Commentary: Imagine you're a young cadet in the Doña Ana Sheriff's Office Academy.
You're an Army reservist, having made it through basic training. You're being consistently called lazy. You're the only cadet being told to suck your thumb and asked to repeat various tasks after completing them. “Why me?” you wonder.
You are the only black cadet.
On June 5, after an incident, you tell the instructor, Frank Kaiser, that you feel you're being discriminated against because you're African-American. The county's strong anti-discrimination policies require Kaiser to report your allegation immediately to H.R. for independent investigation. Instead, he sends you home and tells you to go see Undersheriff Ken Roberts the next morning.
Roberts asks why you made your claim, then interrupts and tells you that you're history. Gone. He says all your fellow cadets want you gone, and that Sheriff Vigil has approved the termination. You wonder how he talked to so many people so fast. Maybe you wonder if having a DASO officer “investigate” your complaint about a DASO officer is entirely fair.
The above is from legal pleadings in Johnson v. Doña Ana County. Plaintiff is Tederick Johnson. His lawyer is Ben Furth. (Furth is an experienced employment lawyer who also represents Julia Brown against the County.)
Here we go again.
I'd love not to be writing about another dumb move by Vigil and Roberts. I'd love not to be wondering how much we will pay for this one. Obviously, I'd also like to learn some day that this was not motivated by racism. I want to believe we're better than that.
Johnson may have been a lousy cadet. Maybe he deserved to be canned, though apparently DASO didn't plan to terminate him on June 4, then did immediately after he alleged discrimination. Suddenly DASO concluded he wasn't deputy material. Officially he was fired for insubordination, which the complaint calls “pretextual” – a cover story for racism. The county will likely claim Johnson cried racism to avoid or delay being fired.
Whatever the facts, it was not Roberts's province to investigate them. Even if there was no racism, Roberts' conduct seems arrogant and imprudent.
Once someone raises allegations of racism, sexual harassment or retaliation, the matter must be handled by someone as neutral as possible – for the sake of both the organization and the individual. The county fired Johnson before investigating his complaint. (The county admits the firing occurred June 6 and that Johnson's supervisor reported the EEOC complaint June 6. The county claims it started the investigation before firing Johnson, but admits it finished investigating afterward.
Both Kaiser and Roberts were required to: (a) report the allegation immediately to HR; and (b) request that the employee fill out an internal EEO complaint, or fill one out for him. Failure to do so would subject Kaiser and Roberts to disciplinary action.
I called County Counsel Nelson Goodin, who said no one would comment on the pending litigation.
I've no idea whether Johnson should or shouldn't be a deputy; but Roberts seems to have ignored mandatory procedures he must have been familiar with. Whether the reason was laziness, arrogance, prejudice, or to cover up questionable conduct by Kaiser, Roberts's mistake is likely to cost us more money. (A friend asked after the Slevin case why the county couldn't go after the employee whose conduct cost us so much. We can't.)
When will DASO learn to follow the law?