Government & Politics
 

Inspector General’s Office says complaint of retaliation makes no sense

The city’s Civil Service Commission on Monday delayed action on a whistleblower claim by Zepporiah Edmonds, a 31-year city employee who charges that city officials and the Office of Inspector General retaliated against her.

Their reaction, Edmonds believes, stems from her attempt to expose an alleged contract-steering scheme. Edmonds’ claims are now the subject of at least one ethics investigation, as The Lens reported in November.

Last month, attorneys for the city asked the commission to dismiss Edmonds’ whistleblower claim because it was premature because no disciplinary action had yet been taken against her. But Edmonds’ attorney responded that since she may face being fired as the result of what he believes is a pattern of discrimination, the matter deserves to be heard.

Edmonds, the city’s parking administrator, is facing termination in part because of a July report on several city parking control officers by the Office of Inspector General. The report accused Edmonds of refusing to cooperate with investigators.

Edmonds said the charges in the report were false and the lead investigator had a conflict of interest, specifically that his girlfriend’s vehicle was ticketed by one of the officers in question.

Edmonds provided The Lens a response letter submitted to the Ethics Review Board from Office by Inspector General attorney Suzanne Wisdom. The Office of Inspector General did not immediately respond to a request to confirm the letter’s authenticity.

In the letter, Wisdom admitted that Hernandez’s girlfriend was ticketed by Parking Control Officer Andrea Easterling, one of the officers singled out in the report. But the letter says that Hernandez’s girlfriend, who is in law enforcement, was ticketed while on duty. Her employers were responsible for paying the tickets.

“Thus there was no trouble or financial hardship to Mr. Hernandez’s girlfriend and no conflict for Mr. Hernandez,” Wisdom wrote, adding that Edmonds’ purported motive doesn’t make any sense because Easterling, not Edmonds, issued the tickets. “Not only was there no conflict, but even if there had been, there is no reason that Mr. Hernandez would have retaliated against Ms. Edmonds.”

In a rebuttal, Edmonds wrote that Hernandez was singularly focused on Easterling, the officer who issued the tickets to his girlfriend, while he was performing the investigation, even complaining to a parking vendor and city employees that Easterling was “constantly issuing parking tickets to his girlfriend’s vehicle.”

Wisdom’s letter dismissed the charge that Hernandez or the Office of Inspector General colluded with city officials to defame Edmonds.

“Mr. Hernandez wrote about Ms. Edmonds’ failure to cooperate in the report because it was so egregious and long standing that it deserved its own commentary,” Wisdom wrote.

In her rebuttal, Edmonds’ wrote that Wisdom and Hernandez did not address Edmonds’ evidence, including multiple email exchanges, that she claims show she was cooperating with Hernandez.

“The supporting documents I provided in my original complaint clearly refute these false claims,” Edmonds wrote.

Shortly after the Inspector General’s report was issued last summer, the Department of Public Works scheduled a pre-termination hearing for Edmonds, informing her that she faced discipline or termination. Edmonds filed complaints with city and state ethics enforcement bodies, saying that the report was the culmination of a campaign against her in retaliation for her complaints about the city’s awarding of contracts for parking ticket processing and collections, business worth millions of dollars annually.

In response to the complaints, the city’s Ethics Review Board is investigating the Office of Inspector General, Department of Public Works Director Mark Jernigan and Cedric Grant, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s infrastructure czar and the director of the Sewerage & Water Board.

At Monday’s Civil Service Commission meeting, Assistant City Attorney Elizabeth Robins said Edmonds’ claim was premature, noting that the only action taken when Edmonds filed her whistleblower claim was a letter informing her that she would face a pre-termination hearing before her boss, Jernigan.

“The outcome of that could be any number of things,” including no discipline at all, Robins said. “There’s every option in the book.”

Robins also said that she had not yet received many documents Edmonds submitted to the Civil Service Commission to substantiate her allegations. And she added that after several delays, the department finally held the hearing last week but has not made any decision on discipline. Neither Edmonds, who is on medical leave, nor her attorney Willie Zanders attended the pre-termination hearing, Robins said.

“We agree with counsel. There’s been no action,” Zanders said in response. But he added that the whistleblower provision in city Civil Service Rules doesn’t necessarily require formal discipline to trigger an appeal, merely “discriminatory treatment.”  Edmonds did not attend Monday’s commission meeting.

Commissioner Ronald McClain asked him if he believed that the threat of termination met that threshold.

“Absolutely. This is a 31-year employee with no prior discipline,” Zanders said.

Zanders said the pre-termination hearing never should have gone forward because Jernigan is a subject of Edmonds’ complaints.

The commission voted unanimously to take the matter under advisement.

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