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Probe points to developing trend

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Investigative reports detail accusations of discrimination within county government going back years

By Carol A. Clark

Women and minority employees who work for Los Alamos County have lodged a number of complaints against their employer. An armload of documents including independent investigative reports obtained by the Los Alamos Monitor cite examples of what appears to be a pattern of behavior by men in senior management positions.

One of the earliest reports, dated May 31, 2007, detailed an investigation conducted by Debra J. Moulton in which she explored whether then County Attorney Peter Dwyer was creating a “hostile work environment.” 

The investigator states in her report that Dwyer told her, “both women and Hispanics have come to him complaining that there is inequity.”

“Mr. Dwyer said that when he points this out to upper management, people become defensive. He is concerned that the county will eventually have to deal with this issue in litigation,” Moulton states in the report.

Many of the actions alleged in the earlier report were directed toward Assistant County Administrator Diana Stepan who holds the second highest position at the county. Stepan sent shock waves through the community when on Aug. 23 she filed a formal complaint with the county council against her boss, County Administrator Tony Mortillaro citing a number of charges including harassment.

She states in a letter to the council dated Sept. 6  and obtained by the Monitor, “I cannot even begin to express to you the extreme disgust I feel both as a county senior manager and as a tax-paying county citizen each time I hear a variant of one of the four following statements from the county administrator:
‘Fire him, fire her, I don’t care, I want them gone, that is why we pay lawyers;’
‘Those lawyers in the attorney’s office must not have any work to do because they are always nosing around in my business;’
‘I am going to do it anyway because it is better to ask forgiveness than permission;’
‘I made sure that the councilors’ fingerprints are all over this one and so there is no way they can blame me without looking really bad themselves.’”

Stepan states in her letter that she has had to work in a, “clearly discriminatory and problematic environment.” She also requested in the letter to council that given the fact that no other reasonable option was available to her in that very untenable situation, that they place her on paid administrative leave until the investigation into her charges against Mortillaro is concluded.

Other female senior managers who have filed claims against the county related to gender bias include former Human Resources Manager Sheryl Hofer. Her complaint ultimately went before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In the EEOC final settlement signed by Mortillaro and Hofer on March 3, Hofer was transferred to the position of Administrative Services and Labor Relations manager at the Los Alamos Fire Department with a start date of March 7. The settlement also provided Hofer with compensation equal to what she was receiving as the county’s HR manager and restored 80 hours of annual leave to her leave bank.

Mediation attempts also failed to resolve a formal complaint filed against the county by Community Services Director Stephani Johnson. Her case is now scheduled to be heard by the EEOC.

In Moulton’s investigative report she depicts a number of interviews with county employees who detailed behavior construed as demeaning to women, including a March 30, 2006 meeting at Mesa Public Library attended by Dwyer, Stepan, Johnson and Library Systems Director Charlie Kalogeros-Chatten.

“Ms. Kalogeros-Chatten questioned Mr. Dwyer on certain topics. Having a stack of material that she had researched… he became upset and angrily said…‘You’re a librarian – you should just go back there and circulate books,’” Moulton said in the report.

Dwyer states in the report that he believes the women he has had difficulties with are probably more sensitive than he is.  “He also believes that the women react in the moment to perceived slights, whereas men seem to repress their negative emotional responses and respond in sudden subsequent outbursts or against his staff instead of him,” the report states.

The report also points to an incident in January 2006, when Dwyer went to Stepan’s office and called her a liar, according to the report, and, “At some point later he apologized and told her that he liked to escalate things because when he sees that he has upset someone, he feels like he wins. He also said escalating things “energizes him.”

In a senior management team meeting in January 2007, Dwyer “verbally attacked” Stepan. The report indicates that the departments and individuals Stepan supervises “received the brunt of Mr. Dwyer’s antagonistic behavior.”

According to the report, Dwyer told Stepan that he was “trying to maintain control of the illegal and unethical activity conducted by the County Administrator’s Office.”

Then County Administrator Max Baker had heard a similar message from Dwyer, i.e. “that Los Alamos County was always on the border or edge of the law,” according to the report.

Dwyer told both Baker and Stepan that Mortillaro, then an assistant county administrator, “had broken the law.” The report further states that Dwyer never communicated that comment to Mortillaro nor did he refuse to draft or authorize contracts Mortillaro requested.

In the report, Dwyer does say he believes that, “Mortillaro conducts much of the county’s business in an environment of secrecy and wants to be a wheeler/dealer and does so without proper support and consultation with legal.”

Dwyer stated that it was “frequently a struggle to find out what he is doing and even when the deal is explained to legal, it often changes without notice.”

In her investigative analysis, Moulton said, “Because Mr. Dwyer has exhibited inappropriate behavior towards men as well as women,” general harassment would not generally be considered actionable because gender is not the basis for the treatment. While this is not the most effective defense, it is a defense. The problem, however, is that his hostility, if you will, toward Ms. Stepan seemed more gender based and he appeared to have attacked her personally.”

Moulton continues her analysis stating that, “Mr. Dwyer denies that his treatment of individuals is based on gender, stating that perhaps the individuals who take issue with him are simply more sensitive. Certainly there are other managers who support this perspective. However, even in Mr. Dwyer’s explanation of this, he draws distinctions for sensitivity based on gender. Further, there is evidence in e-mails that he acknowledges this. He stated in a May 5, 2006 e-mail to Sheryl Hofer (former HR manager): ‘I have had a problem several times in my meetings and particularly with women. I think that I am being fair, calm, rational and deliberate but I am clearly coming across as (and perhaps I am actually) irascible and overly critical.’ Essentially this is an admission and could be presented in court as such.”

Dwyer took a 30-day leave of absence following the conclusion of this investigation. He returned to work, then left his employment with the county a few weeks later.

County officials have declined to comment citing the active status of the current investigation.

Editor’s note: The Monitor is continuing to review documents to provide additional coverage on this developing story.