Zepporiah Edmonds, the parking director for the city of New Orleans until early this year, has claimed that she was forced out because she blew the whistle on an alleged scheme to steer a parking contract to a preferred company.
But according to testimony Thursday from one of her former coworkers, the city had plenty of legitimate reasons to fire her.
Edmonds is appealing her termination to the Department of Civil Service, which handles disputes over discipline and termination of city employees. Thursday’s testimony was part of that ongoing hearing.
Department of Public Works employee Linda Copeland discussed a letter she wrote last year in which she portrayed Edmonds as an incompetent and abusive manager. Copeland wrote that the parking division was “in chaos under the leadership of Ms. Edmonds.”
Among other things, Copeland accused Edmonds of interfering in a sexual harassment investigation into another Public Works employee. Edmonds’ former boss, Department of Public Works Director Mark Jernigan, made the same accusation when he forced Edmonds to retire in January.
Copeland stood by her criticism of Edmonds on Thursday. But Edmonds’ lawyer, Dominic Varrecchio, said Copeland’s claims were hearsay and speculation.
“You have made a lot of serious claims and accusations against Ms. Edmonds, but there seems to be a pattern of nothing being reduced to writing,” Varrecchio said.
Copeland said many of her allegations could be backed up with documents. However, Varrecchio had not subpoenaed them.
Jernigan, a key witness in the appeal, was scheduled to testify Thursday, but he couldn’t make it because his department presented its 2017 budget request to the City Council.
As The Lens first reported last year, Edmonds claims she was punished for complaining about an alleged attempt to steer a multimillion-dollar contract for parking enforcement.
She implicated top officials in Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration, including Jernigan and Cedric Grant, the head of the Sewerage and Water Board and Landrieu’s infrastructure czar. According to Edmonds, Jernigan and Copeland waged a years-long campaign to get her fired.
In Edmonds’ termination letter, Jernigan wrote that she was being fired largely because of a 2015 report by the Office of Inspector General, which accused her of refusing to cooperate with its investigators. Edmonds has accused Inspector General and city officials of colluding to undermine and discredit her.
Copeland wrote the letter that she discussed Thursday in response to a complaint that Edmonds had filed against her. According to Copeland, several employees had accused a tow yard supervisor of sexual harassment, but they backtracked after Edmonds threatened them.
Copeland testified that the employees told an investigator with the Inspector General that they feared Edmonds would retaliate against them if they cooperated with the sexual harassment investigation.
Varecchio asked Copeland if she could substantiate that with a written complaint or memo. The only document she cited was an email from another employee saying that “word around the office” was that Edmonds had met with the witnesses and told them not to participate in the investigation.
“So your testimony is hearsay,” Varrecchio said.
Copeland said that Edmonds had allowed the tow yard supervisor to go on sick leave, which kept him from being suspended.
Varrecchio asked for evidence that the sick leave was due to to the impending suspension. “It’s conjecture,” she said.
“So you sit here and testify today, with someone’s job on the line, with her career on the line, and you give us conjecture,” Varrecchio said.
Copeland also said that Edmonds allowed unacceptable levels of turnover in the parking division. According to Copeland, Edmonds allowed the number of parking control officers to drop 40 percent below the budgeted number.
“A division manager is supposed to deal with attrition in their department,” she said.
Varrecchio pointed out that personnel was Copeland’s responsibility.
She responded, “There were emails from me to her trying to schedule interviews. And emails from her: ‘Oh, we can’t do it then. We can’t do it then.’”
Copeland said she could produce documents to support her accusations, given some time.
But the last scheduled hearing date in Edmonds’ appeal is next week. Assistant City Attorney Elizabeth Robins said it will be impossible to go through years of emails and memoranda by then.
“I will also issue a subpoena in the federal case,” Varrecchio said, “if you need some extra time.”
Along with her Civil Service appeal, Edmonds has filed a federal discrimination suit against the city.