of 3290, designed to punish employees who make false complaints, must be balanced by new provisions that offer sufficient protection and remedies for employees who act with good reason and good faith. Furthermore, there must be some means to discipline supervisors who retaliate against whistleblowers.

The Staff Affairs Committee and the Auditor’s Office have now agreed to take our suggestions, as well as parts of an Arizona State University policy, to revise UI policy to strengthen whistleblower protection. In an article in the Lewiston Morning Tribune (Dec. 12), White is quoted as saying that better procedures are being worked out, which is correct. Nevertheless, White could have used his executive authority to intervene in this case and instruct his attorney to settle, thus avoiding an embarrassing and costly suit.

The State of Idaho has a whistleblower statute that “provides a legal cause of action for public employees who experience adverse action from their employer as a result of reporting waste and violations of a law, rule, or regulation.” 

We have always preferred settle grievances internally, but a December 15 filing deadline has forced us to file the suit. So far the local and state AFT has paid the $4,300 legal bill.  More legal aid will come from the national AFT if the case goes to trial.

Judy asked for a new supervisor over two years ago, and we have tried to negotiate a settlement for five months.  We urge UI officials to do the right thing and compensate Judy for the damages she has suffered during this long ordeal.

UI whistle-blower files suit

of the Lewiston Morning Tribune December 12, 2006

MOSCOW — A lawsuit was filed against the University of Idaho Tuesday by an employee claiming the administration retaliated against her for blowing the whistle on alleged improprieties in her office.

In the suit filed in 2nd District Court in Latah County, Judy Tackett, a technical records specialist in the UI office of development, claims she was put on disciplinary probation for reporting safety concerns, fiscal management concerns and nepotism violations. The suit claims that some of the actions Tackett reported may be illegal, but does not describe the actions in any detail.

Tackett is seeking attorney fees, unspecified compensatory damages and an injunction requiring the UI to purge her personnel file of the disciplinary actions.

Tackett’s Moscow attorney, Charles Graham, said the UI contradicted its own rules protecting whistle-blowers when it placed Tackett on probation in June for 90 days and threatened to fire her.

“I think there’s a disconnect between the university’s policies and its practices when it comes to encouraging employees to report what they see as violations of policy or wasting money,” Graham said.

He declined to elaborate on the violations Tackett alleged. “As a general practice, university policies encourage employees and faculty to report violations of policy or law or wasting of money, and they’re supposedly protected from retaliation. It doesn’t work that way.”

He said that in spite of the protections of both Idaho law and university rules, employees who stand up to report potentially improper activities are viewed as troublemakers. “They’re told they’re not team players and their evaluations go down.”

The UI does not typically comment on pending litigation and issued a statement Tuesday morning that said it had not yet received notice of the lawsuit.

Reached on his cell phone while traveling in Washington, UI President Tim White declined to directly discuss the Tackett case. But he did say the internal controls he’s put in place will take time to work properly.

“Are we there yet? No. Have we made great progress? You bet,” White said. “There are a lot of things to attend to, so getting it analyzed and getting new people in and then making changes takes time.”

White likened the changes to remodeling a home. “You’re never done. There’s always the next thing to do. Part of it is discovering where there are exposures, and then taking the right steps, and that discovery process continues all the time at complex, decentralized place like the University of Idaho.”

Latah County Prosecutor William Thompson Jr. said his office is not investigating any alleged criminal activity in the development office, which generally deals with large sums of money donated to the university.

According to the text of the lawsuit, Tackett was placed on probation and “threatened (with) immediate disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal.” The suit claims Tackett “reported safety concerns and violations of safety rules to the University of Idaho safety office, reported concerns regarding fiscal management and nepotism in the Advancement Services unit to the University’s internal auditor, contacted the University’s ombudsman’s office regarding problems with her supervisor,” and that she was disciplined for failing to follow the “chain of command” within her unit.

A member of the American Federation of Teachers, Tackett was not allowed to have union representation present during subsequent meetings to resolve her issues, according to the text of the lawsuit. The suit also says Tackett’s supervisor created a hostile work environment with “oppressive oversight” of her work, and demands that weren’t expected from other employees.

The UI also denied Tackett her request for administrative leave with pay to recover from her doctor’s diagnosis of “severe stress due to a hostile work environment,” according to the suit.

Union officials released a statement Tuesday that said whistle-blowers need more protection at the UI, and crying foul that Tackett was denied union representation.

“For the first time in 33 years of handling UI grievances, the UI refused to allow (Tackett) union representation at her meetings,” the union statement read in part.

Statewide union President Nick Gier, an emeritus professor of philosophy at the UI, said the union has contributed $4,300 to support Tackett’s lawsuit. Gier said the union is still hoping for an out-of-court settlement to avoid the ongoing expense of litigation, emotional stress for Tackett and “the further embarrassment of the university.”

Gier said the union has been trying to negotiate a settlement for five months, but that Tackett had to bring suit before a Friday filing deadline. He said Tackett is not looking for a big payout from the university, just reimbursement for things like doctor bills, lost medical leave time and the clearing of her record. “She’s looking for justice,” Gier said.

Since he was hired in 2004, White has worked to implement policies to catch those who break or bend the rules, like an anonymous 24-hour tip line and a strong office of internal audit. “We will work to build our awareness of unethical, illegal or unsafe behavior at the University, and encourage anyone who is aware of such behavior to report it before it does lasting damage,” White wrote in an undated memo to the UI community announcing the tip line.

The UI must now file a formal answer to the lawsuit, and then a judge will set a scheduling conference between the parties, Graham said.